The world awaits with bated breath the outcome of the ongoing United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow as hopes for an effective deal slowly fizzle away.

Coal-addicted countries, including Australia, China and those in eastern Europe (and, to a certain extent, Germany and the US) drag their feet about relinquishing their future access to this highly-polluting fossil fuel, while low-lying Pacific Islands, as glaringly demonstrated by Tuvalu’s foreign minister through an audacious speech delivery knee-deep in water, grapple with sea level rise.

Compassion, solidarity and comradeship seem to be in short supply as countries are keen not to alienate their economic interests and voters back home by stymying any real shot at an effective binding deal.

A rampant misconception I frequently stumble upon is the one which has it that the greenhouse effect, which humans are tampering with through the burning of fossil fuels, has only been recently elucidated, definitely sometime during the 20th century. Soberingly enough, we have known about the greenhouse effect way before that.

Research into the putative warming effect of carbon dioxide, the most well known of greenhouse gases, dates back to 1856, when scientist Eunice Newton Foote published her findings in a paper titled ‘Circumstances affecting the heat in the sun’s rays’. Given that, in mid-19th century, female scientists were unheard of, the same paper was not delivered by herself at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference but by a professor, Joseph Henry, who spoke on her behalf.

Just three years later, Edwin Drake struck oil in western Pennsylvania and the rat race to extract the black stuff from the bowels of the earth began.

Foote detailed within such a paper how she observed a tube filled with carbon dioxide would reach and retain a higher temperature for longer when placed directly in the sun when compared with a similar tube filled with just regular air.

As a result of such findings, she hypothesised that changing the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would change its temperature as well.

One of our neighbours in the solar system – planet Venus – proves Eunice’s hypothesis to a tee. For instance, Venus has about 154,000 times more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere than earth, producing a runaway greenhouse effect and a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead. A runaway greenhouse effect is when a planet’s atmosphere and surface temperature keep increasing until the surface gets so hot that its oceans boil away.

In hindsight, such findings are nothing short of visionary, seminal and game-changing. However, it is ironic that human societies could have availed themselves of extensive foresight on climate change matters, dating back to at least 1857, but, as yet, we have protracted any corrective action up till the cliff-hanger stage we currently find ourselves in.

In 2019, 84 per cent of global energy needs were met through fossil fuels- Alan Deidun

Speaking of ironies, Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist, aptly encapsulates the irony represented by the dual fossil fuel dependency and hazard when she opined, in a recent documentary (The End of Oil) produced for the Netflix docuseries ‘Explained’, that: “It is a tremendous irony that the very substances that helped us achieve this level of development today are now the very substances that endanger the future of civilisation as we know it.” So true but so is the need to wean us off fossil fuels.

Weaning the world off fossil fuels and keeping that carbon, which has been simmered by heat and pressure over millions of years, into high-energy molecules we so depend upon, is easier said than done. For instance, in 2019, 84 per cent of the global energy needs were met through fossil fuels, with oil being responsible for a third of those needs.

The marvels of Chinese manufacturing have managed to significantly reduce the price tag of renewable energy facilities but, at the same time, China is ploughing ahead with coal mining investments around the world. Friends of the Earth recently revealed how the US still approved, in the past five years, funding to the tune of $9 billion for fossil fuel drilling projects, pipelines and power plants around the world, most of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa, which already grapples with surging desertification rates.

As rightly stated by Lord John Browne, CEO of the BP oil giant between 1995 and 2007, oil will be around for quite some time given that at least half of the leviathan oil-producing companies in the world are nowadays government-owned, rather than privately-owned, and these are hesitant to close off the tap on an industry in which they have a competitive advantage over other countries (oil-production costs in countries holding vast reserves are cheaper than in others).

As a result, the same countries have declared carbon neutrality targets which are far out on the horizon, as is the case with Saudi Arabia (2060).

China, India, Russia and similarly-minded countries are resisting effective cuts in emissions on the back of ‘historical emission’ and ‘fairness’ arguments, pointing out that, historically, the US and Europe have belched out almost half of the entire carbon dioxide volume spewed in the earth’s atmosphere while the corresponding figures for China, Russia and India are 12.7 per cent, six per cent and three per cent, despite these countries being currently ranked among the worst global emitter. Hence, the blame-shifting game ensues.

Glasgow will tell us in a few days’ time whether we have the will to wean ourselves off fossil fuels or whether we are moving closer to a Venus-type atmosphere.

 

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