Insights into Editorial: Climate calculus
With the United States, China and 59 other countries who account for 48% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions ratifying the Paris climate change agreement, India’s decision to ratify without any further delay was a sensible move.
- It will give India a seat at the high table where 55 countries who account for 55% of the world’s GHG emissions will meet to decide how to go about meeting the targets and the commitments needed to keep average global temperature rise under 2 degree Celsius.
About the agreement:
The Paris Agreement on climate change is a milestone in global climate cooperation. It recognizes the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in the light of different national circumstances.
- The agreement acknowledges the development imperatives of developing countries. The Agreement recognizes the developing countries’ right to development and their efforts to harmonize development with environment, while protecting the interests of the most vulnerable.
- It also recognizes the importance of sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption with developed countries taking the lead, and notes the importance of ‘climate justice’ in its preamble.
- The objective of the Agreement further ensures that it is not mitigation-centric and includes other important elements such as adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology, capacity building and transparency of action and support.
- Pre-2020 actions are also part of the decisions. The developed country parties are urged to scale up their level of financial support with a complete road map to achieve the goal of jointly providing US $ 100 billion by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation by significantly increasing adaptation finance from current levels and to further provide appropriate technology and capacity building support.
What’s good about this agreement?
Shared responsibilities: Unlike previous agreements which put all the responsibility for reducing emissions on rich countries, in the Paris Agreement, all 196 signatories agreed that every country must take action, while acknowledging that richer countries should start immediately and cut emissions more steeply, while poorer countries’ contributions will depend on their individual situations.
A “ratchet mechanism”: This is the technical term for the agreement to submit new pledges by 2020. It’s the most important victory within the agreement, as many large developing nations, like India and Indonesia, were reluctant to agree to a system that would pressure them to up their ambition within the next decade. The ratchet mechanism requires countries to return to the table in 2020 and spell out their plans for 2025 to 2030. This creates the opportunity for the world to potentially put itself on a course to stay below 2 C.
Ambitious abstract goals: The Paris Agreement includes the goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees C. But at the behest of the most vulnerable countries, such as the small island states, it also goes further, calling for efforts to stay below 1.5 C. It even requests that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produce a report on how we could stay below 1.5 C.
However, this agreement is far from sufficient. Why?
- Various studies show that even if all INDC targets were achieved, the world would still be heading towards eventual warming of some 2.7-3.4°C above pre-industrial levels.
- Over the past decade, energy productivity has grown by only 0.7% annually, and the share of zero-carbon energy rose by only 0.1 percentage point per year. Moreover, even if the INDCs were fully implemented, these annual growth rates would reach only 1.8% and 0.4 percentage points, respectively.
So, what needs to be done now?
- To keep warming well below 2°C, emissions in 2030 must be more than 30% below those envisaged in the INDCs. We must also reduce energy-related emissions by 70% from 2010 levels, with further cuts needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2060.
- This will require both an improvement in energy productivity (the amount of income produced per unit of energy consumed) of at least 3% per year and the rapid decarbonization of energy supply, with the share of zero-carbon energy increasing by at least one percentage point each year.
- Solar power can make a difference here. Solar power costs have fallen 80% since 2008. In some places, new supply contracts have set prices as low as $0.06 per kilowatt hour, making solar power fully competitive with coal and natural gas.
- Investments in renewable capacity need to be matched by accelerated progress in battery technology, or by other tools to match electricity demand to intermittent supply.
- Road transport and aviation, which currently rely almost entirely on liquid fossil fuels, account for 30% of total energy consumption. Decarbonization of these activities will require electrification or the use of hydrogen or biofuels.
- Heating buildings is another area where major changes are needed. Here, the more widespread use of zero-carbon electricity, instead of fossil-fuel-based energy, could have a major impact. But there are also important opportunities to design and construct buildings and cities that are substantially more energy-efficient.
- Energy use by heavy industry presents challenges that are often ignored. Metals, chemicals, cement and plastics are vital building blocks of the modern economy, and involve processes that cannot be easily electrified. Decarbonization may instead require the application of carbon capture and storage technologies, while newly designed building materials could reduce demand for carbon-intensive inputs.
- Governments have a vital role to play, but so, too, do incumbent fossil-fuel-based energy companies and new-entrant companies deploying or developing new technologies. NGOs can help to identify required policies and hold governments and companies to account. Individual consumers are also important, because their behaviour shapes energy demand.
Now that the decision to ratify has been taken, India must gear up towards meeting three key commitments:
- Reducing GHG emissions in 2030 by 33-35% from 2005 levels.
- Scale up share of non-fossil fuels to 40% of total energy production.
- Create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes through enhancing forest and tree cover, all by 2030.
However, according to few experts, INDCs proposed by India are not realistic. Why?
- The INDCs propose to rely on existing mechanisms without a review of its earlier outcomes. Several reports, even from the government, have questioned the efficacy of earlier programmes.
- Fixing concrete targets for afforestation also open up uncomfortable questions for the government such as the availability of land for greening.
- The proposed targets are isolated from the other sectoral growth targets such as those under ‘clean’ energy through nuclear, ‘clean’ coal and hydro power projects. The commitments to expand these sectors do not acknowledge their footprint on forest areas. Almost all such energy projects would require the diversion of forest land under the Forest (Conservation) Act. And such forest diversion is not accounted for in the growth projections made.
- The current rate of forest diversion to other uses like coal mining, power generation, construction of roads or ports is approximately 35,000 ha annually. There are pending project proposals that seek the diversion of 3414.84 ha of forest land. These diversions are not taken into account.
- The government has suggested that the participation of the private sector will green degraded forests. However, the private sector has only shown a propensity for deforestation.
- Even the scientifically trained bureaucracy has so far not been able to achieve national forestry targets.
- Even if the target is achieved, there is no guarantee that these areas will not be diverted for non-forest use if the latter seems more beneficial in monetary terms.
With climate commitments becoming almost inevitable, a national consultative process on low carbon strategies cannot be delayed. In order to comply with the Paris process, every aspect of energy use would need precise measurement in the years ahead, which several sectors of the economy are ill-equipped to do at present.
- Upgrading the electricity grid to take in higher volumes of renewable power is an urgent necessity if India is to realise the national goal submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to install 100 gigawatts of solar power capacity by 2022.
- A bold new policy on urban design to curb emissions from buildings and transport has to be written into all relevant legislation.
- Such far-reaching steps can be taken only with the active participation of State governments, many of which remain on the periphery of the discussion. That needs to change, and a blueprint for action has to be drawn up, if a convincing case is to be made for assistance from the $100 billion a year that the rich countries are to put together by 2020.
- Fundamentally, national policy should mandate even higher levels of taxes on fossil fuels and transfer the benefits to eco-friendly options, be it solar panels, efficient light bulbs, bicycles, green buses/trains, and greening initiatives.
India has estimated that the adaptation and mitigation actions are estimated to cost US$2.5 trillion between now and 2030 but the big question is whether we can wriggle out commitments from the developed countries on international climate finance. Though the developed bloc may have avoided its historical responsibility, India can still press for a climate justice paradigm centred around financing mitigation activities. If the world is serious about fighting climate change together, developed nations should open purse strings and offer free transfer of mitigation technologies.