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Humanity’s hope at Glasgow

Published: 31st Oct 2021 12:35 am

By Sanskrithi Thakur

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Flash floods, droughts, wildfires, incessant rains, and more. We are now experiencing extreme weather conditions at any point in time. With talks on world climate already inching towards a ‘point of no return’, the global community is scrambling for solutions. It is against this backdrop that the Conference of Parties (COP), with its 197 signatory nations pledged to reduce emissions, begins its annual session in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct 31 to Nov 12.  

From net zero and carbon credits to climate finance and mitigation strategies  —  the conference will have world leaders debating issues and also discuss the global stocktake, used to monitor the implementation and evaluation of progress made by nations, with respect to their pledged goals. Before progressing into the nitty-gritty of COP, it is important to understand the history of how the world came to be at the cusp of this human-induced natural disaster. Although humans have always recreated the world as per their liking and called it ‘development’, it got balanced out owing to the low economies of scale and as humans lived in comparative isolation. 

Gas, and More Gas

But with navigation prowess and technological advancement, the saga of environmental damage started increasing its magnitude. It scaled new heights with the Industrial Revolution and then the amount of Green House Gas (GHG) emission kept multiplying with each passing decade. 

The gases which normally aided in maintaining the earth’s temperature and sustaining life forms started becoming an excess in the atmosphere leading to an increase in the global temperature. To control this, it was decided that the temperature would be capped to 2°C and efforts would be made to keep it much lower at 1.5°C. But the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the UN scientific body analysing climate change, warns that if the given emission trend continues, it would get harder to cap emissions. It also predicted more extreme weather changes, putting humans at the epicentre of this debacle.

An irreversible climate change would prove to be detrimental to the rebuilding efforts of ecosystems and communities that are already affected by the disasters and prove to be an existential crisis to vulnerable communities (low-lying islands etc). The cost impact too will keep increasing with each wave as it will get difficult to predict the next disaster in real-time. Changes like extreme heatwaves, rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, irregular crop cycles and reduced crop yields would become the norm. This environmental crisis is deeply interconnected with economic and social aspects with problems like forced migration, water scarcity, business losses and loss of agricultural land.

COP26 and Urgency

There have been many efforts to combat climate change. The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is important since it comes close on the heels of the pandemic, and because it is time to take stock of the progress made by nations with respect to their emission reduction pledges as was decided in the landmark Paris Agreement. Originally planned in 2020, the COP was postponed due to Covid and is happening at a critical time when there is an increased awareness about climate change and the host nation has pledged to become net zero by 2050. 

The concept of net-zero has gained a lot of traction, wherein companies and nations alike are pledging to commit to a year, beyond which their emissions won’t peak and will balance out their emissions by removing an equivalent amount GHG from the air. This is done by processes like carbon sequestration (forests, oceans), carbon capture and storage.

International efforts to understand and mitigate climate change have been many, starting with the famous Kyoto Protocol that gave specific emission reduction targets to developed countries. An indirect way to achieve this was by buying carbon credits (a tradeable certificate that gives the holder the right to emit one tonne of CO2 or equivalent GHG gas) from developing countries, which were not obligated to do the same. The financial advantage helped the developed countries to continue polluting and the developing countries to prosper, get better amenities, and sometimes switch to cleaner technology.

The next major conference was COP15 (2009) in Copenhagen that brought 110 heads of nations together to commit $100 billion every year in climate finance for developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further climate risks. But this proved to be a broken promise as the rich countries have kept the contribution in deficit. According to a report in Nature, only $80 billion was provided in 2019 and even less in the previous years. 

By the time COP21 (2015) came, many developing nations had accumulated credits for future selling, but it turned out to be a vain effort as this conference changed the whole carbon market, where the previously accumulated credits were rendered useless. This remained an issue of contention among developing and developed nations during the COP as both cried foul at the other’s doing. 

The Paris Accord, as the COP got famously known, focused on winning consensus among its 197 members and gave way for Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These NDCs were voluntary and to be developed by the local governments to pledge their emission reduction and switch to cleaner energy. The progress would be measured every five years and the ambition would be ratcheted to meet the goal of keeping the global temperature well below 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels. The nations (or parties) are also to reduce the amount of GHG and invest in renewable energy (wind, solar, wave). More robust carbon credit methods were also to be generated and new market mechanisms built. 

Article 6 of the agreement, which outlines the NDC and linking of carbon emission trading systems, also allows countries with low emissions to sell their leftover carbon allowance to larger emitters, with an overall cap on their emission to ensure a net reduction. A global carbon price would be set up based on the supply and demand, which would make the states exceeding their NDCs pay the price. Due to the nature of the article, which overlaps economic, developmental, and social activities, there was a lot of debate and complications with businesses and nations wanting a larger piece of the pie. All the stakeholders are now looking forward to COP26 to untangle it.

Big Polluters Get Bigger

With developing nations still trying to build their infrastructure, human capital and industrial institutions, all requiring energy and technologies that still, unfortunately, depend on fossil fuel for a larger part; the nations aren’t ready to ratchet their NDCs. The developing nations, which even after development, are still on the top polluters’ list, are yet to reduce their per capita emission (emission per person). 

China, which tops the polluter nations list, has decided to send a delegate and President Xi Jinping would be giving it a miss. This seems to have already set the tone of how the negotiations will go with China. Although it has set a target to achieve net zero by 2060 and is investing heavily in renewable energy, it still has operations in offshore coal mining and is also making new investments in it. This would undermine the global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The United States saw some turbulence when  former president Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement. It is back into the fold with Joe Biden re-signing on the first day of his presidency and promising a significant portion of the $2 trillion plan in the next four years to be spent on building the clean energy sector. But the President is heading to the conference without reaching a consensus back home on the measures to tackle climate change.

India, being in the third position, has not yet revised the NDC. Although a big push is being given to solar as a renewable energy source and sustainability initiatives, India is still shying away from committing to net zero, citing issues of development hindrance. 

Many countries face the same issue as the cost of renewable technology remains high and technology is still to percolate from developed countries. But with cooperation and dialogue, the international community can leverage the conference to reduce the points of friction and concentrate on the points of commonality. The countries which have technologically advanced companies need to be given incentives to pass on the technology to countries that can help them develop sustainably. 

The clamour for a number bigger than the promised $100 billion is increasing, as the receiving parties are even suggesting $500 billion over five years with a solid payment timeline. 

What More Can Be Done

There can be more emphasis on net zero and more clarity on the activities that can propel clean carbon sequestration. With more companies coming into the gambit of net zero, there is a need to have international measurability standards. This can come after exhaustive research on local practices and standards. There has to be more clarity on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which can help both private and public sectors to align their activities with the carbon market scenario. 

More dissemination on science-based targets will help businesses with their short- and long-term sustainability goals. Countries in dire need of funds for mitigation projects struggle to attract the finance required. A proactive mechanism to detect and deliver to such places is needed. 

On the funding side, there is a dire need for mechanisms to ease the funding process and bring transparency. The trustee and beneficiary relationship needs to be revamped to suit the present market conditions. More innovations will help the masses switch to sustainability. 

Mitigation and Adaptation should be deliberated upon, with clear strategies drawn for the upcoming years. We need to have the right tools to measure the adaptation and mitigation success, as, without a well-defined criterion to measure, we might be prone to repeat mistakes of an adaptation strategy that does more harm than good or is biased against marginalised parties. This can lead to them falling through the gaps of a well-meaning yet badly implemented adaptation strategy. 

(The author is pursuing MBA in Sustainable Development and Management, Nalanda University)

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