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Myths about climate change

   November 6, 2019        330        Sneha Pandey

In the first part of the climate change myth series, published two weeks ago, I discussed five misconceptions floating around about climate change that have stalled climate mitigation progress. In this second part to the series, I take on four more myths that need to be broken down for effective global alliance and action.

Randomly planting trees helps with mitigation

A lot of mitigation efforts today are focused on sequestering CO2 in trees. The developed world is paying developing nations to engage in forest preservation, reforestation and afforestation efforts through REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). And while forest programmes like these do help realise other environmental benefits, we cannot be sure how much they have helped us in our fight against climate change.

Recent research findings suggest that the relationship between forests and the atmosphere is much more complex than previously thought. While trees do have the capacity to sequester large amounts of CO2 in their biomass, the conditions have to be right for them to be able to do so: It matters what kinds of trees you plant, where you plant them and for what purpose.

Studies suggest that the most efficient carbon storage happens in preserved forests. Meanwhile, forest restoration requires more careful planning that replicates conditions of the pre-existing forest as much as possible. Afforestation, which is the practice of planting trees in landscapes where there were previously none, requires even further caution: For example, planting dark green tree canopy (that absorb heat) on white snowfields (that reflect heat back into space) would generally be a poor idea as it would increase warming rather than decreasing it. Simply put, we cannot take for granted that randomly planting as many trees as we can will generate climate benefits. Without active deliberation and planning, reforestation and afforestation efforts may not be performing as well as we expect it to and in some cases may even be undermining cooling efforts.

Sequestering CO2 and switching energy sources are the only major ways to mitigate

Currently, global climate policy discussions focus mostly on forest carbon sequestration and renewable energy switch as legitimate ways to mitigate. However, are these the only solutions that have the capacity to stop, and reverse, climate change?

I don’t believe so. Global climate policies, which are still very much influenced by the world’s most powerful—and historically most polluting—countries, ignore the root cause of climate change: their excessive consumption of natural resources. A 2015 study shows how shockingly high the consumption patterns of some countries are: A person in the US, on average, produces 18.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in a year, while the world average is only 3.4 tonnes. (Luxembourgers and Australians, populations with the second and third highest per capita emissions, emit 18.5 and 17.7 tonnes respectively). Another 2015 study shows that the world’s richest 10 percent produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 55 percent contribute only 10 percent of such emissions.

Despite such discrepancy in per-capita emissions, however, this topic is rarely visited in the global climate policy arena. Addressing this issue, and creating national policies to reduce such excessive consumeristic patterns, however, is central—and perhaps the most promising avenue currently—to fight climate change.

 More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means higher agricultural yields

It was reported this May that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere had exceeded 415 parts per million—a concentration that the planet has not seen in the last few million years. While this may seem like an alarming development to most of us, there are some that believe that increasing carbon dioxide is likely to increase the photosynthesis potential of plants (and possibly end world hunger in many parts of the world.)

However, the relationship between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and crop productivity is more complex than this. Yes, plants do use CO2 to create biomass (what we consider food), but it also requires water and other compounds to complete the process. An increased amount of CO2, therefore, means little when there aren’t proportionate amounts of other required compounds to complete the reaction.

But, it is not just that increased CO2 has no discernable benefits on plants. It does have detrimental effects as well. The changing climate (caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere) is also likely to affect the availability of such compounds—by reducing water availability and soil quality—and straining the process of photosynthesis further. Studies show that an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can also inhibit photosynthesis in some crops and decrease the nutritional qualityin others.

IPCC exaggerates to alarm

Climate deniers have often in the past claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an alarmist. While some claim that the IPCC uses alarming language regarding human’s impact on the environment, others go so far as to claim that it manufactures evidence to support the thesis.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. After a consensus was formed among the world’s leading experts that the humans were altering the climate through greenhouse emissions, the IPCC was formed to aggregate and dispense climate change information from all over the world in a systematic and organised manner. It is worth remembering that the scientists featured in IPCC reports are not paid in any way by the IPCC to do their research.

And there is little evidence that the IPCC tends to exaggerate climate facts. In fact, the panel is famously known within the scientific community to be conservative in their estimates. So much so that they are known to frustrate climate scientists with their caution in projections: Up until now, the IPCC has been known to underestimate the CO2 output from burning fossil fuels, the rate of sea-level rise, sea-ice melt and so on.

The Kathmandu Post