Life, as we know, exists only on Earth in the entire universe. This is made possible by some uniquely rare conditions that our solar system provides to the planet Earth. The Sun is the fundamental source of all the energy radiating to the planets. The Earth receives energy from the Sun through radiations in the form of light and heat. In addition, the interior of the Earth generates limited amount of surface energy as heat from radioactive radiations.
Observing the topology of the solar system, planet Earth occupies third position away from the Sun. The planet closest to the Sun i.e., Mercury has an average temperature of 1670C and ranges from 4270C during the day and minus 1800C at night. The atmosphere is not thick enough and biological life is not possible there. The second planet from the Sun called Venus is the hottest planet with mean temperature of 4620C, even though it is at a longer distance away from the Sun than Mercury, because its atmosphere is shrouded by sulfuric acid which traps and retains heat. The third distant planet from the Sun is the Earth. It is temperate in climate with the mean temperature of about 150C, providing an ideal condition for flourishing of life. Earth’s atmosphere also plays a vital role in regulating the temperature by providing a blanket of gases that not only protects us from excessive heat and harmful radiations from the Sun but also traps the heat rising from the planet’s interior keeping us adequately warm at night. Earth’s atmosphere thus provides a very delicately balanced shield around us. If the delicate balance gets disturbed by changes in the atmospheric gases, the protective shield gets affected. The greenhouse gases (GHGs), predominantly containing CO2, can disturb the atmospheric balance and upset the nature’s thermostat on the planet.
Beyond the planet Earth and further from the Sun is the planet Mars with day temperature of 200C but plummeting to minus 730C at night. It only has a thin atmosphere which cannot retain heat produced by its interior to prevent the cold at night. These four inner planets are terrestrial in physical nature and are primarily composed of rock and metal. Further on Jupiter and Saturn are non-terrestrial gas giants not conducive to life. It is mainly the temperature balance on Earth that sustains life and ensures the abundance of water. Over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water in addition to the polar ice caps that together hold billions of tons of fresh water.
Earth has been experiencing alternating natural cycles of hot and cold ages in its historic past. Natural temperature cycles depend on many factors but principally the solar flares activity which might have been responsible for the hot and cold ages. The historical alternating cold and hot ages did not result in lasting adverse temperature regimes and the atmosphere always regained its fine balance. Historical and natural clues suggest that the Earth’s climate underwent small changes over the past 2000 years like the Medieval Warm Period followed by the Little Ice Age. Climatologists are now quite united in their findings that the current trend of rising temperature is a new phenomenon relating to human activity coinciding with the Industrial Age starting from the middle of the nineteenth century. Human activity is adversely affecting life by the release of GHGs into the atmosphere which primarily contain CO2. These gases rise in the atmosphere and prevent the heat from the ground from escaping which results in the rise of terrestrial temperature. The fine temperature balance, which had given rise to life in the first instance, remains crucial for sustaining it into the future. The climatologists now believe that the rise of GHGs from human activity will be irreversible until and unless the emissions are not only reduced but reversed within the short time limit of 2030. The upsetting of the balance that had existed for billions of years is now resulting in irreversible changes in polar ice melting, disturbed wind and sea currents, sea level rise, faster melting glaciers, differing precipitation patterns, erratic weathers, destructive floods, frequent cyclones and hurricanes, etc.
Climate change is a global phenomenon and consequently requires a global response and collective effort to control the adverse effects associated with it. Realizing that business as usual will push humanity to catastrophic consequences, the world leaders came together in Paris to decide global course of actions to mitigate this menace. The summit concluded in a collective resolve in the form of the landmark Paris Agreement. The Agreement came about under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and came into effect on November 4, 2016 with the participation of 196 countries. It requires all signatory countries to put forward their best efforts and report regularly on emission levels and the implementation efforts for lowering them. They agreed to regular stocktaking every five years towards achieving the purpose of the Agreement. Since the emission of GHGs started increasing right from the start of the Industrial Age, pre-industrial levels temperature provides a useful benchmark for sustainability of life on Earth. The Paris Agreement requires all nations to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 20C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.50C above the pre-industrial benchmark this century. The Agreement requires nations to reduce their GHG emissions by 2030. The gathered leaders were informed unequivocally that the world is already experiencing the adverse consequences upon life in the form of unusual desertification, catastrophic droughts, destructive floods, erratic weather, seasons and rainfalls, rising sea levels, shortage of water, drying of lakes and rivers, and destruction of the age-old ecosystems, etc. Only 11 short years are left to achieve the targets endorsed by each and every country. The Agreement suffered a big setback as U.S. President Trump unilaterally withdrew from it although the corporate America is still showing its commitment and support for reduction of the emission levels.
Let us not be deceived by the average global temperature concept as targeted by the Paris Agreement. If we are successful in limiting the rise of average global temperature by no more than 20C, or better still 1.50C, by 2100, it does not mean that the rise would be similar everywhere on the globe. Some places could experience a rise of 100C and others a corresponding fall in temperature resulting in a global average of 20C. In other words, the climate change would hit different countries differently and there would be a large number of worse hit countries. Pakistan borders on the line of the worst hit countries.
A number of authentic studies conclude beyond doubt that the wealthiest countries that are responsible for stressing the environment by their emissions will experience fewer changes in local climate compared with the poor regions if the average global temperature reaches 1.5-2.00C limit set by the Paris Agreement. The result of the studies brings out a stark case of inequalities resulting from the global warming. Poorer countries closer to the Equator on either side – who themselves have not caused the climate change – would suffer drastic consequences resulting in unprecedented food shortages and mass migration from areas that would become uninhabitable. The whole world, especially the rich countries, need to come together and mitigate the looming threats to the poorer nations. In that context, it is ironic that the richest, most industrialized, and historically the largest contributor of GHGs emissions would leave the world in a lurch and opt out of the global commitment of the Paris Agreement. The map in Figure 1 shows the countries most at risk from the climate change. The least affected countries include most temperate nations with the United Kingdom coming out ahead of the others.
Fossil fuels comprising coal, oil and natural gas constitute the mainstay of the global commercial energy supply. The global energy mix in 2015 comprised about 86% of fossil fuels with coal 30%, oil 33% and natural gas at 23%. Coal emits the most harmful pollutants and GHGs during the combustion, oil produces one-third less and natural gas two-thirds less than coal. It is for this reason that natural gas is being regarded as the bridge fuel from coal and oil to the modern renewables that include wind, solar and biomass. The economically developed world of the OECD countries went through an economic boom in the second half of the 20th century mainly due to the coal-based power. Initially, coal combustion technology was very primitive and dirty, involving combustion at subcritical temperatures which started to load the erstwhile pristine, environment with pollution. Towards the later part of the century this technology improved with having combustion at supercritical level with the effect that the pollution and emissions reduced to some extent. From the onset of the present century the technology took a step jump with hyper-supercritical combustion. This reduced the emission of CO2 to a level that it could be captured and stored for safer disposal. The cost of hyper-supercritical with carbon capture and storage is about 20% higher than the supercritical which in turn is about 20% higher than the vintage subcritical technology. Pakistan has, for the first time in history, gone to the industrial scale in coal power generation from the CPEC related early harvest thermal power plants. These plants employ supercritical combustion technology and the suppliers are making claims of reduced emissions. The world is moving away from the coal and oil-based power generation through increased reliance on natural gas and renewables. The liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the fastest growing gas component and LNG is now traversing the globe with spot LNG carriers. LNG reception, storage and regasification terminals are sprouting up along the coasts of energy importing countries all over the world. Pakistan itself has two operating terminals and the third one is at an advanced stage of completion.
Pakistan had in the past been using a relatively cleaner energy mix with no coal-based power generation and greater reliance on hydel and gas-based power. Since the start of the power crisis around 2011, which was caused by the shortage of natural gas and inadequate installed capacity of power generation, oil-based power has greatly increased to over 35% of the total generation. Oil-based power, besides being high on emissions, is the most expensive power which has pushed our power sector to non-solvency resulting in mounting circular debt. We need to increase the use of hydel power to cut down the oil-based thermal generation as there still exists over 30,000 MW of untapped hydel potential. The ‘Billion Tree Afforestation Project’ launched in KP would provide us with a shield for cleansing the environment naturally. The government has now promoted tree plantation in the whole country to check the climate change. The trees are a wonderful natural factory that absorb CO2, improve the concentration of vital oxygen, and convert the atmospheric CO2 into highly valuable wood and useful biomass. China has announced a new afforestation campaign in 2018 over 6.6 million hectares area which is roughly one-third the size of Pakistan. The latter has about 19 million hectares land area and has a woefully low density of less than 5% of Pakistan’s total area is under forest cover. Pakistan needs to increase its forest cover percentage to double digits.
GHG emissions from human activity increased by 35% from 1990 to 2010. CO2, which alone constitutes about three-fourths of the emissions, increased by 42% during the same period. The historical record of the CO2 concentration shows that the current global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are the highest ever in comparison to the past 800,000 years. The increase in atmospheric concentration of GHGs produces a ‘positive climate forcing’ or the warming effect. People all over the world are increasingly experiencing unusual precipitation, erratic weather upsetting the cropping patterns, climate swings, destructive floods and rising sea levels. The island country of Maldives could disappear under the sea if the level rises by about a meter. The people of Maldives are not responsible for this rise in sea level nor can they themselves do much to stop it. The President of Maldives held a historic cabinet meeting underwater in October 2009 to increase awareness and draw the attention of the world to the imminent threat.
Another ominous danger of the climate change is the scarcity of water. Conservation and storage of water is another critical area of coping with the climate change. Indiscriminate clearance of forests in a greater part of the world has denuded the land of vegetation. As the rain falls on dry and barren land, the water runs off quickly creating destructive flash floods on one hand and reduced percolation into the ground for recharging the aquifers on the other. Accessible water level in the underground aquifers is vital for the sustenance of life. Widespread construction of check dams and subsurface weirs can increase the resident time of the flowing water and augment the percolation and recharging of aquifers. We need to draw and implement plans at federal, provincial and local levels down to every village to store and conserve water. From village ponds to mega dams everything is critically needed. More than the financial resources, it would require a change in our attitude and lifestyle. Even when the Paris Agreement targets are met the differential warming and drought would create unprecedented food shortages and result in largest mass migration to lesser affected areas in history. Marshes, lakes, wet areas along the rivers and ponds etc. could dry up affecting the aquatic and human life catastrophically.
Poorer countries closer to the Equator on either side – who themselves have not caused the climate change – would suffer drastic consequences resulting in unprecedented food shortages and mass migration from areas that would become uninhabitable. The whole world, especially the rich countries, need to come together and mitigate the looming threats to the poorer nations.
In the end it may be helpful to reiterate that as Pakistan is likely to be severely affected we must not lose any time to start working on a national plan to limit the damage. Every citizen would have to play his/her part. Plantation of trees and creation of water storages could be undertaken with relatively less resources but would have a great salutary effect upon our local environment and the climate. Every teenager and adult needs to fulfill a minimum target of say 10 trees, which could mean about 2 billion trees by citizens in addition to the governments’ forestation schemes. Humanity has shown great ingenuity in surviving past challenges which gives hope in it facing the greatest challenge ever, that threatens its extinction, successfully.
The writer holds a PhD degree from Stanford University, California USA. He is a former Federal Secretary and has been CEO/Chairman of OGDCL and Chairman NEPRA.
E-mail: [email protected]
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