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Monday, October 12, 2015

Climate Change Conferences: What is in Store?

Scientists have been repeatedly warning about the human interference with the climate system as ‘dangerous’. Their argument essentially rests on the fact that earth is getting warmer—average temperature has risen by about 0.8 oC over the past century. Secondly, it is said that carbon dioxide levels—which, along with other Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), viz., methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride, is known to trap some of the infra-red energy and heat that reaches the earth from the Sun that would have been otherwise radiated back into space—in the atmosphere have risen by 109 parts per million from that of 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial age.

Realising the uncertainties associated with global warming and its impact on climate, the world community has come up with a treaty to cut the emissions of carbon dioxide—the main ‘greenhouse gas’ that is found responsible for heating the planet to potentially dangerous levels—was drafted as early as in 1997 in a Japanese city called Kyoto. The said treaty was named after the city in which it was drafted—Kyoto Protocol—and came into force on February 16, 2005. As of September 2011, 191 states have signed and ratified the protocol. Under the protocol, 37 countries have committed themselves to reducing their emission of four GHGs, namely, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride. The reduction proposed was an average of 5.2% from the 1990 level by the end of the first commitment period of five years that comes to an end in 2012. The United States of America, which in 1997 was the world’s largest carbon polluter, accounting for 24% of global carbon dioxide emissions, has however, not ratified the protocol. Poorer countries were however cast no such obligations to cut such emissions for they never reaped any benefit out of industrialisation that is squarely blamed for emission of carbon dioxide gas.

Subsequently, the Copenhagen accord undermined the Kyoto protocol by placing the advanced and emerging economies on the same footing—which means developing countries such as China and India are equated with the US and Europe in their commitment to emission cuts, though there is a huge difference in the per capita income of these countries. This made emerging economies insist on equality in the climate negotiations, particularly, demanding that the developed rich countries must own their historical responsibilities for the excess carbon already in the space before asking for more action from the developing countries for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

That aside, post-Fukushima, developed countries, such as Germany are moving away from nuclear power. Nor have the efforts to generate renewable forms of energy fructified. It thus becomes clear that there is no alternative to coal and oil. It means, the emission of GHGs is likely to increase, which is of course not the best thing to happen.

In the meanwhile, reports indicate that global carbon emissions have hit record levels owing to extraordinary industrialisation, with China becoming the world’s carbon emitter-in-chief, nudging the US to second place. Indeed, according to a report of International Energy Agency, China alone will produce as much carbon dioxide during 2010-2035 as the US, the EU and Japan combined. Hence, it warned the world community that the world is heading for an “irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.” Such a change, scientists fear, in the short run, can cause increased monsoons, increased flooding and increased drought, impacting the growth of crops, and in the long run, raise the sea levels affecting metropolitan cities around the world.

It is in this context that the pledge of rich countries to finance the South’s climate actions—$100 bn a year by 2020 and $30 bn in ‘fast-start’ money over three years—besides transferring the technology, has become all the more relevant for developing economies. But the ground reality is otherwise: owing to its current economic plight, today the EU is not that enthusiastic in embracing the Kyoto Protocol as in the past; nor is the US in any better position. Even Japan announced its disagreement with the second compliance period as envisioned in Kyoto Protocol at the Cancun summit. So, no wonder if the proceedings of the Durban summit end up without designing a road map for sustainable development.

Against this background, what everyone concerned about global warming is looking forward to is: a way forward based on science and equity without sacrificing the need for food and security of people in developing countries. But, Pundits argue until there is more political maturity and commitment on the US side, and unless China and India come forward to play their part in tackling climate change, no breakthrough will take place in signing the global climate change agreement. It is also equally necessary to that all the large emitters of GHG need to be involved in the negotiations process to come to a conclusion.

However, looking to the current status of the preparedness of all the countries to sign a binding and universal agreement on climate, one wonders: wouldn’t it be alright to  get at least a mini-lateral climate change agreement signed? In the climate field, even a mini agreement is perhaps good rather than no agreement at all, for it starts delivering results.


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