Decoding climate change risks

Small changes in urban human behavior and increased energy efficiency will have a positive impact on our natural resources.


Mukul Sanwal[1]


The recently released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established by the United Nations, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” details the impact of climate change on human and natural systems and the opportunities it presents as a part of social and economic development. For growing economies policy response depends on which parts of the report are emphasised.

The report has not been without controversy, with one of its authors withdrawing from the report because “the drafts became too alarmist.” Already there are calls in India to reduce emissions, even though these contribute less than 7 per cent of global emissions and per-capita emissions are well below the global average.

The report states that “Natural and anthropogenic substances and processes that alter the Earth’s energy budget are drivers of climate change.” In other words, the increase in global temperature has been caused in equal parts by anthropogenic intervention and by natural causes.

According to the report, a thousand years ago the earth was as warm as it is today, and the global mean sea level was at least five meters higher than it is at present. The worst case scenario at the end of the century is for sea levels to rise between one to three meters. Since sea level rise is not likely to be uniform, it is not cities, but coastal reefs and tourism that will suffer the most.  

For Asia, the geographical variation of these impacts is important, especially with respect to the combination of water, food security and temperature increases. For example, according to the Report, monsoon coverage is expected to increase and the season is expected to lengthen. This is important for inter-state relations, because India’s rivers get three-quarters of their flow from precipitation and only one-quarter from snow melt. Thus, there could be little possibility of climate triggered conflict in Asia.

The temperature increase over the last 150 years has also been greater in the temperate than tropical latitudes. Europe and America have seen a greater frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events and glacier melts than in other continents. Even more significant for developing countries in Asia is the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to predict changes in precipitation in the tropics with any more than a “low” degree of confidence.

The report points to the “possibility” of global food security being threatened, thus leading to inter-state conflict. It has projected current trends in production without considering the consumption patterns of a globalized world. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, if urban eating habits in industrialized countries change, global greenhouse emissions from agriculture can come down to below 1990 levels. This, despite the fact that food demand is expected to increase by as much as three times during the next 20 years. But this can be met as one-third of food for delivery to cities is currently being wasted.

Similarly, the current focus on the use of fossil fuels for the generation and production of electricity for the four sectors of energy use- namely electricity, buildings, transport and industry ignores consumption patterns. For example, transport emissions will soon equal the energy share of electricity, and three-quarter of electricity use in industrialized countries is in buildings. According to the International Energy Agency, energy efficiency has the highest potential for the reduction of emissions, with industrialized countries taking the lead.

In the current “anthropocene” era, the degree to which resource use causes adverse environmental impacts depends more on the types of resources used and the ways in which they are used than on the amount of resources used. Consequently, other parts of the United Nations are moving away from the natural science perspective of the IPCC to a social science perspective for modifying consumption patterns. The “World Social Science Report; 2013,” prepared by the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, concludes pointedly that that there is a need to re-frame “climate and global environmental change from a physical into a social problem.” The shift from environmental risk analysis  to human wellbeing within ecological limits serves to clarify our understanding of a very complex issue, because so far we have been considering the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem; emissions of carbon dioxide rather than production and consumption patterns that lead to those emissions.

The key global driver of natural resource use is urbanization and the rise of the middle class that it supports. Three-quarter of carbon emissions are produced in cities. This requires a new urban development concept that places human and social capital and environmental interest at the heart of building prosperous communities. In the next decade, China plans to shift 250 million people from rural areas to cities and India is planning 100 new cities. Therefore, urban design, public transport and modified consumption patterns rather than industrialized country inspired notions of mitigation and adaptation, are the best way for Asia to meet the challenge of climate change.

[1] Among the group of scientists contributing to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC