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20 December, 2018 11:29:47 AM


The effect of emission and the gas blanket

The problem is that human activity may be making the greenhouse gas blanket “thicker”
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed
The effect of emission and the gas blanket

Many scientists believe human beings may be causing something just as dangerous climatic changes over the coming century larger than any since the dawn of civilisation. The principal change to date is in the balanced of gases that form Earth’s atmosphere.

These naturally occurring ‘greenhouse gases’ including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor, keep ground temperature at a global average of 15ºC. Without this natural blanket, Earth’s surface would be about 30ºC colder than it is today, making the planet a freezing, barren, lifeless place similar to Mars. The greenhouse gases keep the surface warm because as incoming solar radiation strikes Earth, the surface gives off infrared radiation, or heat, that the gases temporarily trap and keep near ground level. The effect is comparable to the way a greenhouse traps heat.

The problem is that human activity may be making the greenhouse gas blanket “thicker”. For example, burning fossil fuel throws huge amount of CO2 in the air, the destruction of forest allows carbon stood in the trees to escape into the atmosphere; and other activities such as raising cattle and planting rice emit methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. Until mankind began burning fossil fuels, greenhouse gases that occur naturally remained in relative balance. But the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain ushered in rapid industrialization that greatly increased man’s assault on the ecology.

The World Energy Council and independent research organization reported in 1997, that the global emissions of CO2, has increased by 12% between 1990 and 1995. According to the IPCC, if emissions continue to grow at current rates, it is almost certain that atmospheric levels of CO2 will double from preindustrial levels during the 21st Century. The most direct result of such an increase, the panel predicts, is likely to be a global warming of 1 to 3.5ºC over the next 100 years, a rise that is largest and probably faster than any such change over the past 9,000 years.    

In December 1997, government representatives signed a global climate change treaty in Kyoto, Japan, to reverse the rise in greenhouse gas emission from human activities, which would eventually check the increase in temperature. Reducing emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases not only would mean burning less fossil fuel for industry and transportation but also curbing deforestation, a process that adds to the excess CO2  by destroying trees absorb the gas. CO2 also is released when wood is burned. But according to some, such steps threaten to undermine economic growth and even destroyed entire industry if undertaken too quickly.

Just as the United States is in the process of pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, US government data revealed that the need for action to stem global warming is as urgent as ever.  US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) both published separate reports last month that indicate that 2017 was among the three warmest years since 1880, when record-keeping began. NASA calculations show that globally averaged temperatures in 2017 were 0.90°C (1.62 degrees Fahrenheit) above the arithmetic mean of the 1951–1980 years. According to the NOAA analysis, average temperature was 0.84 degrees Celsius (1.51 degrees F) above the 20th century average. In light of these alarming trends, what can be done, and how are various stakeholders responding to these renewed challenges? Unfortunately, there is not much encouraging news on combating climate change. While signatories to the Paris Agreement met twice since December 2015, progress on its implementation and finance has been slow, and emissions of carbon show no signs of leveling off.

Between 2014–16, for three years, emissions remained steady at over 32.1 metric gigatons of CO2 each year, but now appear to be rising again.“Three years without emissions growth is notable, but it needs to be turned into a decline,” said Glen Peters, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo in Norway.

It is too early to judge whether the cause of combating climate change has advanced or experienced a setback since the Paris Accord was signed over two years ago. At the global level, there is no doubt that public awareness has increased, and scientific progress in the realm of clean energy and emissions control has been phenomenal. Price of solar panels, electric cars, and renewable energy has come down steadily. However, at the same time, the pace of economic growth and demand for energy is again drawing on low-cost sources including coal-powered power plants. Urgewald, a German non-profit association, estimates that currently there are 1,600 coal plants planned or under construction in 62 countries, which would increase the capacity of coal-powered plants by 43 percent, and make it harder to meet the goals set in the Paris Accord to keep global temperatures from rising below 2 ºC.

While global awareness of the perils of climate change is high and environmental activism is growing in every nook and corner, these two forces of dynamism have hit the hard wall of reality, represented by renewed global economic uptick. I call this the tug of war between activism vs reality. GDP growth during 2018–20 is predicted to be robust, and increased energy demands will be met mainly by non-renewable energy sources, including coal, gas, and oil. United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap, 2017 report in November and it shows a “disparity between the world's stated ambitions on climate and the actions it is currently taking.” In a similar vein, Fatih Birol, Executive Director of International Energy Agency, asserts, “The era of fossil fuels is far from being over, even if the Paris pledges are fully implemented,” Today, he said, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix is about 81 percent; if Paris goals are met, the share will drop only to 74 percent by 2040.

The challenges for the coming years are tremendous, but not insurmountable. Countries must remain committed to the principle of Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reduce carbon emissions.  Some environmental groups have also suggested that OECD countries, i.e. large, developed countries that have created the current problem, need to keep their side of the bargain, even if the developing countries are falling behind. “Global energy consumption, expected to increase by 48 percent in the next 20 years, needs a major realignment, with current high consumers cutting back to allow the developing countries to catch up. A substantial reduction in growth of electricity demand is a precondition for the share of renewable to increase.”

Various studies indicated that coal-powered power plants need to be phased-out in OECD and EU by 2030 and by 2050 for developing countries. It is doubtful if this will happen since US is cutting back on its commitment and the Clean Power plan of the Obama era is dead. However, individual states must take action to help with plant shutdowns or phase-out, by providing the right incentives to the utilities and facilitating retraining of workers affected by closures of coal-fired plants. While some renewable are competitive with fossil fuels, others are not. Onshore wind and solar photovoltaic are comparable but offshore wind farms and solar thermal energy, are not. Solar and wind energy still have some technical issues that have slowed down adoption, and these are intermittency and the resulting high cost of integration into the power grid. Finally, a word of caution from Professor Earl Ritchie of University of Houston. He wrote, “Most scenarios with high percentages of renewable rely on substantial reduction in growth of electricity demand. It's questionable how realistic this is, particularly if strong growth in electric automobiles is anticipated."

Despite that challenge of global warming, supporters of curbs on greenhouse gases see the 1987 Montreal protocol the 1st global treaty dealing with climate as reason for optimism. The protocol and its amendments call for phasing out CFC and other manmade chemicals that deplete Earth’s protective ozone layer. With such steps as these some scientists now report that Earth’s ozone layer may well be on the way toward a recovery and that the atmospheric concentration of ozone depleting substances, chlorine in particular, could return to more normal levels just after the turn of the century.  

The writer is a regular contributor to

The Independent



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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