Challenges of Climate Change and Bio-Energy

“Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from our parents and they from their parents. It is in our hands whether our children and their children inherit the same world” – Richard Branson.

Scientific and technological advancements have revolutionized the entire human civilization in a truest sense. It has brought us to a point where we can assume that everything we imagine and conceive is practically achievable. Nowadays, when our lives are surrounded by so much of digitalization and hi-tech machinery, when the rapidness of development and research is so impressive, it is fairly easy to forget the inescapable fact that we are damaging our mother world at an unprecedented pace. So often in course to satisfy our hunger of attaining economic supremacy and industrial feasibility, we fail to realize that we are actually deteriorating our natural resources. We, along with all our advancements are disturbing the ecological and environmental balance at such a frantic pace that the entire human history has never witnessed before. And while doing this, we have provoked the nature’s need for revenge. We have made ourselves more vulnerable to stern temperatures, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, droughts, excessive rainfall, and now it is a critical time to understand that if we continue to exploit nature and affect climatic balance and do nothing to alleviate this issue, we are bound to face devastating consequences.

Climate changes pose clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction. To better understand the issue, we must first study what are climate changes and which factors are responsible for them. The term climate change is often used interchangeably with the term global warming, but according to the National Academy of Sciences, “The phrase ‘climate change’ is growing in preferred use to ‘global warming’ because it helps convey that there are [other] changes in addition to rising temperatures.” Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). Global warming is an average increase in the temperature of the atmosphere near the Earth’s surface and in the troposphere, which can contribute to changes in global climate patterns.

Earth maintains its average temperature by a natural and self-automated warming system of gases which surround it. Carbon dioxide and other gases like methane, Nitrogen dioxide and Chloro Flouro Carbon (CFC) keep the earth warm by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere. This trapped heat is crucial in keeping earth’s temperature within a range where it is habitable. However, the uncontrollable increase in the emission of Carbon dioxide and other warming gases over the decades has thickened these atmospheric boundaries which are now retaining much more heat than the acceptable range. Further, the increase of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere has also enhanced the “Greenhouse Effect” in which more heat is generated. This excessive amount of heat has disarrayed earth’s natural thermo-equilibrium resulting in the form of global warming with all its associated climatic effects.

The history of the planet has been characterised by frequent changes in climate. Apparently, climate change is a natural phenomena occurring since several thousand years. Environmental scientists insist that earth’s temperature has always been on a gradual rise with no or very limited impact on the environment on whole. This gradual trend spanning over a period of 650,000 years shows a gradual rise which scientists initially thought of as a “slow motion catastrophe” a unexpected to show its earliest consequences generations later. Needless to say, time has proved this estimations erroneous since signs of the climatic changes due to increased earth temperature have accelerated alarmingly in last two centuries. The graphical relation between time and earth’s temperature proves a dramatic and unparalleled shift in the trend with temperatures increasing many times faster than ever in the recorded history. Based on data from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that the mean global surface temperature has increased by about 0.3 to 0.6 degree Celsius since the late 19th century to the present, and an increase of 0.2 to 0.3 degree over the last 40 years. This increase is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years. The current rate of increase of greenhouse gases is unprecedented during at least the past 20,000 years. And with the help climatic models based on mathematical simulations, it is predicted that by the year 2050, global temperature would be rose around 5 degrees Celsius with some severe and unavoidable impacts.

There are a number of natural factors responsible for climate change. Some of the prominent ones are continental drift, volcanoes, ocean currents, the earth’s tilt, and comets and meteorites. But the Anthropogenic Factors are the real culprits which have induced such an uncontrollable emission of carbon dioxide and other gases and therefore elevated average temperatures. Anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment and influence climate. In some cases, however, the chain of causality is clear and unambiguous while in others it is less clear. Various assumptions for human-influenced climate change have been debated over the years but it is only now widely accepted without any doubt that the major cause of climate change are the human activities. Even those who up to a few years ago were not convinced that humans have an impact on the climate, now admit that scientific evidence exists that this is happening.

The Industrial Revolution, starting at the end of the 19th Century, has had a huge effect on climate. The invention of the motor engine and the increased burning of fossil fuels in form of coal, oil and natural gas have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since then, the human consumption of fossil fuels has elevated CO2 levels from a concentration of ~280 ppm to ~387 ppm today. These increasing concentrations are projected to reach a range of 535 to 983 ppm by the end of the 21st century. It is now known that carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than at any time in the last 750,000 years. With the prevailing concept of global economy and the accelerated industrialization of developing countries like India and China, 70 million tons of CO2 is dumped into atmosphere everyday. In addition of CO2, Methane is another important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. About ¼ of all methane emissions are said to come from domesticated animals such as dairy cows, goats, pigs, buffaloes, camels, horses, and sheep. These animals produce methane during the cud-chewing process. Methane is also released from rice or paddy fields that are flooded during the sowing and maturing periods. When soil is covered with water it becomes anaerobic or lacking in oxygen. Under such conditions, methane-producing bacteria and other organisms decompose organic matter in the soil to form methane. Nearly 90% of the paddy-growing area in the world is found in Asia, as rice is the staple food there. China and India, between them, have 80-90% of the world’s rice-growing areas. Methane is also emitted from landfills and other waste dumps. If the waste is put into an incineratorchanges triggered by such gases are anticipated to cause an increase of 1.4-5.6 °C between 1990 and 2100. The cement manufacturing industry in particular, contributes CO2 when calcium carbonate is heated, producing lime and carbon dioxide, and also as a result of burning fossil fuels. The cement industry produces 5% of global man-made CO2 emissions, of which 50% is from the chemical process, and 40% from burning fuel. The amount of CO2 emitted by the cement industry is nearly 900 kg of CO2 for every 1000 kg of cement produced. [out] or burnt in the open, carbon dioxide is emitted. Methane is also emitted during the process of oil drilling, coal mining and also from leaking gas pipelines (due to accidents and poor maintenance of sites). A large amount of nitrous oxide emission has been attributed to fertilizer application. Another gas, nitrous oxide, emitted in a very large from fertilizers can cause serious damages. These climate

One of the other major factors of climate change is Increased Land Use. Agriculture practices, irrigation and deforestation are fundamentally changing the environment. Due to increased urbanization and industrial growth, forests are being cut down which act as

“Carbon sinks”. As a result,that the extra carbon dioxide produced cannot be changed into oxygen. A 2007 Jet Propulsion Laboratory study found that the average temperature of California has risen about 2 degrees over the past 50 years, with a much higher increase in urban areas. The change was attributed mostly to extensive human development of the landscape.

Accepting the factors that are causing it, an overwhelming majority of scientists today agree that climate change is real and poses very serious global threats. These climate changes have already shown some shocking and horrific signs around the world. They are by now affecting lives of millions of people throughout the world and are expected to get far more ruthless in future. In particular, many developing countries though they have contributed to the least in the process of climate change will be the ones at the greatest risks to face the consequences. As it was mentioned at the annual meeting of the Interagency Support Group on Indigenous Issues (IASG) in Montreal in September 2007, “that indigenous people are often among the world’s most marginalized and impoverished peoples and will bear the brunt of the catastrophe of climate change and as such provide a human face to the climate change crises”.

In Asia, temperatures are expected to rise 2-8 degrees Celsius in next 8-10 years affecting the lives of the inhabitants with climatic variations like decreased rainfall, crop failures and more floods. Tropical forests, which are haven for biodiversity, as well as native people’s cultural diversity, are under serious danger of forest fires. People in low-lying areas of Bangladesh and India like Calcutta, could be displaced by a one-meter rise in sea levels. Such a rise could also threaten the coastal zones of Japan and China. This could mean massive dislocation of not just hundreds and thousands but more than one hundred million people from Asia alone. The recent examples of heavy rains in parts on India particularly Mumbai is inherently connected with rapid climate change. In the Himalayans, there are glacial melts which affect hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water. Increased temperature will melt ice faster following more water in the short term, but less in the long run as glaciers and snow cover shrink. The warming of the high altitude regions are likely to mean that population growth, settlement expansion and encroachment are likely to become a major management challenge and these external influences are likely to have an impact on indigenous peoples and their lands. In Southern Africa, climate change will affect hundreds of kilometers of land which is covered with vegetation and is used for grazing. Since high temperatures will increase wind speed multiple times, these high speed winds will result in region losing most of its vegetation cover and hence, becoming less feasible for indigenous peoples living in the region. Moreover, droughts will be more common with food security as a major issue for indigenous peoples residing in the deserts like Kalahari and Sahara. In Europe and parts of Russia, indigenous peoples have noticed the arrival of new species of plants which were never seen in the region previously. The hotter summers have provided the conditions for the new plants to thrive in rivers and lakes. This had disturbed the natural habitat of fishes; hence, people’s fishing opportunities have declined due to closure of lakes because of the new plant growth. Also, new bird species have arrived and birds now stay longer in the villages than previously.

In North America, heat waves will increase evaporation and deplete the underground water resources. There may be impacts on health, plant cover, wildlife populations, tribal water rights and individual agricultural operations, and a reduction of tribal services due to decrease in income from land leases. Further, natural disasters like hurricanes, floods in likes of Katrina which caused lives of around 1,836 people and cost damages of $89.6 billion, will be more common.

The Polar Regions that is the Artic and Greenland is experiencing some the most rapid and severe climate changes on earth. With rise in the temperature, the Artic ice is becoming less stable, unusual weather patterns are occurring, vegetation cover is changing and particular animals like polar bears and seals are on a verge of extinction. Local landscapes, seascapes and icescapes are becoming unfamiliar, making peoples feel like strangers in their own land. In addition to this, weather in the Artic will become unpredictable and extreme with timing, length and character of the seasons including rain in autumn and winter and more heat in summer. In several indigenous villages in Alaska, entire communities will have to be relocated because of erosion due to the thawing of permafrost and large waves slamming against the west and northern shores.

Coastal indigenous communities will be severely threatened by storm related erosion because of melting sea ice. Scientists have predicted that if only the half of ice in Artic and Greenland melt, the ocean level around the world will rise up to 40 feet surging over huge land a portion that is the home of billions of human beings and other living creatures.

No matter how discouraging the future seems right now, all is not gloom and doom. Al Gore, the Nobel Prize winner for his efforts for the cause of climate change, said in his speech at National Sierra Club Convention, on Sept. 9, 2005 “The good news is we know what to do. The good news is we have everything we need now to respond to the challenge of global warming. We have all the technologies we need, more are being developed, and as they become available and become more affordable when produced in scale, they will make it easier to respond. But we should not wait, we cannot wait, we must not wait.”

Since the appearance of first few challenges of the climate change, countries all around the world have decided to initiate programs as one global community to combat this fast approaching menace. The First World Climate Conference recognized climate change as a serious problem in 1979. Since then, a number of conferences and conventions have been held throughout the world with formation of several international bodies and treaties. In 1988, a body of more than 2,500 of the world’s leading climate scientists, economists, and risk analysis experts from 80 countries was formed as The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This Panel was given a mandate to assess the state of existing knowledge about the climate system and climate change; the environmental, economic, and social impacts of climate change; and the possible response strategies. The reports which this body released had a powerful impact on both policy-makers and the general public and provided the basis for negotiations on the Climate Change Convention. In 1992, The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was signed at Rio de Janeiro by 154 states, including the US. This summit became the largest-ever gathering of Heads of State.

In December 1997, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted a code of behavior by consensus which contains new emissions targets for developed countries for the post-2000 period. This international treaty is called as “The Kyoto Protocol” or “The Kyoto Treaty”. Since developed countries of the world are responsible for 83.7% of the total emissions, the protocol asked the developed countries to commit themselves in reducing their collective emissions of six key greenhouse gases by at least 5%. Though an important milestone, the Kyoto agreement has not really been such effective since it aims to cut down the future carbon emissions but does not propose any solutions to nullify the affects of the carbon that has already been emitted into the atmosphere. Other global initiatives like UNESCO’s Programme on Man and the Biosphere (MAB), Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), WHO Program for Climate and many others are working to tackle the issue of climate change.

The goal of all these organizations and conventions is to cut down or at least minimize all those factors responsible for climate change. Resolute, urgent and collective efforts are needed on state, communal and individual levels to deal with the issue. One of the most effective ways to do so is to Increase the Awareness and Usage of the Bio-Energy. Bio-Energy is the energy made available from materials derived from the biological sources. It is actually the energy produced from the bio-mass. Biomass is the material derived from living organisms, which includes plants, animals and their byproducts such as wood. Manure, garden waste and crop residues are all sources of biomass. It is a renewable energy source based on the carbon cycle, unlike other natural resources such as petroleum, coal, and nuclear fuels. As Henry Ford said in early 20th century “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit … weeds, sawdust-almost anything…”

Burning biomass efficiently results in little or no net emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, since the bio-energy crop plants actually took up an equal amount of carbon dioxide from the air when they grew. However, burning conventional fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil, coal or natural gas results in an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the major gas which is thought to be responsible for global climate change. Some nitrogen oxides inevitably result from biomass burning (as with all combustion processes) but these are comparable to emissions from natural wildfires, and generally lower than those from burning fossil fuels. Other gas emissions are associated with the use of fossil fuels by farm equipment, and with the application of inorganic fertilizers to the bio-energy crop. However, these may be offset by the increase in carbon storage in soil organic matter compared with conventional crops. Utilization of biomass residues which would have otherwise been dumped in landfills (e.g. urban and industrial residues) greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions by preventing the formation of methane.

In addition, bio-energy can effectively be used in almost every industrial, manufacturing and home application throughout the globe. Wood, construction waste, landfill gas, and liquid bio-fuels like bio-diesel and bio-oil can be used to produce energy that can be converted into electricity and heat. Liquid bio-fuels like ethanol, bio-diesel, and bio-oil can be used to power cars and other transportation. Being the fourth largest resource of energy after coal, oil and natural gas, the energy produced from the bio-mass can fulfill up to 14% of the world’s total primary energy demands and recent statistics show that only 10-15% of the total potential bio-energy sources have been used so far by the human population worldwide.

Along with its remarkable and efficient outcomes in decreasing the world’s carbon emission and fulfilling a considerable portion of the global demand for energy, Bio-Energy from the bio-mass also has several major socio-economical benefits. These benefits include increased rural income and reduced levels of poverty in developing countries, restoration of unproductive and degraded lands and promotion of economic development, diversifications of agricultural outputs, reduction of energy dependence and diversification of domestic energy supply, increased investments in land rehabilitation and effective usage of waste products. A recent economic survey found out that bio-energy creates more permanent jobs than any other energy sources with decrease in unemployment and increase in per capita income which contributes to a much healthy life style. It can also be instrumental in reducing food prices and ensuring food security throughout the world.

In keeping an eye over the huge opportunities the usage of bio-energy can offer, every possible step should be taken by the United Nations and the state governments all over the world to replace fossil fuels with bio-fuels. Since it is practically unrealistic to completely replace fossil fuels, intense attempt should be made to utilize as much of the natural energy resources as it is possible. On individual level too, we should adapt to these climatic changes and change our live styles in order to bring the total carbon emission under control. Driving less, driving a fuel-efficient car, preferring gas over oil, saving electricity, using lesser papers and planting more trees can be some of the small choices each human can makes to save the earth from rapid destructions of the climate change. It is not only an environmental issue. It is inherently linked with our lives on political, social, economical, ethical and more than anything else, on moral grounds. We do not lack in resources and capabilities but it is a high time that we confront the challenges of the climate change with utmost determination and a collective strategy.

As According to this year’s UNDP Report on Human Development “There is a window of opportunity of avoiding the most damaging climate change impacts, but that window is closing: the world has less than a decade to change course. Actions taken or not taken in the years ahead will have a profound bearing on the future course of human development. The world lacks neither the financial resources nor the technological capabilities to act. What is missing is a sense of urgency, collective interest and above all human solidarity”.

Noor Ali Noorani

Author: Noor Ali Noorani
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