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August 05, 2019

International Relations|Natural Resources

The Geopolitics of Climate Action

By Nitin Desai


June and July 2019 have been some of the hottest months in  recorded history and 2015-2019 was also the hottest  five year period on record.  In India, Delhi recorded a record temperature of 480C on 10 June 2019 at Palam and temperatures in excess of 500C were recorded in Rajasthan. Europe and the United States sweltered in unprecedented heat.

“The extraordinary heat was accompanied by dramatic ice melt in Greenland, in the Arctic and on European glaciers. Unprecedented wildfires raged in the Arctic for the second consecutive month, devastating once pristine forests which used to absorb carbon dioxide and instead turning them into fiery sources of greenhouse gases. This is not science fiction. It is the reality of climate change. It is happening now and it will worsen in the future without urgent climate action,” said the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation Mr.Petteri Taalas.

These heatwaves are but a small sample of what is in store for us if if we fail to tackle the threat of climate change. We will see more droughts more floods, more rain on fewer days, storm surges and saline intrusions in coastal areas, reductions in agricultural and biotic productivity, particularly in the tropics, more climate related disasters and increases in climate related health stresses.  No country can tackle this on its own since the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions are inherently planetary in nature.  That is why the geopolitics of who does what and who is forced to do what are now becoming a central concern in climate diplomacy. The debate on climate change in the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 will give some indication of what we can expect.

A recent article in Nature outlined four possible scenarios for how the geopolitics of climate action would evolve.  The first, quite implausible scenario, envisages deep cooperation amongst countries on burden sharing, finance market driven marginalisation of fossil fuel companies and emergence of green-technology giants and a vigorous pursuit off the UN’s sustainable development goals by all countries. The second scenario envisages a technological breakthrough that changes the economics of clean energy dramatically. A comparable example would be the mobile phone technology that revolutionised telecommunications.  But this technology driven scenarios also projects technological dominance and rivalry between a couple of countries. (No prizes for guessing who these could be!).  This cannot be ruled out but there is not sufficient evidence for this to be the basis for action today.  The third scenario paints the dire consequences of rising populist nationalism which puts an end to all cooperative mitigation efforts. The fourth scenario involves what we are doing now which is muddling through with weak agreements like the Paris accord. This would moderate some of the potential impact of business a usual, but, judging by current trends, would take us to a world where the temperature rise would be about 30C rather than the 1.50-20C that was the goal set at Paris in 2015.

Unfortunately right now we seem to be moving out of the muddling through to the populist nationalism scenario with the Trump administration denouncing the Paris agreement, the rise of nativism in Europe which is shifting its attention to immigration, the rejection of globalism in many countries in Latin America and Europe, much of it driven by obscurantist rightist parties who are quite ready to reject the scientific consensus on human induced climate change.  Yet the public pressure to act on climate change will continue to mount as instances of extreme climate events become more frequent and more intense.

India accounts for about 5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at present and China for about 25%.  However looking ahead at 2030 each of them will account for 20-30% of incremental GHG emissions and the pressure on them for more vigorous action for mitigation will mount.  Given the erosion of multilateralism this may well take the form of unilateral or plurilateral pressures exercised through trade, technology transfer or through global capital markets.  India and China should respond, not just defensively by referring to historical responsibility but by projecting themselves as leaders in climate action.

The Carbon Action Tracker rates India's Paris commitment as being in line with its fair share of what it needs to do in the global cooperation towards the 20C goal, though it considers China’s commitment to be “highly insufficient”. Both countries are on track for meeting their Paris commitments and may even end up doing better than promised. A recent study even suggests that China's emissions may peak up to a decade earlier than their Paris promise.

When it comes to climate geopolitics the two countries have a lot in common. Both have an interest in continuing to press the case for recognising responsibility for past emissions and the needs of development in determining fair shares in the available carbon space. Both are oil-deficient and  see solar and wind power not just as a carbon mitigation options but as an instrument for energy security. Both  depend heavily on coal and have an interest in countering the demonisation of coal use. They have a shared interest in developing technologies like carbon capture and reuse which can provide them a  mitigation option that can make coal use acceptable in a more stringent global environment for climate control.

The fact that domestic development needs and the demands of effective climate action happen to coincide, except of course for the coal dependence, makes it possible for both countries to pursue climate friendly growth with vigour and press for more effective action by the laggards in the developed world. But what can  give them a true leadership position is something rather different. It is the space that they have to develop and implement at scale climate friendly technologies in areas like motorised transport, building design, urban planning, energy efficiency in manufacturing, power systems that can accommodate large volumes of renewables, and much more. They are better placed to do this as the bulk of their buildings, urban spaces, manufacturing capacity and power systems have yet to be built. What it requires is the recognition that the command over climate-friendly technologies will become the source of geopolitical power in the future. China is already on this path and India must follow suit if it is not to  become the fall guy of global climate geopolitics.

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