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August 29, 2023

International Relations|Climate Change

Rising Climate Risks

By Nitin Desai







The average global temperatures in June and July 2023 were the highest in recorded history.Forest fires are becoming more widespread, burning nearly twice as much tree cover today as they did 20 years ago. The average global ocean temperature has smashed records for May, June and July. At home, the Centre for Science and Environment has estimated that in 2022 extreme weather events were reported at some place or the other on 314 out of 365 days.

Clearly climate risks are not just some future threats.  Thirty years of global cooperation for climate risk mitigation has not worked.  Between 1990 and 2019 global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) have gone up from 30 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to 48 billion tonnes of CO2e. The increase in GHG emissions is almost entirely attributed to developing countries which were exempt originally from significant mitigation responsibility.

This growing role of developing countries in GHG emissions is not a violation of the UNFCCC. In fact at the first meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2005 the Berlin mandate recognised the “legitimate needs of the developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty” and the fact that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that the per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs”.

One modification is necessary and that is to exclude China’s emissions from the developing country emission estimates. Between 1990 and 2019 China’s per capita emissions shot up from 2.8 to 8.9 tonnes of CO2e, a level that is greater than the per capita emissions of Western Europe in 2019.  The increase in China’s emissions between 1990 and 2019 is 54 percent of the total global increase in emissions. There is no justification for lumping together China and India, as is commonly done by Western activists, since India’s per capita emissions in 2019 are still lower that what China’s per capita emissions were in 1990.

My submission is that the fundamental challenge for climate risk management is still the need for stronger action by the developed countries, with just one modification-include China in this group.

Between 1990 and 2020 the emissions of GHG of the Annex 1 developed countries did decline by about 2724 million tonnes of CO2e.  But it is worth noting that much of this is because Russia and the East European countries, which were part of Annex 1, experienced a massive decline in emissions, not because of climate friendly policies but because of the collapse of their energy-intensive industries. In fact, their emission reductions amount over 80 percent of the Annex 1 country emission reductions. Only the Western European countries show a significant fall in emissions, mainly after 2007.

The developed countries and China are still the major problem for managing climate risks. The per capita emissions in 2019 of Annex 1 countries of 12.4 tonnes of CO2e and China’s of 8.9  tonnes of CO2e are way above the emissions of 2.5   tonnes of CO2e by India and 4.3tonnes of CO2e by other developing countries. Since climate risks depend on cumulative emissions one must also note that the liability and responsibility of Annex 1 countries is even greater if one looks at the emissions before 1990.

Unfortunately, climate justice has not driven global climate diplomacy and the Paris agreement has shifted the focus of climate diplomacy in two ways - diluting the top-down pressure on mitigation on the developed countries and including the developing countries in mitigation promises.

The neglect of climate justice is also manifest in the net-zero announcements of the high emitting developing countries.  Looking ahead at the future, keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5oC would require that the global total of emissions should be 500 billiontonnes of CO2e, which works out to an average of 1.8 tonnes per capita between now and the target net-zero date. A calculation reported some time ago in a BS column shows that the current net-zero dates announced by the major emitters would mean “the emissions of USA will amount to. 5-7 tonnes, of China 4-6 tonnes , of EU and UK 2-3 tonnes, Russia 5-8 tonnes and Japan 4-5 tonnes.  India is rather better placed to meet the just goal as its average per capita per year emissions will be in the 1.5-2.3 tonnes range”[1] Please note that this does not involve any liability for historical emissions, which USA and other developed countries have stoutly refused to accept.

The possibility that we will not contain the global average temperature increase below 1.5-2oC is becoming more probable. The threat of climate change leading to the global ecosystem crossing some critical tipping points is now much more real.  We need major changes in production and consumption patterns in both developed and developing countries which will not be done voluntarily by those with the power to make decisions in governments and corporations.  In some ways the challenge is greater in developed countries where the present production and consumption patterns are congealed in a climate risk enhancing manner.  In developing countries, on the other hand the main issue is reorienting future development which is easier than redesigning already existing patterns of production and consumption.

The simple fact is that our dependence on an agreement between national governments to contain climate risks has not worked. The answer lies in promoting a mass movement for climate risk reduction in the developed world and China.

One outcome of the past thirty years of climate cooperation is the growth in the number of activist NGO groups, science-based monitoring groups and now the instances of legal impact like the Netherlands court judgements on Shell and on the Government enforcing substantial emission reduction obligations. But the most influential NGOs and research bodies with a global perspective are based in the developed West. They often reflect the biased views of Western powers about who is falling behind their commitments and responsible for rising climate risks.

What we need is the broadening of these pressure generating developments with greater global participation by developing country activist groups and research-oriented organisations, particularly in India. Our goal should be not just to publicise what we are doing but to estimate and project globally the large shortfall in the announced commitments of USA, China and other developed countries  relative to what their obligations should be under a fair distribution of mitigation responsibility. We must shift the focus of global opinion more towards pressure on the Annex 1 countries and China. This is not an excuse for missing out on what we can and should do for climate risk mitigation and adaptation.  It is basically plea for pushing in more specific terms on what climate justice requires by way of “common but differentiated responsibility”.

[1] Climate Responsibility by Nitin. Desai, Business Standard, October 30, 2022

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