Andreas Späth

The end is not nigh!

2013-12-02 08:15

Andreas Wilson-Späth

An argument I hear quite often when chatting to people about global warming is that we may as well resign ourselves to a future of catastrophic climate change and everything that comes with it -  from an increase in severe weather patterns like super storms and devastating droughts to melting ice caps, rising sea level and dramatic losses in biodiversity.

"We've messed up royally and there is no point in even thinking about ways of extricating ourselves from this dilemma," they say. "Ultimately the planet will survive - with or without us - and that's just the way it is. Period."

What a cop-out! Not only is this a terminally depressing view of our current situation, it's also potentially quite destructive as it seems to imply that we might as well continue or even ramp up our fossil fuel burning ways since the damage is already done and can’t be rectified. Above all, however, it's just plain wrong.

Humans can rein it in

It's true that I myself often sound very pessimistic about the state of the planet and the stupid choices we continue to make as a civilisation, but I also try to make the point that we do have viable alternatives. That we are able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions drastically by changing our behaviours and rapidly adapting cleaner, renewable energy sources. That we can cut back on the amount of energy we use and improve the efficiency with which we consume it. And that we can save and protect the natural ecosystems that serve as the world’s lungs and carbon catchers.

Humans may be largely responsible for climate change, but humans can also rein it in. Armageddon is not a foregone conclusion.

In fact, according to an article published in Nature recently, we appear to have already managed to lower greenhouse gas emissions by accident.

The authors of the study suggest that the so-called Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out substances implicated in eating a hole into the earth’s protective ozone layer, inadvertently resulted in reduced emissions of climate changing gases as well (I wrote about the ozone hole’s impact on South Africa’s climate a few weeks ago).

Emissions continue to rise

The Montreal Protocol, which officially entered into force in 1989 and especially targeted the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, turned out to be extremely effective, resulting in a 90% reduction of the emission of these gases worldwide. It just so happens that CFCs are also very powerful greenhouse gases - molecule-for-molecule, they are about 17 000 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2.

Global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, of course - at 34.5 billion tons, 2012 set a new record - but the rate at which they are increasing dropped off to 1.4% last year from an annual average increase of 2.9% since 2000, and the Nature paper argues that the massive cut-back in CFCs made a significant contribution to this slowdown.

The authors estimate that without the Montreal Protocol, average global surface temperatures would be 0.1oC higher today than they are. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s not trivial, considering that even small changes in temperature can have substantial impacts on climate patterns.

Now, if we can dial back global warming by accident, as a by-product of an unrelated project of international cooperation, imagine what we can achieve if we actually and intentionally put our minds to it? It can be done. All that’s needed is some collective political will and chutzpah.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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