A fellowship between people and the planet
The past decade yielded several commitments toward sustainability. Yet, the share of renewables barely budged. Biodiversity loss continues. Land degradation persists. Why?
The more things change, the more they remain the same. The past decade yielded several commitments toward sustainability: The Paris Agreement, the Kigali Amendment to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, and net-zero emissions targets announced by countries, regions, cities, and companies. Yet, the share of renewables in the global energy system barely budged. Biodiversity loss continues unabated and is accelerating. Land degradation persists. Freshwater is under stress. Why this gap between international deals and a deteriorating ecology?
We have collectively failed to bridge the here and now and a future that is also already here. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued stark warnings through new reports. The world is on track for 2.4-3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by end-century. With looming crop failure and flood risk, the vulnerable will find their lives becoming more miserable. For the world to have a chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, global CO2 emissions must peak by 2025 and fall by 48% against 2019 by 2030.
Yet, deprivations in basic needs persist. Sub-Saharan Africa will still have more than 500 million people without electricity in 2030. In India, despite much progress in increasing energy access for hundreds of millions of people, per capita power consumption remains low and clean cooking fuels are used inconsistently. Whereas India’s clean energy targets would create 3.4 million jobs by 2030, there is continued desperation to secure a government job. But thanks to heat stress, by 2100, the number of “climatically stressful” workdays in South Asia would rise to 250, severely impacting public health, livelihoods, and economic growth. While jobs and livelihoods motivate elected representatives, the future is also here. The climate crisis isn’t a faraway scenario. Three billion people are now classified as highly vulnerable to climate change. Politics everywhere is failing to connect the dots.
A related failure is a lack of empathy for the many worlds that abut each other, but seldom intersect. The privileged seem unaffected (for now). For them, failing livelihoods is known but not experienced. Their wealth multiplied during the pandemic. From long-term climate risks, the rich think they can escape; the poor hope they can adapt. Instead of becoming aware of this multiverse around us, we’ve become an escapist species. We escape from everything: Information, if it’s inconvenient; a sense of community, choosing to be parochial instead; unsustainable cities, because nature-filled weekend escapes are easier than integrating nature into urban design; and humanity, because we can have other avatars in a new fantasy of a metaverse.
Then come market failures. The clean energy transition needs regular policy interventions to correct them, reduce costs, increase procurement, and widen deployment. Money still does not flow where the sun shines the most due to perceived investment risks in emerging markets. R&D for clean technologies is far removed from centres of growing energy demand. Markets often fail to reach dispersed points of innovation in sustainable practices. Despite the buzz around ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing, there are no easy solutions. The obsession with big-ticket investment means that working capital does not reach small entrepreneurs using distributed clean energy for livelihoods or women farmers practising sustainable agriculture but lacking market access.
These chasms between science, governance, markets, and the vulnerable must be bridged. Emission reduction targets for cities, regions and companies cannot lose focus on livelihoods. Understanding the global commons is critical to knowing how a fragile ecology will affect communities. But a lens that blurs the lived reality of jobless millions will remain blind to why the commons are under threat.
Media outreach must sensitise us to inequities and build empathy rather than just communicate complex science. Our hyper-consumerist lifestyles rage on with unsustainable consumption getting cheaper even as costs rise for basic needs. Lack of empathy will continue to hide the perversity of lifestyle choices behind averages of per capita resource footprints.
Markets must expand their reach to support clean energy entrepreneurs, circular economy innovators, smallholder farmers, demand aggregators across poor countries, and change-oriented investors in rich ones.
Against this backdrop, two points are worth noting. Greenhouse gas emissions have slowed (1.3% annually during 2010-19 against 2.1% during 2000-09). But total emissions remain larger than ever.
The IPCC is categorical that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will be unavoidable to reach net-zero emissions. In short, bending the emissions curve needs far more aggressive reductions in fossil fuel consumption as well as technologies to remove GHGs from the atmosphere.
The Climate Crisis Advisory Group (of which this author is a member) offers a three-part solution set: Reduce emissions rapidly and justly; remove atmospheric CO2 in large quantities; and repair broken parts of the climate system in localised settings (like the Arctic) to stem cascading effects in other regions. Building resilience against shocks must also continue apace.
Such systemic changes can occur when the interests of the elite and the vulnerable converge. Will the rich aggressively reduce their resource footprints? Will the poor see beyond the infirmities of today to build livelihoods in a changed climate? Will markets impose costs on polluters? Could CDR be considered a global public good?
A sustainable future needs science, targets and accountability. But first, we need a fellowship between people and the planet.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water and member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities
The views expressed are personal