When Hurricane Ian struck Florida and Cuba a few days ago, it gave scientists and activists another attention-grabbing moment to tell people that climate change was already having a deadly impact on their lives. Scenes of death and devastation from a Category 4 storm in one of the U.S.’s favourite holiday States forced politicians and policymakers to confront their weak climate record. Scientists see governments and leaders everywhere as doing almost nothing when the threat has arrived at the door.
The instrument ratified by almost all countries to avert dangerous climate change through a phasing down of greenhouse gas emissions is the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The pact of 2015 is now in its decisive decade of action. Its headline goals are clear — firstly, to limit the rise in average global temperature to 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century, and at least peg it well below 2 degrees C; and secondly, to achieve a peaking of man-made emissions as soon as possible. However, individual national pledges of member-countries do not possess the finer details on how they will get to net zero emissions by mid-century.
The Paris process thus incorporates a timeline of actions to which countries have agreed, and the Global Stocktake of 2023 is the next big item on the agenda. This will be strengthened by the submission of a synthesis report on the science of climate change, the Sixth Assessment Report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The cost of political upheavals
The road to the Stocktake is marked by political upheavals in some countries. This threatens to upset the progress towards a scaling down of carbon emissions, of which a prominent example was the hostile stance of the U.S. under the Donald Trump administration (2017-21) towards climate science and emissions reduction. The echoes are felt even today, and U.S. agencies are encountering judicial barriers to enforcing regulations on carbon emissions reduction.
In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was restrained by the country’s Supreme Court from regulating emissions from energy, in a case filed by the State of West Virginia. The successes achieved by ultra-conservative politicians in Italy and Britain threaten to slow the momentum on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency says 2021 witnessed the largest absolute annual rise in carbon dioxide emissions at 2 billion tonnes, making it clear that the post-COVID recovery was hardly green.
Such regressions threaten the Paris Agreement’s progress, while the amount of GHGs that the earth can feasibly accommodate before the average temperature rises to extremely dangerous levels — that is, beyond 2 degrees C — remains finite. The IPCC assessment of 2020 says that the global carbon budget, which is the volume of greenhouse gases that can still be emitted to meet the Paris goals, are an estimated 400 gigatonnes CO2 (GtCO2) for 1.5 degrees and 1,150 GtCO2 for 2 degrees, with a 67% probability — and 300 GtCO2 and 900 GtCO2, respectively, with an 83% probability.
Against this backdrop of political uncertainty, there is lack of clarity on whether emerging economies can bring down emissions by adopting appropriate technologies and get adequate funds to adapt to climate change impacts. The UNFCCC is using a structured approach to get member-countries to document their actions for the Global Stocktake. The questions it has sent out ask, what collective progress has been made towards achieving the temperature goals in the Paris Agreement, what specific actions need to be taken, what barriers and challenges exist? Similar questions are asked on adaptation, finance flows, technology development and transfer, equity and human rights in national climate actions, and steps to stop the loss of the natural environment.
The Global Stocktake is a major opportunity for emerging economies and least developed countries to call richer countries to account, since current impacts of climate are largely due to the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere that they emitted since the industrial revolution. There is also despair among scientists that obstructionist climate politics played by wealthier nations is creating a point of no return, with ongoing climate impacts: warmer oceans, rising sea levels and threats to critical glaciers in Greenland and the West Antarctic. These could send the world into uncharted territory as tipping points are crossed.
The IPCC synthesis report on national pledges on greenhouse gas emissions cuts shows that at present rates, by 2030 there could be an increase in carbon emissions of 16% over 2010 levels. The latest findings indicate that such a rise may produce a temperature rise of about 2.7°C by the end of the century, with catastrophic consequences.
There is also legitimate fear of worse climate events to follow, that too more frequently. Climatologist James Hansen and his colleagues at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) forecast in September that 2024 appears set to become the hottest year on record, “off the chart”, on the back of an El Nino expected to set in during 2023 after a gap of a few years. This has implications for all connected aspects such as glacier health, sea level rise, sea surface temperature and biodiversity health. A warmer atmosphere retains more water vapour, and when moving to cooler areas, dumps staggering volumes of rainfall. Drowning Indian cities are now a familiar sight.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, reported five years ago that on average, for each one degree C warming of the ocean surface, an increase in wind speeds of major hurricanes of about 28 km per hour could be expected. Their destructive potential also goes up considerably.
Another high-level scientific report written after the Paris Agreement came into force is the Dasgupta Review, by the Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta, on the economics of biodiversity. His Commission’s accounting shows that factors that influence the climate system, such as forests, rivers, waterbodies and the life forms that sustain them, should be treated as public goods since they play a critical role.
Reducing the damage from climate change and biodiversity loss is “akin to the production of public goods, which are neither rivalrous (access to a public good by any one group of people has no effect on the quantity available to others) nor excludable (no one can be excluded from access to the good)”, he says in the report. Factors that help regulate the climate must be safeguarded as global public goods.
Scientifically estimating the contribution of natural resources would help countries including India claim special compensation for these public goods — the Western Ghats, the Northeast forests, the Himalayan glaciers, river systems and so on. With such compensation Brazil should stop deforestation in the Amazon, a vital monsoon and climate regulator, and forests in Southeast Asia must be saved too.
One question that is bound to arise around the 2023 Global Stocktake is the commitment of emerging economies to align their policies at the most decentralised level of cities and towns on energy, buildings, transport, water use, agriculture and soil preservation, waste management and urbanisation to climate imperatives, consistent with the UNFCCC charter. By that it is meant that richer countries help them do so and do more themselves. As of now, this has not happened, since there is no climate audit for each policy measure, and long-term carbon intensive lock-in effects will continue to be felt.
Rising tax on carbon polluters?
The U.S. recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act, making available, among other things, $370 billion to shift to solar and wind energy, away from fossil fuels. But Prof. Hansen calls this insignificant while being burdensome on future generations. What is needed, he has argued, is a rising tax on carbon polluters to end the use of fossil fuels.
( G. Ananthakrishnan is a Chennai-based journalist)