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World Environment Day and the IPCC Report 2022

Published : Saturday, 4 June, 2022 at 12:00 AM  Count : 695

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

In the universe there are billions of galaxies and in our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are billions of planets but indeed we have so far only one Earth. So, we should take care of our Earth. 'Only One Earth'- is the slogan for the World Environment Day 2022 (WED).

Such slogan should motivate us to focus on living sustainably in harmony with nature. But this requires our clear understanding about the resources that we use in this planet. Leonardo da Vinci once remarked that we know more about the movement of the celestial bodies than about the soil on our own planet.

This essay provides some information in order to understand better our Earth's complex system, global food crisis and also what recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed about the status of the Earth's climate.

In his book Regenesis, George Monbiot suggests that a complex system is not the same as complicated system. A complex system cannot be determined by looking at its parts alone, but a complicated system can, such as an engine.  A complex system's components form self organised networks.

Monbiot further mentioned that 'complex systems have thresholds. They can absorb a certain amount of change without altering the way they behave, then suddenly their self organization breaks down and they collapse. These thresholds can be hard to identify until they have been crossed. They are often describing as tipping points.'

So, we need to think about our Earth as a whole, because Earth as a whole can be better understood than a part of it. For example, scientists from Max Planck Institute, Germany have found that 40 percent of the rainfall in parts of East Africa appears to be caused by farmers watering their fields in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh which is six thousand kilometres away.

The climate change is making food unaffordable across the planet because of extreme heat wave. Though it is not just climate change but other factors such as geopolitical event of war in Ukraine and pandemic are playing a part. Threats to food security in relation to climate change are manifold.

Food production depends largely on soil and freshwater. Some statistics suggest that every year 5-7 million hectares of farming land are degraded with 25 billion tonnes of topsoil eroded by wind and water. The Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) which combines precipitation and temperature data, reveal changing levels of dryness over time.Environmentalist Tony Juniper (2016) suggests that since 1970s, the propensity for drought has increased worldwide, in terms of both the severity and frequency.

Lack of suitable land to grow plants for food and biofuels, along with water scarcity, are major issues in a growing number of countries. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General said, 'there is enough food in our world for everyone, but we must act together, urgently with solidarity'. This is the reason Juniper suggests that 'in the past trade was used as a means to feed countries with limited land, but now direct control of production is seen as more desirable.'

Recent IPCC Sixth Assessment report (AR6) published in February 2022 recognizes the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity and human societies. The report integrates knowledge more strongly across the natural, ecological, social and economic sciences than earlier IPCC assessments.  

The report highlights the near term risk (2021-2040) and states that 'Global warming, reaching 1.5 degree Celsius in the near-term, would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans .

The level of risk will depend on concurrent near-term trends in vulnerability, exposure, level of socioeconomic development and adaptation. Near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5 degree Celsius would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and ecosystems, compared to higher warming levels, but cannot eliminate them all.'

The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions. Also the complexity of the earth system is making climate change impacts and risk more complex and more difficult to manage.

AR6 report recognised that there are some progress made in adaptation planning and implementation in different regions around the world. However, adaptation progress is unevenly distributed with observed adaptation gaps.

The 'adaptation gaps' means  the difference between actually implemented adaptation and a societally set goal These goals are largely determined by preferences related to tolerated climate change impacts and reflecting resource limitations and competing priorities.

AR 6 report highlighted the different adaptation options, which can reduce risks to people and nature. The effectiveness of adaptation to reduce climate risk is documented for specific contexts, sectors and regions.

Adaptation to water-related risks and impacts make up the majority of all documented adaptation. Urban greening using trees and other vegetation can provide local cooling. Natural river systems, wetlands and upstream forest ecosystems reduce flood risk by storing water and slowing water flow, in most circumstances.

Within energy system transitions, AR 6 report suggests that the most feasible adaptation options support infrastructure resilience, reliable power systems and efficient water use for existing and new energy generation systems.

The report recognised the energy generation diversification such as wind, solar, small scale hydroelectric and demand side management for example storage, and energy efficiency improvements, which can reduce vulnerabilities to climate change, especially in rural populations.

The AR6 report pointed out that the available evidence on projected climate risks indicates that opportunities for adaptation to many climate risks will likely become constrained and have reduced effectiveness should 1.5 degree Celsius global warming be exceeded.

When we campaign for 'Only One Earth' on the World Environment Day, we surely need to think about the whole system. In order to understand our Earth system, we need to understand the planetary boundaries. Adaptation is a short term strategy.
The Writer is a UK based academic, scientist and environmentalist, columnist and author

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