11 Nov 2021 16:09 IST

Glasgow COP26 was mostly talk

Climate change activists dressed as world leaders during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference.   -  Andy Buchanan | AFP

The summit largely ignored the CO2 issue and focused on methane.

Six years ago I wrote this provocative article: Paris Climate Accord is all Hot Air. After observing what happened in Glasgow last week, my writer pride refused to make me duplicate the same words, so I changed the title just a bit.

The G-20 gathered in Scotland, after meeting days earlier in Rome, instantly elevating climate change to the status of a serious geopolitical topic. But vague, toothless and unverifiable agreements and promises aside, COP26 was a big dud. The world would have been better off if all the leaders stayed home and did not travel on their executive jets to and from the grand meeting.

Consider what climate activist Greta Thunberg said on Thursday at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow. She tore into world leaders by charging that these conferences have become a venue for people to pretend they are taking action on climate change without following through. It is “sort of turning into a 'greenwash' campaign, a PR campaign,” for business leaders and politicians. “Since we are so far from what we actually needed, I think what would be considered a success would be if people realise what a failure this COP is.”

The problem of Glasgow was not to acknowledge that climate change is a global problem. Everyone knows that it is. Just like a water leak at a home, the issue was to measure the problem, clearly identify the source, and plug it. The conference fell short on all three fronts, even as wine glasses clinked away late into the night.

Who is the culprit?

So, what is the problem? Earth is becoming hotter.

A hotter earth means that ice caps and glaciers are melting faster than before. Excessive water runoffs will mean river floods in some parts of the world, and drought-like conditions elsewhere. Rising sea levels and hurricanes could deluge our coastal populations.

The obvious first step would be to ask who the culprit is — that is, who is causing the problem of a hotter Earth? Humans are definitely at fault, but the degree is questionable. If forests are plundered, the rain cycle is seriously impacted, and has devastating consequences.

Is it possible that Earth’s climate is also changing as a natural process, like it has been since the Ice Age? For a science conference, there was not one person who was permitted to hold this contrarian view — which defeats the very definition of science. Everyone agreed that humans alone were responsible, and we have to do something about it.

So, what is the scientific cause of Earth becoming hotter? This has been known for at least 45 years. In 1975 in the magazine Science, geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, introduced the term Global Warming in his seminal article: "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?"

The thesis, since confirmed by numerous experiments by NASA and other scientists, is simple and elegant.

Earth’s diversified life

Earth is the only planet so far known to contain huge amounts of water, and consequently, diversified life. For life to happen, temperatures have to be within a certain Goldilocks range. Earth’s atmosphere, made primarily of water vapour, CO2, and methane, allows life to prosper. Without this atmosphere, rays from the sun would hit Earth, heat it, reflect, or refract, and be gone forever, leaving Earth to an average global temperature of 18C. Martian levels of extremes would then be normal — hot during the day, and bitterly cold at night.

For life to occur, the heat of the sun needs to be trapped, much like in a greenhouse at a horticultural lab. Earth’s atmosphere provides the trapping layer so that as the rays of the sun bounce off of Earth, all of them can’t escape. The earth stays warm enough, even at night, and life prospers.

Broecker theorised that if CO2 and methane levels increase — caused by human activity - the protective greenhouse layer thickens more than what Nature intended, trapping more heat, causing global warming.

The largest causes of CO2 emissions are the burning of fossil fuels from automobiles and the generation of electricity from coal-fired power plants. Unlike 200 years ago, electricity is a crucial aspect of modern life, so governments try to seek the most efficient and cheap alternatives to produce it. China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Russia, and Australia, are among the world’s largest coal producing countries, four of whom have the world’s largest populations. None are going to stop producing or consuming coal anytime soon — not until reliable and cheap clean energy sources — wind, solar — are available.

Focusing on methane

Glasgow largely ignored the CO2 issue and focused on methane, CH4. Naturally occurring in the atmosphere, methane is a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry, especially natural gas. Gas wells routinely burn whatever methane they produce - but this results in CO2 and water vapour, both greenhouse gases. Methane also leaks into the atmosphere from these oil and natural gas plants. The problem is that no one knows how much because the gas is colourless and odourless, not easily detectable.

Methane is also in gases passed by cows, which are raised by farmers for their beef. Until humans stop consuming beef, a highly unlikely possibility, industrial production of ever-fattening cows will continue to feed the methane problem.

The third source of methane is deforestation — and here too, this is a question of someone’s livelihood. Unless governments somehow find people alternate sources of income, and there is continued demand for wood products, deforestation will continue.

So, in Glasgow, world leaders, not joined by India which was at the conference, pledged to do the following key things: Conserve forests; promote sustainable agriculture (whatever that means); facilitate financial flows to accelerate transition to an economy that advances biodiversity and climate goals. Notice how there was no mention of the problem of industrial production of cows. And, there was no agreement on stopping methane leaks from natural gas plants. Russia and China, the world’s biggest producers and consumers of beef, were not even at the event.

US President Joe Biden was caught napping on camera multiple times. We now know why.