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November 23, 2021

Climate Change

Climate Justice must drive liamte Action

By Nitin Desai






Big emitters must reconsider their stated net-zero date and specify a credible action plan.


Consider a riverside village that has been informed by authorities that it can expect a flood a few days ahead. What would you expect the villagers to do? In any traditional society they would get together and work cooperatively to protect themselves and help those inhabitants who are more vulnerable. There may also be higher level authorities who provide the warning, identify, when relevant, the perpetrators of actions that created the threat and require them to assist in the management of the flood.  There are four elements in this response that are important-first the credibility of the warning, second the sense of emergency shared by the village residents, third the social and political norm of joint responsibility, fourth a higher authority capable of enforcing restraint and liability on those most responsible for the risk.


Does the global village have a comparable response mechanism for the threat of climate change? A little over 30 years ago, the 200 or so nations who constitute this global village, set up two mechanisms for this purpose-a scientific body for building a consensus on the facts and projections about climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a negotiating process aimed at deciding what each nation should do that lead to a global treaty, the UN  Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). How successful have these to initiatives been in terms of the four elements of response outlined earlier?


When it comes to the first element, the credibility of the warning, one can say that each of the five assessments that the IPCC has so far presented and early indications of the sixth assessment have strengthened the scientific consensus on the facts and the projections. Doubts about the reliability of the projections of temperature and skepticism about the anthropogenic impact on climate are now limited to fringe groups, generally associated with those who have a commercial interest in fossil fuels. The IPCC reports and the growing evidence of the adverse impact after 1°C temperature rise that we have seen so far, have certainly raised awareness not just in scientific circles also in the commercial interests which will be affected by actions taken to address climate risk and the general public, particularly young people.


Has this rising awareness and the growing consensus on the facts and the projections led to the second element of a sense of emergency, sufficiently strong to lead to urgent actions? One sometimes gets this impression for a short period before and after the annual meetings like the recent Glasgow Conference of Parties (COP). But the reality is that the most drastic consequences of temperature rise are so far in the future that they cannot really influence sufficiently the decision making of either democracies or dictatorships which are generally dominated by short-term considerations. This absence of a sense of emergency can be seen in the blithe declarations of net zero emissions decades ahead but very little on what will be done now.


The third element of joint responsibility is reflected in the commitment to ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ embodied in the climate treaty. The problem is that the principles of climate justice that should govern the differentiation of responsibility have never been spelt out. There is also no agreement on whether the term responsibility should be interpreted as culpability or as duty. Since the risk of climate change depends on the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, the crucial issue here that has never been resolved is the extent to which the western nations should be held liable for the past emissions. Differentiation by capacity is now more widely accepted even in rich countries. However, unless the issue of differentiation by culpability is adequately resolved, countries will hold back on their commitments.


The fourth element of a higher authority capable of enforcing differentiation of actions based on liability and capacity is entirely missing in the global climate response process. We have to rely on the voluntary acceptance of liability by those responsible for the greater part of the accumulation of greenhouse gases. This, given the costs involved, is not politically saleable and, if attempted by some Western politician, will simply lead to the emergence of Trump type leaders who will move to an even more intransigent position on global climate commitments.


The lack of a consensus on climate justice and the absence of a supra-national authority has led to a negotiating process driven largely by the articulation of narrow national interests. The influence on the outcome is shaped by how important the country’s participation is, given its current and likely future emissions.  The past is history and ignored altogether in the process. This has led to a three-part power structure in the climate negotiations.  The first part includes the two big emitters, China and the USA, whose participation is a pre-condition for an effective agreement. This G-2 dimension is now clearly evident in the separate agreement that these two countries presented before and during the 2015 Paris COP meeting and the 2021 Glasgow COP meeting. The second part consists of about 18-20 countries each one of which accounts for 1 percent or more of the global carbon emissions who matter but, individually, they do not have the de facto veto power that the two big emitters have. The third part consists of about 180 countries that are at the receiving end of what the big players decide. The only modest impact on the big emitters to look beyond national interest comes from the public influence of scientific organisations and global activist groups.


The climate of the earth is the same for all humans and all living beings. It is a global public good and the anthropogenic impact on it has to be treated as a joint responsibility. Such a sense of joint responsibility cannot come unless there is a consensus on the principles of climate justice that would define each country’s and each individual’s duty. In the absence of such a ‘climate dharma’ we may get some modest progress with small improvements in commitments in COP after COP. The growing commercial interest in carbon-saving technologies may also help. But it will not be enough to contain the impending crisis. For that we have to spell out joint responsibility in terms of an agreed principle of climate justice.


Consider a simple principle of climate justice, like equal per capita emission of carbon, averaged over the years between now and 2050, and consistent with the estimates of cumulative carbon emissions for a 1.50C. This will require most big emitters to bring forward their net-zero target dates. The quantum change required will not come unless countries reconsider their stated net-zero date and specify a credible action plan from now onwards at the 2022 COP meeting. That goal and an independent national mechanism in every country for ensuring credibility and accountability is what climate activists must now pursue.

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