As the world grapples with how best to address climate change impacts including global warming, some scientists are of the view that the tools of biotechnology have a lot to offer in that regard.
“Biotechnology can contribute to mitigating climate change in two ways…” says, Dr. George Essegbey, a Chief Research Scientist with the Science Technology Policy Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-STEPRI).
“First, is the direct removal of greenhouse gases using genetically engineered plants, since they can be more efficient in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Dr. Essegbey said. He explained that genetically modified or engineered plants come with a novelty of providing a continuous re-generating system that will improve carbon dioxide uptake.
“What is novel here however, is the accelerated ability of the plant to remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce global warming,” Dr. Essegbey noted. Thus, genetically engineered plants can enhance afforestation and reforestation measures. His proposal fits into the concept of forest-related mitigation measures, deemed by some experts as the most practicable and cost-effective option for responding to climate change.
A statement issued some time ago by Forests Dialogue’s Initiative (TFD) on Forests and Climate Change, said addressing deforestation is necessary to take advantage of the intricate relationship between forests and climate change. On one hand, forests can mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, while on the other they can contribute to climate change if they are degraded or destroyed. In turn climatic changes may lead to forest degradation or loss – which exacerbates climate change further.
The statement further noted that the forest sector has a unique ability to simultaneously reduce emissions, capture and store carbon, and lessen the vulnerability of people and ecosystems to climate change. These could be attained through measures including sustainable forest management, forest conservation, reforestation, afforestation and the use of sustainably produced wood products as substitutes for emissions-intensive materials.
Dr. Essegbey mentioned the second contribution of genetically modified plants to the fight against climate change as the ability of such plants to be more adaptive to their environments. “As climate change impacts on the various ecosystems, the ability of plants to survive or flourish in their natural habitats is impaired. It is possible to genetically construct plants or crops to still flourish in their changed environments by inserting the right genes into them,” Dr. Essegbey said.
Touching on whether to use biotechnology tools to conserve biodiversity, he preferred the application of more conventional means such as “producing accessions of genetic materials and preserving them, keeping aboretums, creating forest and game reserves, maintaining parks and gardens, and protecting living species that are on the brink of extinction.”
Dr. Essegbey added that “modern biotechnology contributes to enhance the effectiveness of some of these conventional conservation practices.”
His comments come on the heels of the released UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which says “unprecedented changes are needed for the world to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-historic levels.” This is important because according to the report titled: “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C,” the least increase in global warming beyond the 1.5°C will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”
Since its release, various organisations and institutions have been responding with calls on national governments to act immediately to avert the pending catastrophe that can be averted. The Director-General of the Indian based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Sunita Narain, says the IPPC Report serves as a final warning for concerted action.
“Even at a little over 1.0°C warming, India is being battered by the worst climate extremes – it is clear that the situation at 1.5°C is going to worsen. The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has served us a final warning that we must get our act together – now and quickly.”
CSE’s Deputy Director General and Head of the Climate Change Unit, Chandra Bhushan says that with the predictions of worsening situations, “countries like India, with large populations dependent on the agricultural and fishery sectors, would be highly impacted.”
Their comments are contained in a press statement issued to present highlights of CSE’s, analysis of the IPCC report. The CSE statement notes that while a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures will be precarious, a 2°C rise would be catastrophic. Citing the IPCC report, the statement points out that “the risk of transition from 1.5°C to 2°C is very high and that the effects at 2°C will be more devastating than what IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report had indicated.”
When that happens, coastal nations and agricultural economies like India would be the worst affected. It will lead to decline in crop yields, unprecedented climate extremes and increased susceptibility could push poverty by several millions by 2050, according the statement. It therefore appeals to the world to focus exclusively on limiting warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C, which is the upper limit of the temperature goal mentioned under the Paris Agreement.
To this end, Mr. Bhushan urged the global community to set a new goal for climate change: “The goal of climate change now must be firmly fixed to 1.5°C to give the communities and nations a fighting chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” He further urged his country India to “take the lead in creating a global coalition for a 1.5°C world to save its poor and vulnerable.
Meanwhile, the Pan Africa Director of Oxfam International, Apollos Nwafor in his response to the IPCC report believes it is as an ominous prediction for Africa. “Climate change has set our planet on fire, millions are already feeling the impacts, and the IPCC just showed that things can get much worse. Settling for 2°C would be a death sentence for people in many parts of Africa. The faster governments embrace the renewable energy revolution and move to protect communities at risk, the more lives and livelihoods that will be spared,” he declared.
In a statement, Mr. Nwafor noted: “A hotter Africa is a hungrier Africa. Today at only 1.5°C of warming globally, crops and livestock across the region are being hit and hunger is rising, with poor small-scale women farmers, living in rural areas suffering the most. It only gets worse from here.”
He pointed out that merely following the Paris Agreement will make matters worse. “To do nothing more and simply follow the commitments made in the Paris Agreement condemns the world to 2°C of warming. The damage to our planet and humanity would be exponentially worse and irreparable.”
Mr. Nwafor therefore called for increased, responsible and accountable climate finance from rich countries that supports small scale farmers, especially women to realise their right to food security and climate justice.
By Ama Kudom-Agyemang