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October 26, 2021

Natural Resources|Climate Change

Climate Treaty must lead to Climate Action

By Nitin Desai





An agreed destination is not enough- there must be an agreed road-map A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has raised the red alert on the limited carbon space available to contain average global temperature increase to the goals agreed to 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 (CO2).

It is too early to know whether this hope will be fulfilled or belied. But one can assess the past performance of the UNFCC 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 United States did not and its emissions of GHGs rose by 15 percent in the nineties, 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% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. However, the world’s biggest emitter at that time, the USA, failed to ratify the agreement and its northern neighbour Canada also withdrew later.

The actual outcome looks respectable largely because of the huge decline in emissions in the former communist economies in transition attributable to their economic downturn. 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 United States 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 challenge 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 twenty-four decades between 1750 and 1990. Sixteen countries, each of which accounts for one percent or more of global carbon emissions, account for 84 percent of what has been added to carbon space since 1990. Of this cumulative emission of major emitters, 6 developed countries account for 50 percent, 5 developing countries for 36 percent (of which 70 percent was from China) and 5 fossil fuel exporters for 14 percent.

If we look at this not in terms of emissions from production but from consumption, the corresponding percentages change to 56 percent, 32 percent and 12 percent 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 percent probability of staying below a 1.50C temperature, 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 a 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 skepticism about climate change and the anthropogenic responsibility for it was quite widespread, particularly in high emitting countries like USA. It was also fueled by parties with substantial interest in fossil fuel production, particularly, oil.

That has changed and climate skepticism, 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 that 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°C, if possible, but certainly for a 2°C limit on temperature increase,
  • Individual commitments by countries consistent with their capacity and, what is perhaps more difficult, their history of use of 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 low carbon to a net-zero carbon emission world,
  • A willingness to discuss policy changes like carbon pricing that requires global cooperation
  • A commitment by all countries to make the legal, institutional, and policy development required for fulfilling their promises

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