Context: Leaders of the nations need to act on the climate crisis with the same alacrity they have shown towards the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are two interrelated curves associated with climate change. Which are as follows:

  • The first curve among this was the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (or generally all GHGs) and the second was the average global temperature curve.
  • These curves began their upward trend two centuries ago with the advent of the industrial age. 

a)The CO2 curve

  • This curve began its upward march about 18,000 years ago when it was a little under 200 parts per million (ppm) and the earth was much colder. 
  • CO2 levels They remained steady at close to 280 ppm for 10,000 years
  • However with the beginning of the mid-19th century, they began to rise again as humans burnt coal and oil to fuel the industrial revolution, and burnt forests to expand agriculture and settlements. 
  • From a mere 0.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 1850, annual emissions increased to 36 billion tonnes by 2018.
    • If all this emitted CO2 had accumulated in the atmosphere, human life would have been altered beyond recognition. 
    • However, nature has been rather kind to us so far and about one-half of all CO2 emissions have been sanitized from the atmosphere.
      • This is because of the nearly equal contribution of growing vegetation on land and by absorption in the oceans. 
  • Ultimately, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 407 ppm in 2018, a level last experienced by earth some three million years ago.

b)Global average temperature curve

  • From 1850 onwards, for over a century, the global temperature showed a slight warming trend. However, there was nothing suggestive of anything serious. 
  • But from 1975 onwards, the temperature graph has shown a distinct, upward trend
  • By 2015, the globe had heated by a full degree Celsius relative to a hundred years previously. Climate modelers unequivocally predict that under the current trends of emissions the globe will heat up by 4˚C by the end of the century.

Impacts of the climate change curves

  • Climate change scenario involves not just a change in temperature but every other component of weather, including rainfall, humidity, and wind speed. 
    • Indirect effects also follow, such as a rise in sea levels from melting glaciers. 
  • Globally there have been several extreme weather events such as hurricanes, heatwaves, or droughts. While no single event can be directly attributed to climate change, the collective trends are consistent with climate change predictions.
  • Recent temperature trends
    • The 2003 European heatwave killed over 70,000 people. The years 2015-19 have globally been the warmest years on record. 
    • There were Amazon fire in 2019. The more recent the bush fires of 2019-20 in Australia were unprecedented in their scale and devastation. 
    • March 2020 has been the second warmest March on record.
  • India specific temperature predictions: 
    • The Climate Impact Lab at the University of Chicago put out a warning for India last year that if global CO2 emissions continue to gallop at the present rate, average summer temperatures would rise by 4˚C in most States. 
    • Increment in the period of extremely hot days:
      • Extremely hot days (days above 35˚C), which were only five days in 2010, would increase to 15 days by 2050 and to 42 days by 2100 on average across all districts. 

Need of reducing GHG emissions

  • Nature’s sequestering is not expected to last beyond a 2˚C rise in temperature as the carbon sequestered into vegetation will be thrown back into the atmosphere. 
    • Also, the earth has already warmed by 1˚C and we really have only another 1˚C (or 0.5˚C if we are concerned about island nations as well) as a safety margin.
  • Problems with existing technological interventions
    • There seems to be wishful thinking that technology can be used to suck out billions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and store this safely somewhere, but available ones are extremely slow and expensive. 
    • Ill-judged schemes to regulate solar radiation by geoengineering are bound to bring natural consequences as well. 

Issue of climate finance and achievements so far

  • The most common excuse is that the world cannot afford to curb GHG emissions for fear of wrecking the economy. 
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC) estimates that a sustained annual investment of $2.4 trillion in more efficient energy systems is needed until 2035.
    • This amounts to about 2.5% of the global GDP.
    • This will help in keeping warming below the more ambitious 1.5˚C relative to pre-industrial levels.
    • Currently, the wealthy nations are spending over $500 billion each year internally on projects aimed at reducing emissions. 
  • Climate financing agreements in UN
    • Some of the wrangling over money relates to the amounts that the wealthy nations, which have caused most of the GHGs resulting in global warming, agreed to pay other countries to cope with climate change. 
    • Therefore at the UN Climate Conference in 2009, the richest nations had pledged to provide $100 billion in aid each year by 2020 to the poorer countries for climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Progress so far
    • In 2017, for which data are available, only $71 billion had been provided.
    • Also, most of the money is going towards mitigation and less than 20% towards climate adaptation. 
    • Such numbers had been challenged prior to the 2015 Paris Summit by many countries, including India.
    • This was because much of the aid provided did not come out of dedicated climate funds but, rather, development funds or simply loans that had to be repaid
    • It thus seems unlikely that the rich countries will deliver $100 billion in tangible climate finance during 2020.

COVID-19 and climate change curves

  • COVID-19 has unintentionally given humanity a brief respite from the climate change curve. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels have certainly reduced in recent weeks. However, how long this respite will last depends on the standstill created by the lockdowns.
  • Experts are already talking about a paradigm shift in the structure and functioning of societies once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides
  • This is also a make-or-break moment for the climate trajectory which has to be flattened within a few years if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.


  • It needs to be realized that there is no substitute for reducing GHG emissions. 
  • Technologists, economists, and social scientists must plan for a sustainable planet based on the principles of equity and climate justice within and across nations
  • It is the responsibility of leaders to alter their mindset and act on the looming climate crisis with the same alacrity they have shown on COVID-19.


Image Source: NASA