Climate treaty must lead to action

Topics BS Opinion | Climate Change | COP

A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised the red alert on the limited carbon space (1) available to contain the average global temperature increase to the goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement of 2015. Hence the hope is that the Glasgow meeting of the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will accelerate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, more particularly, emissions of carbon dioxide. It is too early to know whether this hope will be fulfilled or belied. But one can assess the past pe.....
A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised the red alert on the limited carbon space (1) available to contain the average global temperature increase to the goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement of 2015. Hence the hope is that the Glasgow meeting of the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will accelerate commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, more particularly, emissions of carbon dioxide. It is too early to know whether this hope will be fulfilled or belied. But one can assess the past performance of the UNFCCC process as a guide.

At the time the UNFCCC was negotiated there were many influential climate sceptics, and the Convention did not contain firm commitments but only an aspirational goal that the industrial countries would contain their 2000 emission level at the 1990 level. The European Union countries more or less met this goal, but the US did not and its emissions of GHGs rose by 15 per cent in the 1990s, which was a serious departure from the goal of stabilisation by the industrial countries. However, the halving of emissions in Russia because of the collapse of the economy compensated for this to some extent.

The ineffectiveness of the original aspirational goal led the West European countries to promote the concept of binding commitments and led to the agreement on the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which required industrialised countries to reduce GHG emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. However, the world’s biggest emitter at that time, the US, failed to ratify the agreement and its northern neighbour, Canada, also withdrew later. The outcome looks respectable largely because of the huge decline in emissions in the former communist economies in transition attributable to their economic downturn.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
The politics of climate diplomacy underwent two key changes in the first decade of the new millennium — the dilution of the distinction between developed and developing countries when it came to mitigation commitments, and a shift from globally agreed commitments a la the Kyoto protocol to national determined pledges. The first shift was driven largely by the huge three-fold increase in emissions from China between 1990 and 2010, making it the largest emitter of carbon. The second shift was driven by the US, which could not accept treaty obligations that would require Senate approval. This political shift culminated in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

What has been the impact of this three-decade-long exercise in addressing the challenges of climate change? Focusing on carbon, which is the principal GHG and also the one that is growing year-to-year, in the three decades beginning from 1990 we humans have emitted around 870 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than what was emitted in the 24 decades between 1750 and 1990. Sixteen countries, each of which accounts for 1 per cent or more of carbon emissions, account for 84 per cent of what has been added to the carbon space since 1990. Of this cumulative emission of major emitters, six developed countries account for 50 per cent, five developing countries for 36 per cent (of which 70 per cent was from China), and five fossil fuel exporters for 14 per cent. If we look at this not in terms of emissions from production but from consumption, the corresponding percentages change to 56 per cent, 32 per cent, and 12 per cent, respectively.

We must judge what has happened against the carbon space that is available for the temperature increase to stay below the agreed goal. According to the IPCC, for a 50-67 per cent probability of staying below a 1.5 degree Centigrade temperature rise, the increase from now onwards in our cumulative carbon emission has to be limited to 400-500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide till we reach net-zero emission globally. This has led to spate of commitments of a target net-zero date by many countries. However, announcing the destination is not enough. The road map to the destination is even more important.

We have clearly not travelled as much down the climate mitigation route as we should have. But the distance we have travelled is not insignificant compared to where we were when we started the journey in 1990. At that time ignorance and scepticism about climate change and the anthropogenic responsibility for it were quite widespread, particularly in high-emitting countries like the US. It was also fuelled by parties with a substantial interest in fossil fuel production, particularly oil. That has changed and climate scepticism, though not gone, is treated as an aberration, even when it is espoused by a senior person like the previous US president. Much of the credit for that must go to the UNFCCC process and the linked process that brought scientists from around the world to forge a consensus on facts and projections in the IPCC.

This rising awareness has had a deep impact on the corporate sector with many large companies joining in a net-zero commitment. It also played a role in driving research on renewables, which has led to such dramatic cost reductions that they now count for more in energy investment than fossil fuels. In fact, the key to climate change mitigation must be technology inn­ovations and policy developments, like carbon pric­ing, that shift market choices away from fossil fuels. Yet another consequence of rising awareness has been the rapid spread of global non-governmental organisations, which are adding greatly to understanding, information dissemination, and effective advocacy.

The public and the market economy are ready for faster climate mitigation. What we need from recalcitrant governments in Glasgow is:
  • A time-profile of aggregate commitments consistent with the size of the available carbon space estimated by the IPCC for a 1.5 degree Centigrade rise, if possible, but certainly for a 2 degree Centigrade limit on temperature increase;
  • Individual commitments by countries consistent with their capacity and, what is perhaps more difficult, their history of using the carbon space at least since 1990;
  • Credible commitments for providing finance for energy transition and adaptation where and when it is needed;
  • Multi-country cooperation, like the International Solar Alliance, launched in Paris by India and France in 2015, for developing and making available technologies like green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, which are crucial for the transition from a low-carbon to a net zero carbon emission world;
  • A willingness to discuss policy changes like carbon pricing, which require global cooperation;
  • A commitment by all countries to make the legal, institutional, and policy development required for fulfilling their promises.
/> nitin-desai@hotmail.com

(1) A shorthand term for the amount of cumulative emissions consistent with a given temperature increase limit.



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