Climate Change: Science And Politics

  Dr. Essam El-Henawi*



Sun rays falling on the atmosphere do not entirely reach the earth's surface, 25% of the sun rays are reflected into the space, and about 23% are absorbed into the atmosphere itself. This means that only 52% of the sun rays penetrate the atmosphere to reach the earth; 6% of this percentage is reflected back into the space, and the other 46% are absorbed into the earth and the waters of seas and oceans to provide warmth. These warm surfaces, in their turn, emit heat and energy that are absorbed as long-wave infrared rays. As the air contains some gases in scarce concentrations; such as carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane, and water vapor which are characterized by the penetration of infrared rays which eventually leads to blocking such rays into the atmosphere.

This phenomenon is known as "Global Warming". Had it not been for the Global Warming, the earth's surface temperature would have been 33 o C less than its current level; i.e. below the freezing point and life would have been impossible on the earth.

Many people think that Global Warming is a new phenomenon that has only been known since the 1970s. This perception prevailed due to media campaigns; stream of statements, conferences and seminars on possibilities of the increase of earth temperature (Global Warming) along with the potential climate change. This perception is entirely wrong. The effect of the Global Warming was first addressed by the French scientist, Foree, in 1824 when he tried to find an explanation for the warmth of the earth. He attributed this to the atmosphere serving as the greenhouse which keeps the heat within. Then, in 1865, Tindall, the British scientist, conducted lab experiments to measure how water vapor and carbon dioxide absorb heat, and he proved their significant effect. In 1896, Arinos, the Swedish scientist, introduced the theory: "the possibility of the increase in the earth temperature due to the emission of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of burning coal (common fuel at that time). He started to prepare a mathematical model to measure the temperature increase; the quantity of carbon dioxide resulting from such increase; and the required time to make it happen. In 1897, the American scientist, Chamberlain, supported Arinos's results. He also added that the change in carbon dioxide was a major cause of the modern geological Ice Ages. This means that the climate change topic had occupied the minds of geologists, geographers, physicists, meteorologists, and other scientists more than a century and a half ago, not after Stockholm Conference (1972). Unfortunately, this scientific fact has been ignored even in some highly accurate scientific works; i.e. evaluations conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) every 5 years since 1990.

Carbon dioxide is considered the major greenhouse gas. Its concentration in the air depends on the quantities emitted from human activities " especially combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, petrol and natural gas; cement industry; deforestation particularly tropical forests that are considered a huge store for carbon. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air depends also on its removal and absorption rates in seas and plants on the earth" known as the Biogeochemical Carbon Cycle; which makes a balance in the carbon concentrations in the air. Different studies have shown that this balance is disturbed due to the increasing human activities. In the pre-industry age (1750 - 1800), the carbon dioxide concentration was about 280 particle in a million cubic meter in the air, however; in 2005 it was 379 in a million cubic meter.

The quantity of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere in 1900 was about 1960 million tons, which increased to 5961 million tons in 1950; 23172 million tons in the year 2000; and 27500 million tons in 2005. The developed countries are responsible for about 50% of the total carbon dioxide emissions in the world " the United States of America alone is responsible for 24% of total emissions, followed by the European Union 10%, Russia 7%; Japan 5%. Middle - income countries are responsible for 41% of total carbon dioxide emissions; on the top of which China 12%, India 4.7%, and Brazil 1.5%".

In addition, there are several other greenhouse gases such as Methane, N2O, and Chloroform gases that all cause the depletion of the ozone layer. Most countries ceased to produce and use such gases according to Montreal Protocol. Such gases contribute to the global warming depending on the gas emission quantity, its final concentration in the atmosphere, gas life expectancy, and its radiation level. This means that gas potentiality to global warming differs from one gas to another. Carbon dioxide is the least influential gas in the global warming compared to the same weight of Methane or N2O along a constant period (For instance, 50 or 100 years). But, the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted in the world is greater than all other greenhouse gases. Therefore, it is considered the main effective gas in the global warming.

Expectations For Temperature Increase Around The World

Since it is difficult to conduct a direct study on the impact of the greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, a set of mathematical models has been developed in the past two decades in order to make future predictions. Modern models showed that if carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is doubled over its rate in the pre-industry age, this would lead to an increase in the earth's temperature with regional variations.

A number of scientists doubted the validity of the models used to estimate the temperature increase. The state of uncertainty resulted from such models was proven by the contradiction of the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The first evaluation conducted by the IPCC in 1990 concluded that if the quantity of the carbon dioxide was doubled in the atmosphere over its level in the pre-industry age, the world temperature would increase with about 1.5 to 4.5o C. In the second evaluation conducted in 1995, the IPCC mentioned that the temperature percentage would be 1 - 3.5oC. In the third evaluation in 2000, the IPCC mentioned that the temperature increase would be 1.4- " 5.8o C during the period 1990 - 2100. In the fourth evaluation conducted early this year, the IPCC mentioned that the most potential temperature increase is 1.8 to 4o C by the end of the current century.

Repercussions Of Temperature Increase In The World

The fourth report of the IPCC shows that the temperature increase would be accompanied by climate changes that will have a significant impact on the eco-systems on the earth. Some say that such changes might be useful; others think it would be harmful. For example, while the production of some forests and crops would increase, other forests might have low production. Also, while rainfall might be heavy, increasing water sources, in some parts of the world, other parts lack water especially arid and semi-arid regions. Also, the increase of temperature may lead to raising the sea level with about 30 to 40 cm due to thermal expansion in oceans. This level might increase about 10 to 20 more centimeters due to the melting of the ice in the north and south Poles. Raising the sea level would result in sinking some below-the sea level islands and coastal areas; which would make millions of human beings homeless and result in catastrophic economic and social damages. The report shows that the potential climate changes would have different repercussions that vary from one continent to another and from one region to another in the same continent.

In Africa, the drought phenomenon is expected to increase in the continent in general and in the southern west of the continent in particular, while rainfall rates may increase over high mountains in the east and the middle part on the equator. By 2020, it is estimated that about 75 to 250 million inhabitants in Africa would be under increasing pressures of lack of fresh water and food sources including fisheries. In coastal areas, the increase of sea level would lead to make huge parts of low coastal areas in North Africa sink, especially the Nile Delta, and in the middle part of West Africa. This would result in losing vast agricultural land and different facilities, and would also affect the productivity of the neighboring agricultural land due to the increase of the salt water level.

In Asia, the melting of ice in Himalayas may lead to more floods over mountain bottoms. Fresh water quantities are expected to decrease in great river basins in the middle, south, east and southern east of Asia. This would affect the life style of about a billion inhabitants in this area by the year 2050. Also, the coastal areas in the south, east, and southern east of Asia would be affected by floods and the increase of the sea level. However, climate change may lead to increasing the agricultural crops up to 20% in east and southern east of Asia while such productivity would decrease to 30% in the middle and south of Asia.

Did The Temperature Increase During The Last Century?

During the last century, detailed analyses of temperatures registered around the world showed that the world average temperature rose by about 0.6o C during the period 1901 - 2000. The third report of the IPCC showed that such increase was consistent with the mathematical models results used in forecasting the temperature. This proves that global warming has started. However, a number of scientists see that such increase is within the normal climate changes, especially that the detailed analysis of temperature during the period 1940 -1970 showed an international decrease in the temperature by 2.0 o C. But, the fourth report of the IPCC issued early this year showed that the world temperature has increased by about 0.75o C during the period 1906 - 2005, and that the period 1956 " 2005 has witnessed most of the temperature increase. The report also showed that there is a 90% of certainty that the main reason of temperature increase is due to human activities.

Climat Change Convention, Kyoto Protocol

Due to the international growing attention given to the climate change issue, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had been signed during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Convention aims to "achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system during a period that would allow the eco-systems to accommodate with climate change". The developed countries and East and Central Europe committed to adopt policies and procedures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions to the 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (CTOC) “parties ratified the UNFCCC” is the supreme authority to monitor the implementation of the convention. It was decided to hold annual meetings to the CTOC for monitoring and taking the required decisions. In the first meeting of the CTOC held in Berlin in 1995, it was necessary to reach an agreement on new commitments to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions after the year 2000. In the CTOC third meeting held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, the "Kyoto Protocol" was adopted to obligate industrial countries to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% by the period 2008 - 2012 below the levels of the year 1990. Also, there were three mechanisms developed under the Kyoto Protocol to help the parties to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions: the Clean Development Mechanism, Joint Implementation and Emissions Trading. The hastiness and political dominance over science in the CTOC proceedings have led to take the impetuous decision and adopt the Kyoto Protocol leading to a great confusion particularly in the ambiguous implementation methods. Ever since 1998, there have been significant differences in the stances of countries especially between the developed and developing countries on the details of the mechanisms stated by the Protocol. In addition, some countries had reservations about the Protocol because: 1) it didn't stipulate the obligations of the developing countries that are expected to be responsible for increasing quantities of the greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2010; and 2) it encourages, indirectly, the transfer of some economic activities, that result in high concentrations of the green house gases, to the developing countries. The Clean Development Mechanism and The Emissions Trading system raise several questions particularly concerning how well such mechanisms would achieve the Protocol objectives. For example, it was found that it is cheaper for a developed country to buy its share of carbon from a developing country under the guise of "Clean Development Mechanism" and abide by the Protocol obligations than to reduce such share from its territories. The concern here is that the developed countries would determine the price of the carbon ton, and the sale and purchase processes would be subject to political and strategic factors.
On 28th March 2001, the US Administration declared withdrawal from Kyoto Protocol due to its repercussions on the US economy and the ambiguity of mechanism implementation. The US Administration has taken this decision after finding that committing to reduce its gas emissions would affect the economic growth and life style while allowing some developing countries, which are not obligated to reduce gas emission according to the Protocol, to consume increasing quantities of fossil fuel to achieve a rapid growth rates like the case in China for instance. In spite of the criticism directed to the US Administration for its withdrawal, modern studies show that most European countries couldn't be able to fulfill their obligations stated in the Kyoto Protocol by the year 2012. For example: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and Norway would not be able to achieve the Protocol's objectives. There are also questions marks over the ability of France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to achieve such objectives.

It is obvious that the rapid economic growth in China, India, Brazil, and other developed countries has raised the concern of the US that is keen to protect its international prestige under globalization. It is also obvious that some European countries have dampened their enthusiasm that appeared in Kyoto after the Protocol's economic repercussions have become clear. But, as a face-saving action, talks have mounted about "the post-Kyoto Period"; the diplomatic language to cover the failure of Kyoto Protocol. This was explicitly clear in the Eighth Summit held in Heiligendamm, Germany with its declaration issued on June 7th, 2007. The Declaration became clearer when it extended the invitation for all countries to participate in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change that will be held in Indonesia in December 2007 to reach a general agreement for the "post-Kyoto: after 2012" including all major countries with greenhouse gas emissions. The Declaration then stated the necessity of developing an international framework in this regard by the end of 2008 to be issued in an international convention in 2009. The Declaration contains an explicit text on communications with Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa in this concern. There are predictions in different circles about making the post-Kyoto Convention unbinding or make it binding to all developed and developing countries alike except for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and giving up all the Kyoto Convention Mechanisms.

In other words, things have been restored to square one, the pre-Kyoto Protocol in 1997, in spite of all the media hype and drama films on climate change, ice melting, losing the Polar Bear, and hundreds of futile conferences and seminars that have spent billions of dollars during the past ten years.

* professor at the National Research Center, Dokki, Cairo.
** Translated by Dr. Iman Shakeeb.