Extreme weather conditions and link to climate change

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala

The World Resources Institute warns that if we don’t act against global warming to keep the average temperature increase well below 2 degrees, the consequences will be very severe. Two degrees warming will rise the sea level above 0.46m by 2100, 8% of vertebrates, 18% of insects and 16% of plants will lose at least half of their range, 37% of the world’s population will be exposed to severe heat at least once every five years. The Arctic will be ice-free during summer every 10 years. The coral reef will virtually disappear, and fisheries will experience 3 million tonnes decline. Allowing 2 degrees warming will negatively impact ecosystems (13% of Earth’s land area will see a shift of ecosystems into new biomes), 6.6 million km2 of Arctic permafrost will thaw and maize harvests in tropics will be reduced by 7%.

Even though there is more than a 98% consensus among scientists that climate change is a real threat, there are still people denying that global warming exists. But I looked closer at some natural disasters that occurred in 2018 and there is no doubt that this crisis already exists, and that climate change worsens some types of natural disasters. And unless we act, it is only going to get worse.

Within the last decade, an average number of natural disasters in the world in one year rose from 447 to 556 and financial costs were increased from $104 to 123 billion in comparison to the average from the last 30 years. According to data from the Centre of Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, in 2018 approximately 5,000 people died and around 29 million needed emergency assistance or humanitarian aid as a result of extreme weather. The so-called ‘the Beast from the East’ – a strong blast of cold air from Siberia in February and March and series of heatwaves in Europe during summer affected the whole continent, causing death and bringing chaos to the infrastructure. While in Africa, record-breaking rains in northern Kenya and Somalia displaced more than 200,000 people and caused a cholera outbreak.

It got even worse! Drought in Central America led to 2 million farmers being at risk of hunger, with many fleeing to the USA in July. Deadly hurricanes hit the USA, Central America and the Caribbean, killing 88 people and causing damages which estimated worth exceeded $32 billion. And even though it is challenging to link any one storm to climate change, scientists predict that hurricanes could become more intense and destructive as the climate warms. Argentina suffered from the biggest drought in the past 50 years. The key agriculture sector plummeted by 31%, severely affecting Argentina’s economy, pushing the country into recession.

In Asia, a powerful monsoon rain caused the worst in the past 80 years flooding in Kerala state, South India. Almost 500 people died and over million were relocated too temporary camps: the cost of damages exceeded $3.7 billion. A drought left Afghanistan with a food shortage forcing 300,000 from their homes. The strongest storm of the year also wreaked devastation on Guam, the Philippines, and parts of south China in September. Super typhoon, Mangkhut, recorded wind speeds of up to 175mph, the equivalent to a strong category 5 hurricane, and was responsible for more than 100 deaths. A study published this year by the World Bank suggests that climate change is already affecting more than 800 million people living in South Asia, and the situation will get worse in the future.

Looking from a global perspective, 2018 year was the fourth hottest on record. Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) for 2018 was around 3.7 millimetres higher than in 2017 and the highest on record. I have listed only a few deadly disasters that occurred last year. Indeed, the causes of these and the other major disasters of 2018 were complex, with many contributing factors but, without doubt, climate change played a significant role in many of them, creating riskier conditions for storms and fires to arise in.

Food security is being threatened, extreme weather is causes millions of people to be displaced, communities are being exposed to heatwaves, and there is coral bleaching and reduced levels of oxygen in the oceans. All those adverse effects of climate change are no longer a future threat. It is something happening now. I feel that in public debate there is too much focus on future problems, predictions and years left until we experience threats of global warming: In my opinion, we should however also highlight the problems that we are already facing due to climate change like the disasters in 2018 that negatively affected 29 million people around the globe.

There are still too many climate change sceptics and deniers but more than that there is a need for a change in public perception so that everyone realises that climate change is not a future problem for other generations but a contemporary issue. I hope that by focusing our attention on disasters and weather extremes that have already taken place, more people will start acting to mitigate the impact of climate change on our planet and to prevent further climate change.

 

 

Behind the Great Wall of Smog: Air Pollution in Beijing, China

This is a guest post by Magda Strzala for Aberdeen Climate Action

I moved to Beijing in February. Grey sky and bad air quality became everyday life. Smog has affected my lifestyle significantly. I cannot open my window whenever I want. I cannot go jogging whenever I want. Before going outside even for brief shopping errands, I need to check the air quality index (AQI) to know whether it is necessary to put my mask on.

All these changes made me reconsider what I was told before moving here for a semester abroad. Were they right? Is there no blue sky in China?

First things first. According to recent studies by the Greenpeace, China is indeed a country with one of the worst air qualities on the planet. The autumn of 2018, for instance, saw a sharp decline in air quality compared to previous years. More astonishingly, but somehow unsurprisingly, both the WHO and the Berkeley Institute concluded that more than 1 million Chinese people, and around 22 million tons of crops, fall victim to air pollution annually. Such studies show that dealing with poor air quality is not merely a matter of culture shock but a serious and hazardous problem.

But why? What is the cause of this worrying development? Well, for one, China’s almost miraculous economic ascent in the world does not come cheap. With its economic development as one of the key producers for, well, everything, China’s march to the peak of exporting nations has come at a price. While the country leads the world in exports with 2.1 trillion dollars (compared to all the EU with 1.9 trillion), it also is among the world leaders in air pollution. While different studies will place China at different ranks, it usually ranks in the top 20 (mind you that China has vast, unindustrialized region in the West and Southwest lowering the overall country average). However, the fact that 22 Chinese cities are listed in the top 50 of the most polluted cities on the planet (with 25 being attributed to India) speaks volumes.

So where does the smog come from? Well, all that development requires energy, and the country’s goods and people require transportation. So, these worrying developments of the air quality does not come as a surprise considering that the population of the 21 million large city of Beijing has increased by 74%, and the number of vehicles by 335% by 2017 compared to 20 years earlier.

Beijing, the capital of the country, offers a fascinating glimpse at this very dirty problem. On the surface, the city’s AQI can still exceed 680 on the AQI scale (150 is considered hazardous according to the WHO) on some days. However, on other days, patient observers can catch a bit of blue sky, especially during the summer months. So which one is it? Dirty or clean? Both or neither?

Officially, China has attempted to tackle the air pollution problem since 2000. However, only since 2010 has the approach made its way into the country’s agenda (one could speculate if the eyes of the world resting on the Olympics in 2008 played a role), with binding targets for harmful particles for carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides as well sulfur dioxides. With these commitments, as well as immense investments in the following years (e.g. 54bn USD in 2013), Beijing has seemingly solved its problem and reduced its count of the most dangerous PM2.5 to an average of 50-100 on the AQI in 2018, compared to 150 in 2008. But this exemplifies the greater issue at hand. Contrary to what official sources try to make you believe, Beijing has not completely solved its problem, but partially pushed it away- quite literally! According to recent studies, the greater Beijing area has seen improvements of 34% between 2012 and 2017 while the rural provinces surrounding the mega city have seen increases of 5% annually. Clearly there have been improvements in the bigger cities that can be seen and felt, but rural areas in the country increased their production, and with it their pollution, to relieve bigger cities.

The apparent duality of solution and problem is visible in the root cause of it all: The energy demand fueled by coal.  As China ramped up its production at staggering rates, so its demand of coal increased and thus creating its air quality problem. After years of supplying the world, China has realized the killing consequences of its industrial growth and is taking steps to ameliorate it: China has become both one of the greatest manufacturers and applicants of renewable energy technology. From as far back as 2013, China has been the largest producer of renewable energy on the planet however, because of its massive demand for energy, renewables only accounted for 26% of its 2017 power production. And while in 2014, the Chinese Energy Counsel agreed that no more coal plants would be built after 2030, a recent request by the industry demands the building of 300 to 500 new plants before 2030, which, according to Greenpeace, would equal a new coal plant being built every 2 weeks for 12 years!

What that means for the air quality problem for China is evident. While the country has arguable invested in the renewables sector, and making major cities cleaner, any threat to the country’s economic growth – such as the trade war with the US in 2018 – or any sign of a slowing growth rate are met with investments in quick and dirty energy, such as coal.

This behavior extends far beyond China’s borders though. This is not about me, not being able to run or shop when I fancy. This is about the collective, our planet. While every country, trying or not, is currently struggling to meet the demands of the Paris Accords to combat Global Warming and Climate Change, the rate of China’s continued investment in fossil energy could undo the rest of the world’s efforts to limit our planet’s warming to 1.5°C by 2030. If the Chinese industry demands are met, China, who is required to drop 20% of its coal capacity in the next 12 years, would actually increase its coal powered capacity by 20% instead. If that happens, failing both the 1.5°C target and the 2°C goal for 2050, having to wear a mask when shopping will be the least of our problems!