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Two degrees of unease for feverish Mother Earth

Fast-growing Asia has an opportunity to mitigate global climate change with 'green cities'

Mother Earth is running a nasty fever. In fact, she's burning up and getting sicker. And just like a human being feels aches, pains and chills above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, Earth's elevated surface temperature is a clear symptom that something is wrong with the natural system that regulates her good health.

In a startling study released on April 13 by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a who's who of the world's leading climate scientists have again diagnosed the causes of our ailing planet's atmospheric warming as anthropogenic - or caused by humans.

The report follows earlier scientific warnings to the world's governments in charge of the globe's 7 billion inhabitants. If humanity doesn't limit the increase in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels through drastic greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions reductions, say the scientists, Mother Nature might not recuperate.

Today the world is 0.6C hotter on average than in the pre-industrial era. But according to the Working Group III contribution to the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, titled "Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change", it still remains possible - by using a wide array of technological measures and changes in behaviour - to limit the increase in global mean temperature to 2C.

Earlier components of the IPCC Fifth Assessment on adaptation described the dire consequences that unbridled rising temperatures would have on the world's biophysical environment - such as disrupted ecosystems, lessened food security and increased vulnerability to floods and drought caused by changing precipitation patterns. Inching above the two-degree red line on the thermometer promises a dystopian future that must be avoided at all costs, they say.

Is this ivory tower alarmism? No, it isn't. The cool-headed wake-up call to the world's policymakers stems from a magnum opus of scientifically evaluated facts. Produced over four years by 235 authors, 38 review editors, 180 contributing authors and over 800 expert reviewers who have included 10,000 references to scientific literature in its 16 chapters, the latest study finds that global airborne pollutants have risen to unprecedented levels. The preponderance of evidence is overwhelming, the world's leading scientists agree, and their conclusions are unequivocal.

Half of all greenhouse gas has been emitted in the past 40 years, they say. Worse still, emissions grew 2.2 per cent per year over the past decade, compared to 0.4 per cent per year from 1970 to 2000. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere is now over 400 parts per million, and increasing by about 2 parts per million per year with no sign of abating.

Ominously, the IPCC says even having a chance of staying under the 2-degree threshold will require that humanity lowers global GHGs emissions by 40 to 70 per cent compared with 2010 by mid-century, and to near-zero by 2100.

Co-Chair of the study Ottmar Edenhofer put it plainly: "There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual." This means "climate policies in line with the two degrees Celsius goal need to aim for substantial emission reductions."

The IPCC, therefore, had 31 modelling teams around the world generate 1,200 scenarios which explored the economic, technological and institutional prerequisites and implications of mitigation options with different degrees of ambition. Importantly, the findings emphasised that stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere requires emissions reductions from energy production and use, transport, buildings, industry, land use and human settlements.

"Many different pathways lead to a future within the boundaries set by the two degrees Celsius goal," Edenhofer said. "All of these require substantial investments. Avoiding further delays in mitigation and making use of a broad variety of technologies can limit the associated costs."

One route forward is a green energy renaissance, particularly in Asia, home to many of the world's fastest growing economies. Indeed, a low-carbon based economy across the region would help mitigate environmental pollution and carbon dioxide emissions caused by fossil fuel use, reduce reliance on dwindling fossil reserves, and ignite technological innovations in solar, wind, hydropower, nuclear, biomass and geothermal sources of renewable energy.

In line with the recent Earth Day call for "green cities", Thailand-based Asian Institute of Technology scientist Dr ShobhakarDhakal, who is co-coordinating lead author of the IPCC report's chapter on Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Spatial Planning, believes a drastic rethink of urban living is essential for global climate-change mitigation success.

Approximately 52 per cent of the global population now lives in urban areas, and this is projected to reach 5.2 billion people by 2050. That's troubling because urban areas already account for up to 75 per cent of global energy use and 71-76 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions.

Dhakal says large mitigation opportunities exist in rapidly urbanising areas of Asia where new cities and new infrastructure will be built. "It is crucial that we set urban form and make infrastructure choices correct in these new urban settlements so that they do not lock-in into high-carbon pathways."

In Thailand recently for an AIT-organised green energy symposium, Yale University's Professor Arnulf Grubler called Asia a "lack-of-energy hotspot", home to 800 million of the world's 1.4 billion people without access to electricity. It is here that Dr Shuzo Nishioka, senior research advisor at Japan's influential Institute for Global Environment Strategies, sees an unprecedented chance to power the region cleanly, saying "Asia has an opportunity to leap-frog the rest of the world in transitioning to green growth through innovation".

Retrofitting buildings across the continent for higher energy efficiency, phasing out fossil fuel models and correcting the misalignment of public policy and investment are necessary steps to take in the journey from non-renewable to renewable energy, said Grubler, who is a lead author and contributing editor of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.

Dr Piyasvasti Amranand, chairman of Energy for Environment Foundation and former Thai Energy Minister, told the conference that Thailand has enormous solar power potential. By freeing up the energy market pricing system, enforcing transparent permitting processes, and introducing efficiency standards and financing mechanisms, the country can realise its 25 per cent target for renewable energy by 2021, he claimed.

"The mitigation options vary from place to place - but there are no silver bullets," stresses Dhakal. It needs systemic and integrated solutions that cut across sectors such as housing, infrastructure, transportation, urban land use and energy demand and supply. Ultimately, achieving a low-carbon society for Thailand and Asia will mean breaking the traditional nexus of economic growth being linked to increased carbon billowing into the skies.

With no time to waste, only major institutional and technological change will give Earth a better-than-even chance of global warming not exceeding the 2 degree threshold, the experts warn. Those aren't great odds. But, to put it simply, without fundamentally reversing the status quo it becomes a certain bet that our future world and the people living on it will be quite literally "cooked".

Shawn Kelly is Senior Media Specialist at the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.


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