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400 PPM: More action and less talk please!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 6 June 2013 01:14


We are in a week in which Global Environment Day will be celebrated and for sure the day would provide room for many to make quite profound statements and make promises to herald change and with eloquence too.

Audiences world over will clap and then disperse. A few may actually decide to change some of their habits to be more planet-friendly. 5 June, the day the world celebrates as Global Environment Day, reminds us of the Stockholm Conference in 1972. At Stockholm, the world was reminded that poverty was the No. 1 environmental problem.

As per the UN, even 20 years after Rio, the number that has emerged out of poverty is indicated to be around 600 million. Our responsibilities towards our only life-support system will be spelt out in multiple ways in events and should definitely touch our conscience.

It is time that most of these promises are made good on as humanity has just observed something which they have never seen or heard before and the particular event is not one to be celebrated either. All our actions on the other hand have given us a problem that puts our very existence at stake – the issue of global warming and the ensuing climate change.


Keeling Curve

A scientist by the name of Charles Keeling of USA in 1958 identified a technique to study the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and from that period an observatory that was set up in Hawaii captured the environmental carbon dioxide concentration and recorded the data diligently.

This observatory was placed in a pristine area away from pollution sources, etc., and hence expected to indicate a typical atmospheric value through analysis. The curve that it recorded over the years is famous and it shows ups and downs related to time periods when trees shed their leaves, etc. It was also an indication of the role played by green vegetation in helping regulate the ambient values of carbon dioxide. We know that plants prefer to breathe in carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen when the sun is up.

While these periodic variations were shown, the curve demonstrated a distinct rising of the average with time. The Keeling Curve as it is known now had only shown an upward trend from that initial date. Therein lies the issue that the world is preoccupied with today. It is the carbon dioxide concentration that is considered to be critical in bringing about climate change and the resultant global warming.


Grim milestone

As Sri Lankans we are not exactly preoccupied with climate change, perhaps having much more burning issues on our plates. The recording of this extreme value was not picked up in any significant way by the mainstream media and went unnoticed by a majority of us. My testing of this little fact from two audiences which congregated to listen to environmental-related presentations had failed to notice this development and blank stares greeted the question. The fateful day of this measurement at Mauna Loa in Hawaii was 9 May 2013.

The particular measurement meant that with sampling and analysis, the air mass analysed had 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Now this particular measurement station ensures that they do sample which is representative of the atmosphere and not any odd emission. The number is unique as this is the highest level humans have ever experienced and we have been around for some time. More detailed studies have revealed that the last time the world witnessed values of this nature to be probably two to four million years ago. Of course these are studies which cannot be validated experimentally, yet one thing is certain: We have witnessed a unique situation and a grim milestone and it is nothing to be celebrating about.

The reading cannot be erased but one can work towards ensuring that the concentrations do not rise up anymore. Curtailing man-made contributions is the only thing we can do and that is what is expected from us. The difficulty in getting everyone to contribute had been the singular factor in failing to curb emissions as the rising Keeling Curve had always indicated to us what is happening and what one should do. We appear to consume more and more and as a consequence emit more and more and the nature of our economics today is to encourage consumption.


Trap of linear economics

The trap of linear economics is quite clear. It pushes us to use more ‘stuff’ and encourages disposal. Increased consumption drives more and more to be made for consumption. Energy and material demand is always on the way up in meeting this demand pull created by the economic push. Calculations and all prosperity indicators are based on growth and growth is linked to consumerism.

The chief culprit for global warming is the use of fossil fuels. We may adore coal for its cheaper unit price, but it is the dirtiest among fossils. Natural gas is better but it is still a fossil and is another limited resource and involves much effort in accessing. The sure-fire way to bring about certain change is moving towards an energy economy that is renewable resource based.

This will have many benefits to our economy immediately yet the concerted effort is yet to be seen. The efforts are more cosmetic in nature. The people factor is quite important in driving change, they still clamour for more and more energy and preferably cheap even through subsidies to keep consumerism going. If we fail to learn, our departure appears to be coming closer!



Food habits

Our food habits too can support this transformation. You are what you eat and today your world too depends on it. This year’s theme for the World Environment Day is “Think, eat and save”. While a billion may go to sleep hungry, there are many who still would serve themselves more and then not consume the lot.

The buffet meal so popular in Sri Lanka entices many to serve more than what one can chew and when the mountain of food cannot be consumed, neither you nor the farmer nor the environment benefits. As the waste too is badly managed, the environment gets a double whammy.

It is interesting to note that in the UK all supermarkets are moving to implement biogas processes to manage waste and generate energy from their bio-waste. Positive action, indeed. Agriculture is significant in contributing to carbon dioxide concentrations in multiple ways.

Wasting food is almost a crime considering the need that exists in many places. Becoming a vegetarian or reducing one’s meat consumption can be quite meaningful and is a lifestyle change that is positively encouraged in fighting climate change. Not only would the climate benefit, the health of the individual too would benefit through these activities.

Eating more and popping pills afterwards is not a sign of positive living. To the conventional growth mechanism this is a boon as you are increasing numbers through your actions and the cumulative total in goods and services will be on the up. It is time to realise the folly of such practices and concepts.


Limiting food miles

Another area of action is limiting food miles. The aim is to promote sourcing locally. Usually when one transports fresh produce, air transport is preferred, which is also the most expensive. The carbon dioxide generated is calculated from food miles. A fruit or vegetable brought from faraway places may please the palette but is a climate burden. Supporting hedonistic pleasures through such practices may have been acceptable in the past but with climate change this is coming under scrutiny.

Some may actually use the concept as an economic instrument too. For the sake of the planet and all of us, some choices may have to be forgone. Sourcing locally boosts the local economy and gives rise to more jobs, which is the need of the hour in many places.

A recent visitor who came to the island on a scientific mission visited local supermarkets and observing the percentage of products from overseas asked the question, ‘what you have you being doing in Sri Lanka all these years?’ That question was based on simple economics and not on extended thinking of global warming.


Time for action

Work of a committed scientist enabled us to track data allowing us to make our own conclusions based on science. Today the experimental station has yielded a value that should flag many a thinking mind. The response should be to spread the message of action on our parts.

The body of knowledge that supports the hypotheses of carbon dioxide as the principle source of concern is significant. You may question yet as had been by a scientific paper from University of Waterloo in Canada but the view expressed in 2001 after many man years of work, study and modelling is still the best view we have and the evidence to support too is piling up.

I personally took two little steps to further reduce my burden on the environment this week. If we all can align ourselves, the solution is within reach. Otherwise the demise of us too is within reach!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)


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