The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate was supposed to provide, if not a permanent lid on the ongoing climate change crisis, then at least a stopgap that would buy the Earth some time to come up with a sustainable solution. Four years after the accords were signed, how effective has it been and what may its future be?
Paris Agreement ambitions
To anyone who is concerned about climate change and global warming, the Paris Agreement matters. Adopted by the parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015, the Paris Agreement has so far been signed by 197 countries to address climate change and its negative impacts.
Some key aspects of the agreement include reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, becoming carbon neutral by the second half of the 21st century, and limiting the rise of global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
The Paris Agreement should have prompted the countries involved to follow through on their commitments to reduce the negative effects of climate change. However, the reality is far from expectations.
The Amazon fire is perhaps one of the most horrifying and much talked about events of 2019. Though fires in the Amazon, the world's largest tropical rain forest, are nothing new, this year the Amazon burned with such ferocity that it will probably make the Paris climate targets more difficult to achieve, scientists have warned.
How much Amazon fires matter?
Even without taking the Amazon fires into consideration, scientists are anticipating a temperature rise of about 3 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. The goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century is already under challenge.
The Amazon basin covers approximately seven million square kilometres of land. A huge forest like Amazon is a major factor in achieving the aforementioned goal. Tree cover loss from the Amazon and other tropical forests is estimated to account for nearly 10 percent of global carbon emissions. If tropical tree cover loss continues at the rate of the previous year, it will be almost impossible to keep the global temperature rise below the pledged 2 degrees Celsius, according to a study by Global Forest Watch last year.
Fires occur in the Amazon rainforest during the dry season every year, typically between July and November. However, this year, the number of fires was three times higher than in 2018, and it is the highest since 2010.
The cause of the fires is almost always the 'slash-and-burn' method used to clear land for agriculture, building infrastructure, livestock farming, logging and mining.
The US space agency NASA's satellites have confirmed a significant increase in fires in the Brazilian Amazon, making 2019 the most active fire year in that region since 2010. Brazil's space agency calculated an 85 percent rise in fire incidents this year.
The biggest worry, though, is not the burning of the Amazon, but the loss of trees. Trees not only absorb carbon dioxide but also store the gas. As soon as trees are cut down, they start releasing the stored carbon dioxide.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published a report highlighting the damage being done to the Earth's land surface. Human activities are degrading soil, expanding deserts, felling forests, driving out wildlife, and draining peatland. In the process, land is being turned from an asset that combats climate change into a major source of carbon.
Contribution to melting glaciers
The plumes of smoke from the fires in the Amazon can reach the Andes mountains and accelerate glacial melting. Sounds far-fetched? It is not. A new study by geographers led by Rio de Janeiro State University and published in the journal 'Scientific Reports', came to this conclusion. This phenomenon has the potential to disrupt the water supply to tens of millions of people who live downstream.
Researchers focused on the Zongo glacier in Bolivia using data collected between 2000 and 2016 on fire events. The wind carries dust and soot particles from fires hundreds of kilometres away, and then the particles ultimately get trapped in snow and ice. The black impurities reduced the glacier's ability to reflect sunlight, a phenomenon known as albedo, leaving it more susceptible to melting.
There have been big forest fires in other parts of the world, including in Indonesia, Siberia and Europe in recent days. Like framers in the Amazon, small farmers in Indonesia also practice the slash-and-burn method. In recent decades, large corporations have industrialised the process, causing respiratory problems for thousands of citizens of Indonesia. Besides, hundreds of schools in Indonesia and even in neighbouring Malaysia were closed because of the fires. More than 35,000 fire incidents have occurred in 2019 in Indonesia alone.
The wildfire season in California this year has not been as devastating as it was in 2018. However, it still led to the evacuation of over two lakh people, and the declaration of a state of emergency. Bushfires are still rampant in New South Wales in Australia, where temperatures continue to soar.
Is industrialisation the enemy?
M Maksudur Rahman, professor of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Dhaka, thinks differently.
He says the Amazon rainforest fires are isolated incidents like bushfires and other forest fires and manmade fires.
Prof Maksud blames world-wide industrialisation for the increasing number of fire incidents.
"The increased rate and intensity of the fire incidents are caused by global warming and the dry climate," he said.
"The focus of the Paris Agreement and even the Kyoto protocol was global warming, and there are many issues contributing to it. Therefore, we cannot blame a single event, such as the Amazon fire, for the rise in global temperature," said Prof Maksud.
"Since forested land is very fertile, acquiring this land for agriculture is a lucrative thing. It prompts the spread of industrialisation. The California forest fires and the bushfires in Australia occurred naturally. They will not have a big impact on global warming," he added.
Every year, one percent of global tropical forests fell prey to deforestation, Prof Maksud said. Some countries are making an effort to reverse the damage, but the effect of this is negligible, he added.
In Malaysia, palm trees are being planted where tropical plants once stood, but a palm tree cannot take the place of a tropical plant, Prof Maksud said.
"Every country in the world is trying to make technological advancements, and in the process, it is contributing to global warming to some extent. In Brazil, industrialisation comes in the form of burning the Amazon. In western countries, industrialisation comes in the form of power generation, automobiles, etc.," he said.
"The Amazon fire is merely a small part of all the events that contribute to global warming," said Prof Maksud.