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'Normal Weather'… No More

'Normal Weather'… No More

Sunday, 17 January, 2021 - 05:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

The term normal temperature is becoming something of the past, and will soon disappear from weather forecasts. Presenters of weather bulletins will no more be able to compare temperatures recorded today to what was considered “usual” or “normal” levels at the same time of the year. Just as the emerging coronavirus levied personal and social habits that became the “new normal”, climate change led to the emergence of a new realities that do not follow any established standards. Weather is constantly changing, making defining the characteristics of normal and natural an almost impossible task.


The decade ending in 2020 set a global temperature record. Its last six years were the hottest since recording began. While global average temperatures set a record every 13.5 years between 1900 and 1980, a new record was reached every 3 years as of 1981. This rapid and massive rise in temperature was due to human activities resulting in higher levels of carbon emissions. The last ten years have witnessed some of the biggest disasters caused by the huge and accelerating rise in temperature, from hurricanes to wildfires, droughts, floods and extreme heat waves, all the way to the spread of diseases to new areas which were previously beyond limits.


The increase in temperature has led to the emergence of new habits and practices in many countries. Whereas air conditioners were rare in European cars thirty years ago, in the last ten years they have become part of the standard features in nearly all cars sold in European markets. When a client I was advising as an architect asked me in 1982 to install air conditioners in an apartment he bought in London, I thought it was a crazy idea and a waste of money. This all has changed in recent years, as air conditioners in homes are no more seen as a luxury, but a necessity to withstand higher temperatures and recurrent heat waves in Europe, spreading over longer periods and extending beyond summer months.


Rising temperatures have become a feature of the European winter in recent years, with frost days being cut in half in some countries. While the temperature in the Netherlands, for example, fell below zero for 80 days a year just half a century ago, during the last ten years frost has been reduced to less than 40-50 days, and at intermittent intervals, which forced the repeated cancellation of a traditional national skating competition. As the snowfall on European mountains continues to decrease and last for shorter periods due to higher temperatures, countries known for their winter resorts, such as Switzerland, Italy and Austria, are preparing for shorter ski seasons by working to develop alternative tourism and sports activities. Major ski resorts are also introducing more sprinklers to spread artificial snow on slopes, in an attempt to preserve a reasonable skiing season.


The decade which ended last month will by no means witness the last epitome of grievances in terms of rising temperatures and their catastrophic impact. The climate will continue to change for the worse, at least over the next 50 years. As for what maximum temperature will be reached, that will depend on the speed of measures to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, this will not be the last decade in which we hear phrases like “unprecedented”, “for the first time”, “highest” and “lowest”.


Even if the world succeeds in implementing all the measures needed to curb climate change, temperatures will certainly not drop below what they are today. For we have reached a stage of deterioration to which we have to adapt, and the ultimate aim is to stop rising temperatures at a certain level. This does not mean that humanity is destined to choose between dying from heat or contributing to an increase in carbon emissions, through using more traditional cooling machines. The solution lies in introducing technologies and measures that lead to heat modification in buildings and transportation, in parallel with reducing or eliminating carbon emissions altogether. Since the complete reliance on conventional air conditioners leads to an increase in carbon emissions, and thus a continued rise in temperature, locking the world in a vicious circle, alternative solutions are needed.


Sustainable adaptation begins with improving the thermal standards in buildings by using appropriate insulating materials, and determining the appropriate direction of the building in relation to the sun and wind. Since it will not be possible in most cases to dispense with mechanical cooling to reduce temperatures, it is possible to replace conventional air conditioners with others working on the principle of heat pump technology, based on the principle of heat exchange. It takes advantage - to cool or warm buildings - from the difference between internal and external heat levels and the temperature of the ground or groundwater. The carbon emissions resulting from these devices are almost non-existent, especially when they use electricity from clean or renewable sources.


Since car air conditioners that use conventional technologies also increase carbon emissions, and thus temperatures, the solution would be to accelerate the transition to electric cars as a first stage, in parallel with enhancing public transport and city planning, thus reducing the need for the use of private cars. Many believe that hydrogen will be the ultimate solution to effectively replace fuel in the transport sector.


There will be no more “normal weather” in the near future years. Therefore, it is necessary to be prepared to adapt to an ever-changing “unusual”, relying on a mix of appropriate technologies and radical change in lifestyle.


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