Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Paris Climate Summit and its echoes in Delhi

by Ratnakar Tripathy


Even the most hardened environment cynic will admit the path-breaking significance of the recent Paris Climate Summit and the agreement reached by nearly 200 nations after prolonged bargaining. In the meantime, something vital has been happening in India as well that we shouldn't miss – a plan by the Delhi government to allow the use of private vehicles by the Delhi commuters only on alternate days after 1st January 2016. This is a first in India. It is tempting to place these two developments alongside to focus on the global and the local together. What brings them together is they reflect due acknowledgement of a crisis of enormous proportions that is already upon us. In the case of Delhi, it is the local air quality that is driving people sick, and in the case of Paris the wider concerns over global warming and its myriad known and unknown consequences. In both cases people seem to agree that some immediate comforts must be sacrificed for long-term benefits and that it is possible to arrive at a wide consensus and more important act in concert whether at the local or the global level. 

There are two interesting stories from Paris and Delhi that come to mind. According to reports, at some point the Paris negotiations ran into severe trouble over choosing between the words ‘should’ and ‘shall’ in certain clauses of the treaty. A draft of the Paris climate agreement stated in one subsection that “Developed country Parties ‘shall’ continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.” Of course, ‘should’ won the day after a resolute intervention by John Kerry and the talks moved towards a successful culmination. Shall, as opposed to should, which had been the wording in previous drafts, implies that the agreement is legally binding. The semantic deadlock just indicates the gulf between what is desirable and what actions we earthlings are willing to take to undo global warming. The less developed countries rightly believe that the developed nations are largely responsible for the carbon accumulated over the decades and centuries. The developed countries concede the point but would like to push the developing ones as hard as possible to reduce the carbon footprint. There is a smaller group of island countries like Tuvalu and Seychelles that face submergence under the rising sea and form a separate voice in the global arena. China and India with their enormous populations and their gargantuan need for power form an entity on their own. This is why the Paris Summit has to be seen as a beginning of something new, perhaps a tangible sense of global survival under the United Nations umbrella that was earlier missing in the international negotiations based on petty real politic alone.
The Delhi story is no less telling – I found a Delhiite complain disgustedly on Twitter that after being the first one ever in the clan to buy a car the vehicular restriction is the worst possible news for him. Similarly a Delhi-based housewife complained to a journalist that she finds riding buses and metros unbearable as the reason you use a car in the first place is to insulate yourself from the general riffraff. Given that cars in India are great status symbol imagine asking a feudal lord to dismount his horse and make a humiliating amble to the court! Both these individuals are exceptions however since the Delhi citizens now have a fair idea of what the atmospheric toxins are doing to their health. To rub the point the Delhi CM Kejriwal circulated on Twitter two contrasting photos of human lung samples taken from Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. The sooty Delhi lungs give the kind of jitters the diagrams on cigarette packs often give the smokers.  
But these tales should not distract us from the hard reality - Steffen Kallbekken, director of the Centre for International Climate and Energy Policy called the agreement ‘historic’ but added ‘this ambitious temperature goal is not matched by an equally ambitious mitigation goal,’ the scientific term for the drawing-down of heat-trapping gases. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate science body, two-thirds chance of limiting warming to two degrees, emissions would have to fall by 40-70 per cent by mid-century. And to reach the new 1.5C target those mid-century cuts would have to rise 70 to 95 per cent. This is by any means a tall order that sobers you up instantly.
Given the enormity of the problem and the targets ahead, the small consolation may be that in the aftermath of the Paris Summit, the alternative energy companies will likely get a fairer chance in the marketplace. According to Goldman Sachs as a result of the Paris Agreement, Wind turbine makers, electric car company Tesla Motors , solar panel group SolarEdge Technologies Inc and Albemarle Corp, which supplies lithium for batteries, will benefit from the deal. However, others cautioned against buying renewable stocks as the Paris agreement is not a binding treaty. It will take effect in 2020 only if it is ratified by more than 55 percent of nations, or nations that cause 55 percent of global emissions. ‘Binding’ thus seems to be the key issue repeatedly wherever you look.
That the Paris summit gives us a document and a bunch of concepts and vocabulary that may be upgraded over time and applies to the 200 signatory nations is thus easy to see. This is a list of what may be the key achievements of the Paris Summit:
1. The agreement reflects the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) of 1992.
2. Developed countries have been asked to take “economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets” while developing countries have only been “encouraged” to “move over time” to do so.
3. The developed countries will provide US $ 100 billion every year from 2020 and further scaling up will happen after 2025.
4. The LDCs and SIDS [least developed countries and Small Island Developing States] have been demanding that the world must strive to keep rising temperatures to within 1.5 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times, and not 2 degrees.
5. In the run-up to the Paris conference, 186 countries submitted their INDCs [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution], giving information about the climate actions they planned to take until 2025 or 2030. Every country has been asked to communicate an NDC [Nationally Determined Contribution] every five years.
6.  There is no differentiation in the measuring, reporting and verification in the universal (MRV) provision and it will be facilitative, non-punitive and respectful of national sovereignty

As for the Indian angle on all this, the increasing use of the ‘dirty’ coal by India and the attendant consequences has been the main anxiety among the developed countries. That India cannot escape using more and more in the short run given its need for power is apparent to all. In a recent projection, however the government had said it hoped to bring down its dependence on coal for electricity production from the current 61 per cent to 57 per cent in the year 2031-32. During that time, India also hopes to raise its total electricity generation capacity from the existing 260 GW to above 800 GW. By then the contribution of renewable energy in total electricity generation was projected to grow to 29 per cent from the current 12 per cent. Through a massive push in demand, standardisation and R&D, it is hoped that the Solar Alliance will drive down the costs of solar power generation even further. India, which launched the alliance during the Paris conference, is hosting its administrative infrastructure. 

Given the varied interests and positions, the very fact that China and India the two massive consumers of fuel energy are part of the environment dialogue and action is an achievement on its own. But the real achievement of course will lie in something far loftier – saving the planet, really from a doom of man’s own creation through cumulative action on the alternatives to fossil fuel. 

No comments: