6. Atmosphere – Natural Resource Management in South Asia

6

Atmosphere

Introduction

Earth’s atmosphere comprises the gases that envelop the earth. All these gases are held by its gravity. Primary components of these gases are nitrogen (78 per cent), oxygen (21 per cent), argon (0.93 per cent), carbon dioxide (0.038 per cent) and trace amounts of other gases and variable amount of water vapour. Together these gases form the air that supports all life forms. They also protect us from ultraviolet (UV) solar radiation and moderate temperature extremes between day and night.

 

Table 6.1 The Principal Layers of Earth’s Atmosphere

Layer Range (km)
Exosphere
600–10,000 km,
Thermosphere
85–600 km
Mesosphere
50–85 km
Stratosphere
12–50 km
Troposphere
0–12 km

The atmosphere is densest at sea level (1.2 kg/m3) and 75 per cent of the atmospheric mass is contained within 11 miles from the earth’s surface. It becomes thinner as we go up and then fades into space. The Karman line, at 100 km (328,000 ft), is frequently used as the boundary between atmosphere and outer space.

The lowest layer is called troposphere; this is where we live and breathe (see Table 6.1). This layer comprises 75 per cent of the atmospheric mass and in addition to various gases, water vapour is stored here. The mean temperature range of troposphere is 17°C to –52°C. Approximately 12 km above the earth is the region of relatively stable temperature, called the tropopause, which forms the thin intervening layer separating the troposphere from the stratosphere.

The stratosphere is the second layer of the atmosphere, extending from 12 to 50 kilometres. The ozone layer that protects life on earth from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun lies here. Temperature rises in the stratosphere, sometimes reaching as high as 0°C. This is due to UV absorption by the ozone layer, which results in very stable atmospheric conditions.

The formation of the ozone layer is a delicate matter. Only when oxygen is produced in the atmosphere, can an ozone layer form to protect us from intense ultraviolet radiation. The stratosphere is above the weather, contains no clouds and lacks turbulence, thus making it attractive for long-distance jet air travel.

The mesosphere means the middle sphere and lies between the stratosphere (below) and the thermosphere (above). It is separated from those layers by the stratopause (below) and the mesopause (top). Ionosphere is the region of ionized layers of air contained within the lower part of the thermosphere. Ions are groups of atoms having a positive or negative electrical charge. Positive ions (cations) are formed by losing electrons, while negative ions (anions) are formed by gaining electrons. The ionosphere absorbs the most energetic photons from the sun. Low pressure and solar radiation in the ionosphere reflect radio waves, enabling them to travel over long distances.

The thermosphere (literally ‘heat sphere’) is the outer layer of the atmosphere, and is separated from the mesosphere by the mesopause, where temperatures rise continually to well over 1,000°C. The few molecules that are present in the thermosphere receive extraordinary amounts of energy from the sun, causing the layer to warm to such high temperatures. Although the measured temperature is very high in the thermosphere, humans would actually feel very cold because the total energy of a few available air molecules would not be sufficient to transfer any appreciable amount of heat to the skin.

The exosphere is the highest layer of the atmosphere. Together with the ionosphere it makes up the thermosphere. The exosphere extends to the outer limit of our atmosphere, about 10,000 kilometre above the earth’s surface. The atmosphere here merges into space in the extremely thin air. Air atoms and molecules are constantly escaping to space from the exosphere. In this region of the atmosphere, hydrogen and helium are the prime components and are only present at extremely low densities. This is the area where most satellites orbit the earth.

Thus atmosphere is a complex shield that protects all life forms on the earth. However, the world has been spewing all sorts of pollutants into the atmosphere, which is threatening the very existence of life on earth.

The Geopolitics of Atmosphere

It is now slowly emerging that at least two countries (the USA and Russia) have technological capability to modify the world’s weather. This means that the debate on climate change under United Nations (UN) auspices has focused on one side of the picture, while the more dangerous possibility of use of weather-altering weapons has been clouded out.

The clash between official negotiators, environmentalists and American business lobbies has centered on Washington’s outright refusal to abide by commitments on carbon dioxide reduction targets under the 1997 Kyoto protocol. The impacts of military technologies on the World’s climate are not an object of discussion or concern. Narrowly confined to greenhouse gases, the ongoing debate on climate change serves strategic and defense objectives of powerful nations.’1

The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) based in Gokoma, Alaska is part of a new generation of weapons developed under the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). HAARP constitutes a system of powerful antennas capable of creating ‘controlled local modifications of the ionosphere’.2

Scientist Dr Nicholas Begich—actively involved in the public campaign against HAARP—describes HAARP as ‘a super-powerful radiowave-beaming technology that lifts areas of the ionosphere (upper layer of the atmosphere) by focusing a beam and heating those areas. Electromagnetic waves then bounce back onto earth and penetrate everything—living and dead.’3

Dr Rosalie Bertell, a nuclear physicist, depicts HAARP as ‘a gigantic heater that can cause major disruption in the ionosphere, creating not just holes, but long incisions in the protective layer that keeps deadly radiation from bombarding the planet.’4 Further, she says, ‘It has the potential to change the course of the jet stream and the major vapor rivers, altering climate and weather on the planet.’5

It is worth pointing out a key statement of General Dwight D. Eisenhower: ‘In holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite’6

There is a need to consider and publicly debate the weather-modification capability of a few major military powers, which have the wherewithal to control outer space—and are indeed doing it. These two issues—atmospheric pollution and weather-modification technologies—have been kept out of public discussion.

Pressure

Urbanization

Increase in urbanization has a direct impact on atmosphere in many ways. Emission of greenhouse gases (GHG); Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) from domestic, industrial and transportation sector in urban areas; suspended particulate matters (SPM); smoke from burning fuel wood and biomass; etc., which are the by-products of urbanization, contribute in atmospheric pressure.

Industrialization

Most industries in South Asia ignore environmental considerations at planning and implementation stages. This is particularly true of alumina conversion, uranium mining, thermal plants, paper, textile, foundry and forge, leather processing, mining and metallurgy, etc. Some of these industries are ranked as most toxic because of their potential to cause air pollution. These establishments cause immense damage to the common atmosphere of South Asia.

Increased Transport

Road transport is one of the major sources of atmospheric pollution. The use of lead and sulphur fuels in road transport further exacerbates the problem.

Climate Change

Climate change is the direct consequence of global warming and global dimming. Whilst the ‘warmists’ have received excessive media coverage (including a Nobel Prize), the ‘dimmists’ have largely been ignored. The fact remains that global dimming is a far more devastating cause of climate change than global warming. Both events are a result of anthropogenic factors of emission of GHG from domestic, transportation and industrial sectors.

All the above-mentioned four factors are contributing to atmospheric pollution. Atmospheric pollution refers to change in the composition and concentration of various gases, particles and water vapours. However, it is commonly known as air pollution. Many pollutants—dust, pollen, and soil particles—occur naturally, but maximum air pollution is caused by human activity. Although there are countless sources of air pollution, the most common are emissions from the burning of hydrocarbons or fossil fuels (for example, coal and oil products).

Broadly speaking, the atmospheric pollutants could be classified into two different categories of gasses: stable and variable. The most common of the stable gasses are nitrogen and oxygen. Other highly variable gasses are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide. Output of variable gasses increases with the growth of urbanization, increased transportation, industrialization and population. Since it impacts all levels up to stratopause, including troposphere where our weather is formed, these gases influence the weather patterns. Most scientists are unanimous in that the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-twentiethth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

Air pollution has become a serious global and regional problem, and is especially problematic in urban areas of South Asia. The most serious aspect of the atmospheric pollution is the presence of excessive suspended particulate matters (SPM) in the ambient air. The major sources of SPM are vehicles, industries, burning of solid waste, brick kilns and natural dust. In addition use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in various industries, leadand sulphur-loaded fuels in the road transport further increases the atmospheric pollution. The factors responsible for increased atmospheric pollution are unsustainable industrial and urban growth, migration from rural to urban centers, increased use of fossil fuel and low rainfall due to aridity in South Asia.

 

Table 6.2 Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels

Note: Million metric tons

Source: International Energy Annual 2004, Energy Information Administration; http://www.eia.doe. gov/emeu/international/contents.html (last accessed on 24 December 2009)

 

Though not a serious threat in the past, atmospheric pollution is now surfacing in South Asia mostly in urban centers, cities and around industrial estates. However, most of the rural areas do not contribute much to the atmospheric pollution. As some countries of South Asia, with their economies in transition, are increasingly using fossil fuels in industrial and transportation, their share in atmospheric pollution is increasing.

State

The existing level of various atmospheric pollutants in the South Asian countries shows that the use of diesel and gasoline in the road transport sector has greatly increased since 1990. Consequently, the sulphur dioxide oxygen oxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide concentration in major cities of South Asia has also increased..

It can be seen that carbon dioxide emission is increasing in all countries, with the exception of Afghanistan. Even Bhutan shows an increase: from 0.01 million tonnes to 0.31 million tones—31-times increase in 24 years (see Table 6.2).

Similarly, concentrations of nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide are increasing at an alarming rate (see Tables 6.3 and 6.4). The declining air quality is directly increasing the disease burden.

Response

With a view to address the atmospheric-pollution problem in South Asia and the fact that atmospheric pollution has no territorial boundaries, various control measures are being adopted by the public, private and civil society in South Asia not only at national level but also at the sub-regional level.

 

Table 6.3 Nitrogen Oxides Emissions

Notes: Thousand metric tons

Source: International Energy Annual 2004, Energy Information Administration;
www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/international/contents.html (last accessed on 24 December 2009)

 

Table 6.4 Sulphur Dioxide Emissions

Note: Thousand metric tons

Source: International Energy Annual 2004, Energy Information Administration;
www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/international/contents.html (last accessed on 24 December 2009)

 

Existing Response

Male Declaration On Control of Trans-Boundary Air Pollution   Multi Environmental Agreements (MEAs), aiming at controlling atmospheric pollution, such as the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Kyoto Protocol, Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) ratified by the Asian States.

National Environment Policies, Laws and Strategies of South Asian Countries   Introduction of compressed natural gas (CNG) in transport, liquefied natural gas (LPG) in domestic sector and efforts to harness the renewable energy sources of solar, wind and biofuel may greatly help in replacement of the costly and environmentally unsustainable fossil fuels as a source of energy.

Policy Gaps and Weaknesses in Implementation

Regional environmental institutional arrangement in the public, civil society and private sector is very weak and needs to be strengthened. The South Asian Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) is weak in terms of capacity and institutional authority. The national governments, though working in their individual capacities, may not be in a position to effectively control the atmospheric pollution problem in isolation. The civil society organizations working in South Asia are mostly not focused on atmospheric pollution. The private sector is not motivated to spend time, energies and resources on atmospheric pollution control.

The past policies and plans failed to explore the possibility of exploiting alternate and renewable sources of energy, therefore such resources like solar and wind energy opportunities could not be exploited in the past.

Future Policy

Future policy must focus more on joint efforts by the South Asian states to control atmospheric pollution. For this purpose the SACEP is already working on various environmental issues of regional importance. Their initiatives need to be strengthened so that they play a more proactive role in devising policies and strategies of regional significance.

Moreover, there is a general lack of capacity of the enforcement and implementing institutions in South Asian countries. In addition, stakeholder’s participation and empowerment is also lacking at policy planning and implementation stages.

The future policies should be focused more on exploring the renewable and cheap sources of energy, affordable and easily available to the rural population. The rural poor mostly depend of fuel wood for cooking and heating and in case they are asked not to cut forests, they must be ensured reasonably cheap alternatives, which they can use on sustainable basis.

As elaborated in the chapter on energy, it is absolutely essential that South Asian governments embark on a policy of high quality, energy efficient, mass transit system across urban areas and extend these to rural areas.

At the same time, it is important that South Asian governments and civil society initiate a public debate on implications of weather-modifying technologies and seek steps to monitor it.

Conclusion

Mitigation of the effects of atmospheric pollution and enforcement of control measures require joint implementation policies and strategies by regional institutions and groups in the public sector, civil society and private sector. This may require motivation of regional associations like SAARC, SACEP and other such groups. Strategy for renewable sources of energy needs to be more vigorously explored and exploited, aiming at reduction in GHG emissions. At the same time, the people and governments of South Asia will have to remain alert to the possibilities of hostile weather modifications by powerful nations.