COP 25 or the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been underway in the Spanish capital, Madrid, for the past week and is currently mid-way through its final week. The COP venue was originally scheduled to be held in late November in Brazil but the newly elected right-wing and climate sceptic President Jair Bolsonaro withdrew from the hosting. Chile then volunteered to host the annual Summit but, after violent street protests erupted there, President, Sebastien Pinera withdrew. Spain then offered to take up the responsibility. Altogether not a great augury for the Climate Summit at a time when the threats from climate change are looming ever more seriously and more immediately, despite which many conservative and right-wing governments around the world, emboldened by the withdrawal of the US from the PA(Paris agreement) and President Trump’s openly climate-denying position, are turning their backs on emissions reduction commitments.
There was a time around a decade back when activists had begun saying that the term climate change did not adequately capture the seriousness of the problem, and had started using the term climate crisis. Today even the latter term appears tame, and many are calling this a climate emergency.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have reached 408 ppm (parts per million) and continue to increase, crossing by far the 400 ppm mark that used to be considered the “tipping point” for irreversible climate change. The last time the planet had seen such CO2 concentrations was 3 to 5 million years ago, when temperatures were 2-3 degrees C higher than today and sea-levels were 10-20 metres higher. Temperature rise continues unabated, with each year overtaking the previous one as the hottest to date, and all the previous five years being the hottest years ever. Long-duration heat waves and dry seasons or droughts are being increasingly witnessed in different parts of the world. Tropical and other cyclones are increasing in both intensity and frequency. Extreme rainfall events are increasing in number and ferocity, as experienced in Kerala and Maharashtra respectively in the past two years.
Arctic ice is melting at an alarming rate, far faster than earlier predicted, threatening faster and higher rise in sea levels and quite major shifts in climate due to huge changes in ocean currents. This is also expected to lead to sudden release of massive quantities of carbon dioxide and methane gases hitherto trapped under the permanent ice sheet, further exacerbating global heating and climate change. Changes in the Arctic are happening so fast and so extensively that the US, Canada, Russia and China are already jockeying for position and undertaking preliminary forays for eventual large-scale exploration of the soon-to-be-navigable Arctic region for oil, gas and mineral extraction, with unforeseen consequences. Ocean waters, which have absorbed over 90 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide, are warming and turning acidic at alarming rates with grave outcomes.
UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, on the eve of the summit, said that a climate catastrophe was no longer over the horizon but visible right now, “hurtling towards us.” Rather, since it is the responsibility of the world’s governments and corporations to take action, people of this planet are being hurtled towards disaster.
The PA had reiterated the global goal to limit average temperature rise to 2 degrees C, with the added ambition of trying for a 1.5 degrees C limit. This latter goal was adopted at the insistence of small island states and Least Developed Countries (LDC) who perceive an existential threat beyond this point. A special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this year on the 1.5 degrees goal confirmed that climate impacts would be far worse at 1.5 degrees than at 2 degrees, which the report went to great lengths to scientifically establish. However, that is not rocket science! The question one should be asking is, is the 1.5 degree goal even realizable?
What the IPCC report did not specifically say is that it is simply not possible, even though the numbers in the report attest to this impossibility. A set of Indian scientists issued a statement some COPs ago showing that “1.5 degrees C is already in the rear view mirror,” (see PD, November 23, 2014), meaning that we are unfortunately already past that point. Despite this, with one thing and another, the dominant narrative today has somehow become that 1.5 degrees C is actually the current global goal. The painful reality is that there is a very hard struggle today to meet even the 2 degrees C goal.
Anyway, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as per its standard practice these days, released its Emissions Gap Report (EGR) just prior to COP25. The EGR analyses where the world stands today in terms of the emissions levels currently, the emissions levels required in 2030, 2050 and 2100 to achieve the 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C goals, and the “emissions gap” between the actual and projected emissions levels and that they ought to be for the respective goals.
The EGR shows that current global emissions are around 55 Gt CO2 (1 giga ton = 1 billion tons), up from 49 Gt slightly more than a decade or so back, an increase of about 1.5 per cent per year. At current rates, global emissions would reach around 64 GtCO2 by 2030. Even if all countries adhered to their emission reduction commitments (i.e., the Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs tabled at and annexed to the Paris Agreement), this would reach 56 Gt CO2 by 2030. In comparison, the 2 degrees C goal would require global emissions in 2030 to be not more than 38 Gt CO2, that is an emissions gap of 16 Gt CO2, while 1.5 degrees C would require just 26 Gt CO2 in 2030, an improbable gap of 30 Gt or reduction of 7.6 percent per year.
Broadly speaking, the 2 degree C goal requires the global emissions to peak almost immediately, decline sharply thereafter, and be carbon neutral by 2050 i.e., with “net zero emissions” or emissions equal to the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by “carbon sinks” in its oceans, forests and land.
SOME FARTHER FROM GOAL THAN OTHERS
We have till now been speaking in terms of global emissions, yet another equally mythical dominant narrative these days. Mythical, because, there is in reality no global mechanism to control global emissions; there is only an international mechanism to control national emissions. The UN Framework Convention holds that, based on accepted principles of environmental law and the idea of “polluter pays,” developed countries that have contributed over 75 percent of cumulative global emissions to date, should bear the brunt of emissions reductions in the future. UNFCCC therefore framed the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” (CBDR&RC). The PA regrettably virtually negated this equity principle by avoiding any mention of historical emissions as providing a basis for apportioning burden-sharing for future emissions, and left each country, whether developed or developing, to offer its own voluntary commitments for reducing emissions. The IPCC too, despite being a scientific body, has succumbed to political pressure by powerful governments mostly from the global North, not to spell out any quantitative emission cut requirements for developed and developing countries respectively, as it had in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.
Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that developed countries with all the requisite technologies and financial capacity are doing far less than they should be to sharply cut their emissions below 1990 levels, while even developing countries such as India with all manner of development deficits and poverty burden have volunteered to reducing emissions from 2005 levels by slowing down its emissions growth.
One of the world’s largest emitters, USA, has of course withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and President Trump is going hammer and tongs at expanding coal-based power and fossil-fuel utilisation especially shale oil and natural gas. Fortunately, and in a quite extraordinary display of concern and commitment despite their national government’s negativity, the speaker of the House of Representatives, many state governors and major city mayors of the US besides several US-based corporations have come to Madrid to make emission reductions more or less in compliance with US commitments made at Paris.
The EU, once believed to be a climate champion, is lagging behind requirement, dragged down by the reluctance of many governments to commit to sharp emission cuts, with emissions in several of its East European constituents actually rising. The EU, along with 66 other mostly developed countries, has committed to achieving “zero net emissions” by 2050. This is not as great as it looks, since emissions from Europe are also absorbed by global sinks (forests, oceans and land) and those in other including developing countries. It would have been far better to specify actual emission levels. Furthermore, emissions from developing countries such as India may not be at “net zero” levels by then, exposing them to unfair charges of being climate laggards and to unprecedented pressure to reduce emissions at the cost of their development.
It is to be remembered that many developing countries, India included, continue to lag far behind developed countries in terms of per capita energy consumption and per capita emissions. India for instance has per capita emissions just under 2 tons per year, less than one-eighth the US level, and less than half of the world average and likely to remain below it even in 2050!
China on the other hand, is galloping along, establishing that it is in a different league altogether from India and other developing countries. By far the world’s leading emitter at over 14 Gt CO2 and per capita emissions of around 8 tons per year, greater than the world average and just exceeding that of the EU. China has committed to a peaking year of 2035 and seems to be racing to add as much fossil fuel power generation as it can before that, with 40,000 MW of coal power capacity added in an 18 month period till June this year.
COP25 was not expected to contribute much to tackling the huge problem of the massive and growing gap between current emission trends, even those under the PA commitments, and those required to attain the 2 degree C goal (leave alone the 1.5 degree C aspiration). That assessment, with national pledges of higher ambition than the current NDCs tabled at Paris, is to come in COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland next winter. Over 70 countries, apparently including India, have promised to submit such higher-ambition emission reduction targets then. So in a sense, Madrid is just marking time.
The Madrid Summit itself had two main tasks before it, apart from the numerous technical sessions that move at a snail’s pace. First was to hold discussions to continue to boost ambitions. The other was to discuss ‘market mechanisms’ towards achieving the global goal as required by Article 6 of the PA.
One wishes the summit good success in the first task, and hopes the second gets nowhere. Market mechanisms have been one of the biggest frauds pulled by developed countries and corporations in emissions regulation to control climate change. They, especially the notorious Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM), bedevilled the Kyoto Protocol and many summits to first reach and then operationalise it. At the end a lot of business was generated, especially by companies in the global North and in China and India, but very little emissions reduction was achieved. Any kind of offsets arrangements under PA, including in Madrid, would only further undermine the already weak and struggling emissions reduction effort and further assist developed countries to reduce their own emission cut commitments and substitute them for far cheaper offsets in developing countries.
Additionally, since the entire PA has only voluntary emission cuts with no absolute ceiling on emissions unlike national emissions of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol, carbon pricing becomes a virtually impossible task. Carbon prices tumbled even under Kyoto due to the absence of a global ceiling to facilitate effective trading, as has been possible wherever such a ceiling prevails, such as in the EU for the European Trading Scheme (ETS) or even in India’s PAT(perform, achieve and trade) scheme.
Other than this, the Madrid is chugging along as usual. Various technical issues are dragging on with little to show by way of substantive progress. Ambition continues to lag far behind need. Developing countries and island states are continuing to push for more firm commitments on mitigation and funds for adaptation from developed countries, who continue to stonewall. “Loss and damage” i.e., compensation for damage already done by climate change is still being pursued by the former, even though it is by now clear over many summits that additional money will not be forthcoming. This is a losing battle, and developing countries would do better to focus on the two main issues, mitigation i.e., greater emission cuts by developed countries and funds from developed countries for adaptation particularly by least developed countries and small island states. Those are the issues that really matter and all other issues are subsumed under them.