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The most profound change in history?

  • Published at 06:27 pm December 17th, 2014
The most profound change in history?

Keeping up with past traditions, the UN climate change conference that ended earlier this week in Lima, Peru did not fail to disappoint. After two weeks, and an extra 31 hours added on to reach that elusive consensus, divisions among the rich and poor loom just as large as the world continues to gallop brazenly towards over 3 degrees of devastating warming.

Progress at the climate negotiations has long been painfully slow, but now, after one too many heartbreaks, it is increasingly clear that the rich and powerful don’t care if we are condemned to starve. It is foolish to expect that we will rise out of this peril of climate change because of the support of the West.

Of course, we must continue to fight for what we deserve, but what we receive will undoubtedly be too little, too late. Therefore, we must think critically about how we can forge the best path for ourselves in this critical time in history.

A child born today, over her lifetime, will witness the most profound transformation in perhaps the history of humankind, as we phase out fossil fuels and power a world with net zero emissions. This is the only scenario that science tells us can keep us out of catastrophe.

Understanding this does not take much technical expertise. Adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is responsible for global warming and all the associated climate disruptions happening around the world.

There is only a certain amount more we can add before the climate spirals out of control, and while we do not know how much more we can add “safely,” the best scientific predictions put that number at around 250 more gigatons of carbon. We have already burned over twice that, and will blast through the ceiling within 25 years if we keep going at current emission levels.

This means, the only choice left is to rapidly decline to zero emissions and stay within the limit, and the further we stay below it, the less crippling climate impacts around the world will be.

Yet, as the world responds excruciatingly slowly to this reality, we are doing the same in our country and creating preventable catastrophes of our own as a result. As I write this, public officials and concerned citizens are struggling to minimise damage to the critical ecosystems of the Sundarbans from the 350,000 litre oil spill on the Shela River last week.

Experts say that this will permanently damage the ecosystem and will decimate aquatic populations from the microscopic phytoplankton to endangered river dolphins, and also threaten our last few cherished Tigers. Many deaths have already been spotted, and the oil has spread to over 100km.

The spill comes as a grim warning, as other projects like the Rampal coal power plant and Rooppur nuclear plant are rushed forward without the necessary environmental impact assessments and precautions.

“This catastrophe is unprecedented in the Sundarbans, and we don’t know how to tackle this,” said Amir Hossain, chief forest official of the Sundarbans – underscoring our absolute unpreparedness to dealing with the consequences of such accidents.

Anyone telling you that such projects are safe is just playing you – if Japan can have Fukushima, Bangladesh can have a Rampal accident or a Rooppur meltdown and no one can promise you otherwise with any certainty.

Fortunately, there are other ways to meet the growth in our energy demand and bring electricity to the lives of millions who still lack access. The tragic story of climate change so far has been paralleled by an amazing story of innovation in renewable energy technologies.

We do not have to look beyond our own country to see its potential. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that the number of household solar power systems in Bangladesh has jumped from 25,000 to 2.8 million in the last 10 years. We are now installing photovoltaic systems at 80,000 per month.

Wind and solar power are now at near cost parity with fossil fuels in many parts of the world, and are in fact largely profitable if health and social costs are factored in, as they of course should in our deeply flawed economic calculations.

With the end of the fossil fuel age now inevitable, it is poor economic decision-making to invest more money in developing new fossil fuel infrastructures, or subsidising the industry. As the world cuts emissions rapidly over the coming decades, it will only get more expensive to produce and consume high-carbon energy.

We now know what we must prioritise to ensure a clear path forward. We do not have to repeat the centuries of mistakes of the West just due to an unreasonable disinclination to changing course. Blind faith in economic models that have landed us in this crisis will not get us out of it.

The health, social, and environmental co-benefits of making a rapid shift to renewables are incredibly massive – even though they may be hard to calculate in economic terms. A 2013 study estimated the economic value of just health impacts from fossil fuel electricity in the United States at $361.7bn to $886.5bn annually, representing 2.5-6% of their national GDP.

We are therefore faced with a choice. We can continue to expand dirty energy projects citing the financial support we need from the West as an excuse for inaction. Or we can be bold and choose a clear path towards renewables, and lead the global transition to a 100% clean world. 

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