Photo courtesy of The Hindu

Today is World Environment Day

Climate change is one subject that has consistently dominated the world headlines over the past decade. Increasing consumerism fuels large scale fossil fuel usage and damages the natural environment. This results in a steep rise in carbon emissions leading to global warming and climate change, affecting all forms of life on earth. Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from energy use rose by about 1.1% in 2023 compared to a 1.3% rise in 2022. 

Although there is a slight year on year drop the concentration has been rising steadily, together with mean global temperatures, since the time of the industrial revolution according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change ( IPCC). A critical threshold limit of temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century was the target established in the Paris Agreement in 2015, a treaty in which 195 nations pledged to tackle climate change. If this is exceeded then it is envisaged that the worst impacts of climate change including more frequent and severe droughts, unprecedented heatwaves and rainfall will befall the planet. The bad news is that this target is not expected to be met according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Trumpets of Doom

Doomsday scenarios predict that in the worst case complete melting of polar ice caps due to climate change could cause sea levels to rise by 65 meters over the next few thousand years. This will change the coastlines around the world and low lying  countries such as the Maldives and Netherlands would be inundated. Extinctions, worse than the worst mass extinctions earth has ever seen before, are expected. Extreme heat will become the norm, drastically affecting agriculture. Acidic runoff into the oceans will diminish marine life. Even human and animal life will be threatened due to the knock on effects of the collapse of financial and industrial processes, resulting in social unrest and wars.

The Naysayers

On the other hand, there are a large number of sceptics who think that all the natural calamity that is now befalling the world is being dumped at the doorstep of man-made carbon emissions. A majority (88%) do believe there is serious climate change. However only some 46% believe human activity is the main cause while 41% believe that climate change is being caused by both human activity and natural processes.

Throughout earth’s history the climate has continually changed. It is a slow process when it happens naturally, taking place over hundreds and thousands of years. But today with rapid development and resulting environmental pressures this process has accelerated.

The reason for the many naysayers may be because there is no immediate cause and effect correlation between climate change and increased human activity. If there is a rise in the price of petrol, immediately there would be a reduction in the use of private vehicles. However, climate change and Carbon emissions are on the other hand growing all around us but no one directly co-relates it to the natural catastrophes that we are facing. Hence no one wants to act.

So climate action needs a new narrative that focusses on “how does it affect me”. Until then it will be a vague issue, pigeonholed somewhere in the back of our minds.

The reality

Human sources such as rapid developments and increased industrial activities such as cement production and deforestation as well as the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are said to be the main cause of increased CO2 emissions. This human influenced climate change that is happening now is occurring at a much faster rate.

Today we are seeing a radical shift in weather patterns ranging from extreme drought to floods, cyclones, landslides and deforestation. These changes disrupt marine life, displace animals from their natural habitats, lead to species extinction and degrade agricultural produce, land and infrastructure. The consequences include increased pests and crop diseases, rising poverty, food insecurity and numerous other challenges.

The multiplier effects of these are even more varied including heath issues, more diseases and pandemics. While all these are quite real, it is difficult to pin all this directly to climate change and global warming. That is what the sceptics find it difficult to comprehend.

Sri Lanka and climate change

Compared to the per capita CO2 emissions of developed countries such as Canada (18.72 CO2 tonnes) US (15.2 CO2 tonnes) Russia (11.5 CO2 tonnes) and some of the Arab countries, Sri Lanka’s emissions are only a minuscule 1.02 CO2 tonnes per person. Hence Sri Lanka is considered a low carbon emitting country.

However, being a small island Sri Lanka is highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. We are already seeing unusual heat, unpredictable rainfall resulting in flooding and landslides and gale force winds throughout the country.

It has been reported that mean daytime maximum and mean night time minimum air temperatures have increased. Most researchers agree that the variability of rainfall has increased over time, especially in Yala season and the number of consecutive dry days has increased, and the consecutive wet periods have decreased. Also, it has been seen that the intensity and the frequency of the extreme events such as floods and droughts have increased during recent times.

There has not much been done regarding modelling climate long term effects in Sri Lanka and only studies done in South Asia are available. The studies have projected an increased incidence of extreme weather events for the South Asian region that may include heat waves and intense rainfall precipitation. Predictions indicate that there will also be an increased incidence of tropical cyclonic activity in the region.

So while Sri Lanka is not a high carbon emitting country in comparison to US or Canada, it is certainly vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change caused by other countries.

This may be the reason that President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently voiced his concern regarding the lethargy of developed countries to address emission mitigation seriously. Addressing the World Water Forum in Bali last month he said, “The Global North is unwilling to fund measures to avoid death and destruction caused by climate change.” He proposed a 10 percent levy on the annual profits of global tax evasion assets deposited in tax havens be charged to help fund climate change. He even went to the extent of saying that Sri Lanka may sit out the international climate summit, Conference of Parties, in future if there continues to be a lack of cohesion in solutions to tackle climate change among world leaders.

Sri Lanka’s response

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Sri Lanka has committed to support global efforts to hold the increase in temperature to within the 1.5 °C limit agreed.

Accordingly, Sri Lanka has pledged to achieve net zero carbon status by 2050 in their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which were submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2021.

Sri Lanka aims to achieve ambitious targets of a 14.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, generate 70% of its electricity from renewable sources, attain a 32% forest cover, phase out coal power by 2042,and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The development of the Carbon Net Zero 2050 Roadmap and Strategic Plan for Sri Lanka is an attempt to set the stage to transition to net zero pathways, proposing climate actions to achieve this national commitment. The proposed climate actions include recommendations to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increase carbon sequestration and storage, covering the six main thrust sectors as identified in the NDCs: energy, transport, industry, waste, agriculture and forestry.

The ground reality

Sri Lanka has reams of excellent strategic master and action plans, studies and reports on every conceivable subject gathering dust in the shelfs of the state bureaucracy. What is lacking is good efficient execution of plans, without deviation. We have seen good initiatives completely derailed when governments change.

As a developing country we need to fast track new infrastructure. But are we paying any heed to the environmental damage and consequent impacts on carbon emissions it will have? There is a long list of white elephant monstrosities that have come in the recent past under the guise pf development. What demands are these ad-hoc projects making on our resources of water and electricity? Have these been evaluated? Forests and invaluable natural ecosystems are being destroyed by dubious development projects. How can we make these grandiose pledges regarding mitigation of emissions? We need to evaluate and plan accordingly to mitigate the negative effects if such projects are important to the economy.

In a presentation made at the Biodiversity Sri Lanka annual technical session in 2021 the author presented a study which showed that one million extra tourists would need electricity equivalent to 15% of Sri Lanka’s largest power plant and water equivalent to about 1.3% of the entire Western province water supply. Have we planned for this in our quest for economic development through tourism?

Sri Lanka also has a problem in imposing the proper existing regulations. While it has some of the best environmental and other development regulations and guidelines, how is it that so many projects circumvent these regulations and are allowed to proceed to fruition?

Some examples:

  • There is an excellent guideline for tourism development along the coast that limits the height of the development to no more that the highest coconut tree in the vicinity. But how many high rises are to be found along the southern coastline? They circumvented the regulations through political means.
  • Sigiriya is one of our natural wonders and a world heritage site. In the buffer zone of such a pristine natural environment there is a multi-storey housing complex being built. Numerous protests have fallen on deaf ears.
  • There is a sharp increase in the number of high rise apartments being built in Colombo. What of the massive services and resources demanded by these developments?
  • Colombo is still a relatively green city. We have many roads lined with mature trees, some of which may be over a hundred years old. However due to incessant rain, a few of these giant trees have fallen, causing damage to public property. What has been the response from the authorities? Fell all trees that look dangerous. Trees are carbon sinks, often referred to as the lungs of the earth. Each mature tree absorbs some 25 kg of CO2 annually. Being so important for the environment and carbon mitigation, should we not be pruning and treating damaged trees to preserve them?
  • Colombo was accredited a RAMSAR Wetland City Status in 2018. The city has about 1,900 hectares of wetlands within its administrative boundaries (about 8% of the total city area) but we lose about 1.2% of these wetlands primarily due to large scale land filling to pave the way for development and due to solid waste dumping. In October this year, the RAMSAR accreditation is due for renewal. Is it not of paramount importance to safeguard this status, not necessarily for the recognition, but because it of vital importance to humans?

The issue is not about the developments; it is whether they have been subject to a genuine evaluation process. The stock answer is Environmental Impact Survey (EIA). We are all aware how flawed the EIA process has become.

Going forward

There is no question that Sri Lanka needs to develop fast and get out of the economic crisis. Economic activity is essential but we need to establish a set of proper checks and balances under one common platform unlike the current line agencies being given fragmented authority. This could be in the form of an overarching presidential committee comprising experts in related field and state officials who will finally check and apply certain clear pre-determined environmental filters on each large development.

There needs to be a system in place to weigh the pros and cons. There may be situations where the economic benefits could outweigh environmental concerns. If there is in place a clear evaluation filter and criteria there will be no ambiguity. In such cases where economic reasons prevail, there should be a clear binding agreement for the developer to undertake a corresponding mitigating action.

And above all there should be no political interference at all.