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Countdown to COP21: Nobel laureate stresses mitigation in fight against climate change

Published:Thursday | October 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMPetre Williams-Raynor
Chen: Planet Earth is very sick; if we do not start treatment as soon as possible, it may never recover to its former self.

Likening the planet to a human body afflicted by illness, Nobel laureate Professor Anthony Chen has prescribed urgency in treating climate change - the key to which, he advanced, is deep and sustained greenhouse gas (GHG) emission cuts.

"Planet Earth is very sick. If we do not start treatment as soon as possible, it may never recover to its former self," he warned.

Chen was speaking at the workshop on component one of the Third National Communication and Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kingston last month.

The planet, he told participants, is under severe strain from human-induced climate change, fuelled by the use of GHGs, such as oil and coal.

The impacts include rivers flooding, sea levels rising, and temperatures increasing with associated socio-economic fallout.


world must listen


It is, therefore, past time, Chen said, that the world listen to the scientists - hundreds of whom, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have researched the scientific aspects of climate change; assessed its impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptation; and looked at options for mitigation.

"We should accept their verdict as we accept the second opinions of our doctors," he said.

That includes, Chen noted, limiting global temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, which would require peaking fossil fuel emissions by about year 2030 and achieving zero emissions by about 2080.

The risks, should the world fail in the effort, Chen noted, include threatened [eco]systems such as coral reefs, which become bleached and die, no longer providing food for fish. There is also death due to habitat loss.

This is in addition to tick and mosquito seasons starting earlier and lasting longer, thereby heralding an increase in diseases, such as dengue.

Given these realities, the physicist said a course of treatment that includes adaptation to the impacts is essential. However, he cautioned that adaptation is "treating symptoms, not the cause".

What is critical then, he said, is mitigation, which is about "removing greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuels", such as oil and coal, from the atmosphere and which is equivalent to "treating the cause and curing the illness".

To bring this about, he suggested some options, including:

- Carbon dioxide capture and storage;

- Nuclear energy; and

- Renewable energy.

"Governments of the world need to form consortiums and establish research centres to bring the price of renewables and storage down quickly," the physicist said, noting that the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change provides a useful example.

The Apollo programme is a 10-year programme to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels through internationally coordinated and publicly funded research into renewable energy technology.

"All nations need to agree on cutbacks in the use of fossil fuel in Paris in December or as soon as possible thereafter [and] cutback must be done by 2030," Chen said.

The Paris climate talks are widely expected to yield a new international agreement on climate change.

"Secondly, all nations should agree to use a significant portion of the promised Green Climate Fund to fund an Apollo-type programme to make renewable energy affordable and sustainable," Chen added.

Despite the daunting challenges to these two solution pathways, they may be our last chance to save the planet Earth as we know it," he said further.