Paris climate conference: What it portends for the world and India
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 05 Dec 2015 4 Comments

If the world is to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, a level that scientists say is a red line, the following are the numbers global leaders have to grapple with between now and December 11. Can they? The world has used up two-thirds of its carbon space for a 2-degrees-Celsius temperature rise, consumed 35 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves and cut a third of global forests.


And it has just 1,000 giga tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) – called carbon space or developmental space – to put out in the atmosphere to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report (AR5).


Temperature rise beyond that will be catastrophic, according to experts, and that doesn’t leave much wriggle room for India. “India should be aligning with the other third world countries – they are our natural allies – and push the US, EU, and China to increase their commitments, while also offering to conditionally increase its commitments,” opines Nagraj Adve, a member of India Climate Justice.


While global leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate change, “the (Conference of Parties) COP 21 is about how much carbon space is left and who gets how much of that space,” points out Sagar Dhara, an environmental engineer and energy expert based in Hyderabad. But, there are other things to worry about.


The so-called “green revolution”, an euphemism for highly extractive and high input agriculture, which India has been following in states like Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh etc., has contributed an enormous amount of Nitrous Oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) which are greenhouse gases (GHGs) with tremendous potential to heat up the atmosphere. A molecule of nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for 150 years, five times more staying power than carbon di oxide. And our green revolution enthusiasts have been doing that for almost half a century. We produced a mountain of food but at tremendous cost to the environment - dried aquifers, degraded soils, polluted ground water and vanished biodiversity.


Rising temperatures are hurting people. The world has already put out 2,000 GtCO2e into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began in the mid-18th century, using 35 percent of the known 1,700 GtCO2e of conventional fossil fuel reserves and cutting a third of the 60 million sq km of global forests.


A temperature increase of 0.85 degrees Celsius since the industrial revolution has already proved dangerous to people and environment in terms of wilder weather, species migration and extinction, food and water security, and conflicts. The stakes have never been as high as now at Paris; current obligations wear off in 2020. The task ahead is clear: hammer out an agreement on future emissions to stave off the tipping point.


The sticking points are over who will get what share of the carbon space and who will bear the financial cost. At the end of COP 20 held in December 2014, the countries submitted their plans of climate action – known as Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs) – including emission targets as per the Lima Call for Climate Action.

The road to Paris


The pledges may be too little, too late. Since climate co-operation began at the international level in 1997, progress made has been incompatible with the scale of the problem, leaving poor countries at the receiving end of the climate crisis. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, called on countries to rein in greenhouse gases (GHGs) and obliged 43 developed countries – called Annex 1 (A1) Parties, including what was the then-Soviet Union – to cut GHGs by 5 percent – 32 GtCO2e – between 2008 and 2012, compared to their 1990 levels, excluding transport emissions.


Developing countries were exempt from the obligations. During the 1990-2012 Kyoto Protocol period, developed countries reduced their emissions by 16 percent or 32 GtCO2e. The twist in the tale is that emission reduction is fictitious. First, the emissions are accounted for in the country that produces goods and services. Over the past two decades, the developed countries have turned into net importers of goods and services from the developing countries, particularly India and China.


That means, emissions were accounted for by the developing countries and not developed countries. This helped them maintain their high consumption levels at low costs. Apart from that, shrinking economic activity in Canada, Japan, Australia, Western and Eastern Europe also contributed to emission reduction.


Net trade emissions of developed countries were 40 percent more than the stated goal in Kyoto Protocol. India is set to experience the worst ever environmental degradation. Now that the countries have pledged their emission shares, it’s all about filling up the carbon space and who gets what share. The leftover carbon space will be filled up by 2040 with pledges; without pledges, by 2035.


At the current negotiations, as in the past, the developing countries will pitch their own slice of developmental space while developed countries will claim “squatter rights”. In the case of India and other developing countries, even the demand for equity is a weak argument. For one, developed countries emitted around 65 percent of historic emissions, cumulative emissions since 1750, and their historic emissions, per person, is 1,200 tonnes, 40 times more than every Indian’s.


Even if one gives the entire carbon space to third world countries, they are not going to achieve living standards of the developed world. All one has to do is to look at China and see how destructive rapid economic growth has been. Assuming India’s goal is to replicate China’s recent development means that the country is poised to experience the worst-ever environmental degradation in history, affecting every aspect of the biosphere from unprecedented levels of air pollution to water pollution, biodiversity loss and run-away urbanisation.


All this puts third world countries like India in a serious bind. If we decline to play ball with developing countries at COP 21 regarding their own emission cuts, they will manipulate us on the effects of climate change as we are economically and geographically the most vulnerable. If we play ball with developed countries and accept emission cuts, our own development, as is popularly understood and touted, will suffer, and inequality and disparity between developed and developing countries will increase.


Whichever way one slices this, one is in a deep ditch. What’s more, even the emission pledges are not enough – although something is better than nothing. A report from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on the aggregate effect of the INDCs shows that the temperature rise will be 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of this century and not 2 degrees, a rise beyond which, scientific consensus says, could be catastrophic.


The Emissions Gap Report 2010 from the United Nations Environment Programme tackles the question – Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees Celsius? A key finding is that under business-as-usual projections, global emissions could reach 56 GtCO2e (range of 54-60 GtCO2e) in 2020, leaving a gap of 12 GtCO2e. To remain in line with a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the emissions should have peaked by 2020 and then dropped off, which appears to be a remote possibility with current trends.  

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