By Ranil Senanayake –
Having a colonial past, our history is littered with carpetbaggers, seeking to sell some new snake oil to the hicks. They peddle the ideas that traditional values are old fashioned and the concept that ‘newer or more is better’, irrespective of the social repercussions of such action. Sadly, we seem to be heading into a neo-colonial situation again by being pushed into economic servitude through irresponsible borrowing. The two clear changes that are wrought by such concepts are, a gain, economic or social to the purveyor and the second, a definite dependency upon consumer items being promoted for a feeling of wellbeing or achievement by adopting these ‘modern values’.
This new cultural identity that was sold to us, was massive urbanization with mega cities, casinos, airports, ports and trading malls. The central idea being that industrial growth would bring salvation to the rural sector, all this activity being powered by fossil fuels. Today, this vision has been exposed to be dangerous and hollow, after chasing the fossil dragon for almost half a century, when we were addicted, suddenly, the ships stopped coming. Standing in lines for days, exhausted to the point of death, we are in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy.
The movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. Develop certainly, but we need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy. We could then consider ourselves not only developed but also an example of a responsible Global Citizenry.
The basic problem with the current economy is the ease with which operators can dump the cost of negative externalities generated by burning fossil fuels to the Global Commons and not be held responsible for such action. In fact, much of the current value realized by the existing economic system, is achieved by externalizing (ie. not paying for) the negative effects (externalities) of their actions.
This was addressed by the Sri Lanka Country Statement that was presented at the COP21 in Paris. It stated .
“We are aware of the great difference in carbon dioxide that is emitted from biological sources and carbon dioxide emitted from fossil sources. One has sequestered rates measured in thousands of years while the other in millions of years. Yet the cost is still the same.”
The myth that fossil burning can be sequestered by trees was exposed at that time. Yet today ‘Carbon Trading’ is still being pursued and encouraged, in the full knowledge that the trade is based on the ability to ‘launder’ fossil carbon into the biotic carbon cycle. To negate the action of fossil carbon, it must be locked up for similar periods. As we go into COP 28 There must be a clear understanding of carbon swaps and article 6 programs in the Paris Agreement, so that the carbon trading programs will not become a way to release more fossil carbon stocks into the Global Commons. Just as there are many ways for the underworld to ‘launder’ their ill-gotten gains into the economy, without paying taxes, there will be many ‘creative’ ways by which fossil Carbon is smuggled into the living world without paying for cost. We must be vigilant that Article 6 should not be used in this way.
There is another aspect of Climate Change that we should inform ourselves of, in the burning of fossil fuels it is not only Carbon Dioxide that is formed, a great deal of water is produced as well. Burning fossil fuels releases both ‘new’ Carbon Dioxide and ‘new’ water vapor into the atmosphere. But unlike the other gasses in the atmosphere only a constant level of water in the form of gas can be maintained as water vapor, it will convert to liquid water at some point. When water vapour condenses as water it releases heat at the rate of 2442 Joules per gram.
Considering that currently 35 billion barrels of oil and a similar volume of coal and gas is burnt per annum, a release of about 16,800 billion liters of water is added to the atmosphere. Thus the energy released by the condensation of the new water generated by the combustion of fossil fuels adds up to a staggering 410,256,000,000,000,000 joules of energy, about half the energy released by the volcano Krakatoa or a as much as large nuclear device.
The energy equivalent of a very large nuclear device is released each year into the atmosphere by the condensation of the water vapor created by burning fossil fuels. This can make dramatic changes to the local climate. Cyclonic activity is driven by heat differentials in the atmosphere, the heat of condensation of the water vapor produced by the burning of fossils could help power such phenomena.
The increase of water vapor in the atmosphere is also facilitated by a warming climate, warm air holds more water. A larger volume of water held in the atmosphere also means larger raindrop size. The larger liquid water content causes the raindrops to collide and coalesce during the falling process, which increases the mass-weighted mean. With increasing size, the fall velocity increases and the pressure on the bottom increases causing the raindrop to flatten and even develop a depression and the maximum speed a given drop can reach during its fall, its terminal velocity, increases as the drop size increases. Thus, the greater the speed and mass of the drop, the greater the force of impact. The erosive force of such rain in uncovered soils lead to the landslides and soil instability.
Such an increase in rainfall is already being experienced in our hills. Land management must ensure that no large area of land is left open to the erosive rains of the future, further in identified erosion prone areas, annual crops should be discouraged and perennials promoted. The action of water on our landscapes should become an area of concern. The recent flooding events the world over is an indicator of the destructive force of future storms. Flood mapping is an urgent need.
We are an oceanic island with a central mountain mass reaching 2000 meters, to trap the rainfall and drain it radially in 103 river basins. The mountains are surrounded by an historically created water reservoir complex of over 30,000 units, created over a span of two thousand years. They could form the basis of an adaptation strategy to respond to a water stressed climate future. Unfortunately, it is estimated that over 90% of these rivers are polluted. In a climate compromised future, water will be a critical determinant of national security. Climate change will bring water insecurity, we need to reforest the upper catchments of these river systems, and restore the minor tank systems the country as a critical strategy towards water security.
As an oceanic island we also have to be ready for the impact of sea level rise Global mean sea level has risen about 8–9 inches (21–24 centimeters) since 1880. The rising water level is mostly due to a combination of melt water from glaciers and the expansion of seawater due to temperature. Between 1901 and 2018, the global mean sea level rose by about 20 cm (or 8 inches) projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches in the next 30 years (2020 – 2050). Current data suggests that this might be accelerating. A rise in sea levels will primarily affect coastal agriculture because there will be a rise in salinity that will make many areas toxic to our traditional rice varieties. However, there are many countries like Bangladesh or China that have salt resistant varieties. The rice breeding institutions should begin work on developing seeds stocks of salt tolerant varieties as a part of the climate adaptation strategy. This is the direction we require urgently to begin developing a robust climate strategy.
We now know that the ‘Oil and Coal is development’ mantra, has almost destroyed the climate, created the polluted air we are forced to breathe and put us in a dependency trap where we will always have to buy fossil energy to keep our lights on. The challenge is to develop a future not reliant on fossil energy. A future where we do not contribute to the destruction of our life support system as ‘development’. We have to look for new technologies, new ways of creating wealth that do not compromise the future, without fear. As Plato said : ‘the real tragedy is not when the child is afraid of the dark, it is when men are afraid of the light!’
*To be continued….