Glasgow: The science, the policy landscape, and the (absence of) action
In the run-up to each United Nations (UN) climate conference, there is anticipation that it is going to deliver the world from the threat of a catastrophic climate crisis.
For example, just three years ago, ahead of COP-24 in Katowice, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had released a special report titled ‘Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees’, which warned that the earth will face devastating consequences of the climate crisis if it fails to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. The report had also said that countries would need to take unprecedented steps to keep global warming under 1.5 degree C.
I remember Jim Skea, one of authors of the report, explaining that limiting warming to 1.5 degree C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so in reality would be extremely difficult. Following the release of that IPCC report, civil society groups emphatically asked for immediate action, and political leaders across the board from developed and developing countries postured to do anything that could help meet the target. The United States (US), under the Donald Trump administration, of course, had announced it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
But at the end of COP-24, progress was still marginal and there was hardly any conclusion as to how the world will prevent warming of over 1.5 degree C. There was some advance on the Paris rulebook — a set of guidelines for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement but a lot was left, which carried over to COP 25 in Madrid and now to COP 26 in Glasgow.
IPCC has sounded the alarm bells once again this time. I know for sure that this IPCC report (The Physical Science Basis) gave many of us environmental reporters what they call eco-anxiety because this time the IPCC suggested with “high confidence” that we may have lost the opportunity to keep global warming under 1.5 degree C. The threshold is likely to be breached in the next 10 to 20 years by 2040.
There is a massive diplomatic activity ahead of the Glasgow climate conference again. One way this has manifested itself is in the number of foreign delegations visiting India to have in-person meetings with environment and power ministers despite the ongoing pandemic. The US special envoy on climate change, John Kerry visited twice this year (April and September) with regard to the US-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda; COP26 president Alok Sharma came in August, regarding enhancement of India’s nationally determined contribution (NDC); the Denmark energy minister Dan Jorgensen was here last month, regarding building a wind energy hub in Tamil Nadu; Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding partnering on climate mitigation on Saturday. And this is just an indicative, not an exhaustive, list.
Sharma and Kerry have suggested that India should enhance its NDC and make larger commitments to bring down CO2 emissions drastically so that, globally, the 1.5 degree goal can be kept alive. To do that, IPCC’s model pathways stated that it was imperative that global net CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 reaching net zero emissions around 2050.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conducted a review of the NDCs submitted till July this year, which was published in their NDC synthesis report released last month. The report found that NDCs of all parties taken together would lead to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions of 16% in 2030 compared to 2010. Such an increase, unless actions are taken immediately, will lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7 degree C by the end of the century.
It makes one wonder how, despite such hype ahead of every COP and abundant scientific information on the climate crisis, we are still headed for disaster. Listen to climate scientist, Klaus Hasselmann, the winner of this year’s Physics Nobel, who has been warning of the global temperature rise trajectory for the past 50 years. Yet, action on climate continues to be glacial at best. We can only hope that COP 26 is a little more than the diplomatic tug-of-war between countries to protect their economic interests.
There are also extremely important concerns on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), bedrock principles of negotiations. Do per capita carbon emissions have a role to play in deciding climate action being taken by countries? Are emerging economies such as India and the developed nations, with per capita emissions that are several times that of India, be measured with the same yardstick?
These debates are captured extensively in ‘India in a Warming World’ edited by Navroz K Dubash where former climate negotiators, climate experts and scientists have articulated the history and politics of climate negotiations. These are gradually turning out to be sore points again ahead of COP 26. More on this next week.
The views expressed are personal