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Climate Change: Paramount Challenge Facing Earth

About the Author

Mr. Chhayank Nagpal
IInd Year Law Student,
Amity Law School, Delhi
chhayank.nagpal@gmail.com

 

INTRODUCTION

In contemporary society, the climate change is one of the most important issues that affect daily life of human beings. Climate change can be attributed to natural and anthropogenic factors. The major international effort for the protection of global environment began in 1972, when the international community assembled to discuss and find solutions to the degrading environment. The Stockholm conference of 1972 laid emphasis on efforts to tackle the problem of environment and its improvement by international cooperation and agreement. It was by Nairobi Declaration of 1982, where the international community expressed serious concern at the state of global environment at that time and recognizing the urgent necessity of intensifying the efforts at the global, regional and national levels to protect and improve environment. It was Vienna Convention of 1985 where a convention was adopted for the protection of ozone layer.[1] The convention provided a foundation for global multilateral undertakings to protect the environment and public health from the potential adverse effects of depletion of Stratospheric Ozone, followed by Montreal Protocol of 1987, United Nations Conference on Environment and Development of 1992 that stressed on the rising need to adopt and implement the policy of sustainable development by both developed and developing countries. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Agenda 21 of the afore mentioned conference provides a comprehensive charter of action plan for the 21st century to resolve the present and future problems of environment and development. The document looks at the possible solutions of global environmental problems with a view to ensuring sustainable development.[2] All these conventions together with other national and international efforts establishes a link between the human life and nature, which today is getting deteriorated with every other human activity. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of 1992 which has been signed by 195 countries[3] of the world requires the states to prevent the global climate change, by taking appropriate steps to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming.[4]

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WHAT IS CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate is different in different part of the world and, is usually described in terms of the mean and variability of temperature, precipitation and wind over a period of time, ranging from months to millions of years. Attention has begun to shift from local, short-term seasonal patterns of temperature, rainfall, other elements of the weather, towards longer-term trends that can affect the entire Earth. Climate change, now, is understood as a change of climate which attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is attributed to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.[5]

Factors, like oceanic circulation, solar radiation, plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions, followed by human-induced alterations with the nature, can bring about a change in the climatic conditions. Human-induced alterations being a recent phenomenon is currently causing global warming. Today climate change is linked to describe changes brought about in the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the surface lithosphere and the biosphere by human intervention which is of utmost interest and importance to the human race, since survival of Homo sapiens is linked to the safety and security of natural surroundings.

DIRECT CONFRONTATION WITH DETERIORATING CLIMATIC CONDITIONS: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

The technological innovations in the sphere of production of goods  lead to the Industrial Revolution of 18th century that witnessed  rising of industries at a galloping speed. With the advent of industrial revolution came better transport and communications and mechanized goods that have made life easy, followed by increase in incomes and standard of living. It was only in the 19th century when ice ages and other natural changes in paleo-climate were first suspected and the natural green house gas was identified. Continuous human activities involving combustion of fossil fuels for production of energy which is required to run our industries has increased the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere. The increased amount of gases which absorb heat, has directly lead to more heat being retained in the atmosphere and thus an increase in global average surface temperature.[6] This increase in temperature is known as global warming. The increase in temperature is also leading to other effects on the climate. Together these effects are known as anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change.[7]

Human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of green house gases that  enhance the natural green house effect, and  will result on average in an additional warming of the earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystem and humankind.[8] To this effect, the scientific consensus on climate change is that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities,[9] and it is largely irreversible.[10] Global warming today has become a fundamental threat to all living things on earth. It is the greatest challenge facing our planet. Several current trends clearly demonstrate that global warming has a direct impact on rising of sea levels, the melting ice caps, and significant worldwide climate changes. The average surface temperature has increased by 0.6-0.2 degrees Celsius over the last century.[11] Globally, 1998 was the warmest year and the 1990s the warmest decades on record. Release of green house gases, like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide from fossil fuels are playing role of protagonist in deteriorating climate conditions. Fossil fuel combustion (plus a smaller contribution from cement manufacture) is responsible for more than 75 per cent of human caused carbon dioxide emissions.

Our economy today is driven by energy either derived directly from the source or by transforming it into some other form to meet our requirements. Energy has become the most critical economic, environmental and developmental issue facing the world today. Clean, efficient, affordable and reliable energy services are indispensable for global prosperity. Indispensability of energy can be understood from the fact that today from a small vehicle to huge industries are largely dependent on energy. Developing countries in particular need to expand access to reliable and modern energy services if they are to reduce poverty and improve the health of their citizens, while at the same time increasing productivity, enhancing competitiveness and promoting economic growth. Worldwide, approximately 3 billion people rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating[12] and about 1.5 billion have no access to electricity. Up to a billion or more have access  to only unreliable electricity networks. At the global level, the energy system – supply, transformation, delivery and use – is the dominant contributor to climate change, representing around 60 per cent of total current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Current patterns of energy production and consumption are unsustainable and threaten the environment on both local and global scales.

Emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are major contributors to the unpredictable effects of climatic change, and to urban air pollution and acidification of land and water. Reducing the carbon intensity of energy – that is, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy consumed – is a key objective in reaching long term climate goals. As long as the primary energy mix is biased towards fossil fuels, this would be difficult to achieve with currently available fossil fuel-based energy technologies. Given that, the world economy is expected to double in size over the next twenty years, the world’s consumption of energy will also increase significantly if energy supply, conversion and use continue to be inefficient. Energy system design, providing stronger incentives for reduced GHG emissions in supply and increased end-use efficiency, will therefore be critical for reducing the risk of irreversible, catastrophic climate change. The impact of this increased energy consumption can be reduced through energy efficiency and a transition to a stronger reliance on cleaner sources of energy, including renewable energy and low-GHG emitting fossil fuel technologies, such as a shift from coal to natural gas.

Coal, Oil and Natural gas are three fossil fuels that drive our economy. Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as  one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 1999 world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 8,660 million tones of carbon dioxide.[13] This sedimentary organic rock with high concentration of carbon release carbon dioxide in much higher quantity than other fossil fuels, leading to increase in the overall surface temperature of the earth. Burning of oil and gas to power vehicles, machinery and produce energy and warmth, also contributes to rising global temperature. Human activities during the last few decades of industrialization and population growth have polluted the atmosphere to the extent that it has begun to seriously affect the climate. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 30 per cent since pre-industrial times, causing more heat to be trapped in the lower atmosphere.[14]

Today 195 countries of the world have signed a convention to reduce green house gases under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Combustion of fossil fuels not only releases carbon dioxide into the air, but it also release various types of gases like carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide etc. that causes air pollution. When in air, these gases undergo some chemical changes and get converted into harmful acidic substances like sulfuric acid and carbonic acid, and then these substances return to the surface of the earth in the form of acid rain which has a huge impact on the entire environmental entities. Other factors like chlorofluorocarbons or CFC’s, which are used as refrigerants and aerosol spray propellants, pose a threat to the ozone layer. Destruction of ozone layer triggers the chances of harmful sun rays especially UV radiations to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. This may lead to harmful effects on health of humans and cause damage to certain crops and plankton, thus affecting natural food chains and food webs.

It has been observed that global warming induced by various factors is accelerating faster than what climatologists had calculated a few years ago. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that global warming would raise temperatures by 3.5-10 degree Celsius during 21st century. It is now believed that it could be much greater. This will lead not only to changes in temperature but also in the amount of rainfall.[15]

Changes in climate vary from region to region; similarly effects of these changes will be seen differently in different parts of the world. The variation is driven by the uneven distribution of solar heating, the individual responses of the atmosphere, oceans and land surface, the interactions between these, and the physical characteristics of the regions.[16] In some regions, such as parts of Asia and Africa, the frequency and intensity of droughts have been observed to increase in recent decades.[17] It is being observed that, global sea level is currently rising due to the thermal expansion of water in the ocean[18] and the addition of water from ice sheets[19] caused by rise in global temperature. This intensifies the risk of floods in low lying coastal areas many of which are heavily populated.[20] Recent projections of sea ice loss suggest that the Arctic Ocean will be likely to be free of summer ice sometime between 2059 and 2078.[21] Episodes of El Nino and La Nina that causes extreme weather in many regions of the world have become more frequent. Some of the most vulnerable regions are the Nile Delta in Egypt, the Ganges-Bramaputra delta in Bangladesh and many small islands including the Marshall island and the Maldives,(WHO 2001).

Climate model projections were summarized in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They indicated that during the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 1.1 to 2.9 degree Celsius for their lowest emissions scenario and 2.4 to 6.4 degree Celsius for their highest.[22]

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION VIS-À-VIS INDIAN LAWS

In context of environmental protection, Indian efforts began only after the Stockholm Conference in 1972. It proved to be an eye opener for Indian Government with regard to safeguarding natural environment. Before this Conference, neither the Indian Constitution nor any of the Indian laws dealt with the problem of environment expressly. The conference proved to be a milestone in the development of environmental law. Though Indian Constitution was not totally silent in this regard, it was only in 1976 that the Indian Government thought it necessary to get the Indian Constitution amended to expressly provide for the protection of environment by incorporating a few specific provisions in the Constitution.[23] Directive principles of state policy which embody several unenforceable directives addressed to the State, under Article 48A imposes a constitutional obligation on the State to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Article 51A (g) enjoins all the Indian citizens to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife.[24] A. R. Lakshaman J., in Intellectuals v. State Andhra Pradesh observed that, “These two articles are not only fundamental in the governance of the country but also it shall be the duty of the State to apply these Principles in making laws and further, these two articles are to be kept in mind in understanding the scope and purport of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and also the various laws enacted by the Parliament and the State Legislature.”[25] Parliament has also shown its response/concern towards rising climate change by enacting legislations such as The Environment (Protection) Act, The Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, The Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act etc. This move of Parliament towards development by sustainable methods is highly appreciated. Concept of balance between development and ecology was established by Kuldip Singh J. in Vellora Citizen’s welfare forum v. Union of India,[26] where he held that “we have no hesitation in holding that ‘Sustainable Development’ as a balancing concept between ecology and development has been accepted as part of the customary international law…. The ‘Precautionary Principle’ and ‘The Polluter Pays Principles are essential features of Sustainable Development…. and ….have been accepted as part of the law of the land … in view of the above-mentioned Constitutional and Statutory provisions [Articles 48A, 51A(g) and 21 and Environment Protection Act, 1986 and Air Act, 1981].” In plenty of cases Supreme Court and High Courts have held that the right to pollution-free environment is part of the right to life. In, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra v. State of U.P. Supreme Court held that limestone-mining activities in the Mussoorie-Dehradun region polluted the environment and, thus, violated the right to life of the people.

It is astonishing to see that even after recognizing right to clean and healthy environment we are still in the midst of harmful gases covering us from all sides. This recognition by the Supreme Court as fundamental right seems to be a hoax as there is no implementation and protection of the same by civic authorities.

CONCLUSION

The present state of affairs demands solution to the daunting problem of climate change. Climate change could turn catastrophic if efforts are not made to reduce the green house gas emissions that cause it. Keeping in view the current trends, it would not be wrong to say that we are not far away from being on the verge of extinction. It requires endeavor of all the nations in tackling this intimidating problem. The proposed solutions to climate change includes, energy conservation, adopting cleaner (renewable) sources of energy to a great extent, reducing carbon dioxide emissions through reduction in use of fossil fuels especially coal, innovating or look for new and cleaner sources of energy inter se. Public awareness is another way by which the problem can be tackled. The development and implementation of educational and public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects will enable nations to participate fully in and to implement effectively their commitments under the International Convention.

Implement immediate emission reduction targets, initiate further international treaty negotiations, accelerate the construction of wind farms in suitable areas are some of the ways by which emission of carbon and green house gases can be controlled. It should be mentioned here that mere enactment of laws will not achieve the goal. Proper implementation followed with stricter punishments for the offender should be prescribed. Behavioral changes, in the citizens of a nation, towards the mother earth could play a crucial role in deciding its faith. An eco friendly approach towards our environment is the need of the hour. In combating this menace which has the potential of affecting our coming generations each one of us has to come forward and contribute in whatever way one finds in protecting the mother earth.

References:

[1] Vienna convention for the Protection of Ozone layer

[2]Aruna Venkat, Environment Law and Policy, Eastern Economy Edition, PHI Learning Private Limited.

[3] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

[4] 31 ILM 849 (1992)

[5] Article 1 of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

[6] World Meteorological Organization(WMO)

[7] World Meteorological Organization(WMO)

[8] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

[9] America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council (2010).Advancing the Science of Climate Change Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. .

[10]Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein (2009). Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) 106 (6):17049.

[11] Erach Bharucha, Environmental Studies, University Press

[12] UNDP and WHO, 2009 estimates that over 3 billion people lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating, while IEA 2009 estimates this number at 2.5 billion

[13] Erach Bharucha, Environmental Studies, University Press

[14]  IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

[15] Erach Bharucha, Environmental Studies, University Press

[16]  IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

[17] Erach Bharucha, Environmental Studies, University Press

[18] Wigley, T. M. L.; Raper, S. C. B. (1987). “Thermal expansion of sea water associated with global warming”. Nature 330 (6144): 127–131.

[19]Nakada, M.; Lambeck, K. (1989). “Late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change in the Australian region and mantle rheology”. Geophysical Journal International 96 (3): 497–517.

[20]Nakada, M.; Lambeck, K. (1989). “Late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change in the Australian region and mantle rheology”. Geophysical Journal International 96 (3): 497–517.

[21] Bo, J.; Hall, A.; Qu, X. (2009). “September sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean projected to vanish by 2100”. Nature Geoscience 2(5): 341.

[22] Meehl et al., Chap. 10: Global Climate Projections, Sec. 10.ES: Mean Temperature, in IPCC AR4 WG1 2007.

[23] The Constitutional (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976 introduced, among other things, Arts. 48A, 51A(g) into the Constitution.

[24] Dr. Bharat Desai, Enforcement of the right to Environmental Protection through Public Interest Litigation, 33 IJIL, p. 27 at 28.

[25] (2006)  3 SCC 549

[26] AIR 1996 SC 2715

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February 13, 2017

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