A global call for climate justice

September 25, 2014 12:00 am | Updated 05:49 am IST

Neither Narendra Modi nor Xi Jinping attended the U.N. climate change summit despite being leaders of countries that are among the top three annual emitters of greenhouse gases

More than half a million people marched in nearly 3,000 simultaneous events conducted across 161 countries as part of the People’s Climate March on September 21. They carried placards promoting alternative sources of energy and chanted slogans condemning governments for their inaction on climate change and for mollycoddling global capitalism. They targeted, in particular, the fossil fuel industry, which has recklessly promoted the practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and other carbon-intensive activities. The demonstrations were to some extent mobilised by the non-governmental organisation 350.org, along with a growing global network of organisations, which are alarmed by the lethargy evident in international negotiations towards reaching a ‘safe’ limit for atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.

The scientific consensus is that this should be around 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. However, the primary greenhouse gas is persistent in the atmosphere and has increased its concentrations by nearly half since pre-industrial times to reach about 400 ppm.

The demonstrations were timed to coincide with the U.N. Climate Summit called for by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. Headquarters in New York this week. This meeting of world leaders, heads of states, finance ministers, business heads and leaders of civil society and community groups was meant to energise global action to address the global warming challenge. Many commitments were made at the summit separate from the formal negotiation processes. For instance, countries of the European Union pledged to reduce emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. Seventy three countries and over a thousand businesses and investors, making up more than half of the global economy, gave their strong endorsement for pricing carbon. Many leaders expressed their support for addressing loss and damage due to climate change and announced a number of initiatives for building resilience. India promised to double its use of solar and wind energy by 2020. A global movement and mobilisation for action that may have seemed impossible even a few years ago, appears now to be gathering force.

Neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor Chinese President Xi Jinping was at the summit, each citing busy schedules. This is unfortunate, because as new leaders of countries that make up nearly a third of the world’s population and are among the top three annual emitters of greenhouse gases, the U.N. summit would have been an excellent opportunity for them to learn and exchange views with other countries in a relatively informal setting. It is hard to imagine that either of them could fully appreciate all the intricacies of the ongoing climate negotiations under the various negotiating tracks of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or indeed the evolving and complex concerns brought up by climate science. A face-to-face meeting with other leaders, on the other hand, would have been a chance to have genuine concerns about climate aired out along with an exploration of synergies involving trade relations, economic development and conflict and opportunities for their joint resolution.

Link with capitalist development

The connections between capitalist development and the growth of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are very clear. Starting in the 19th century and intensifying since the 20th century, industrial capitalism has relied on the mining of fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and gas from under the surface of the earth. Use of these fuels has resulted in emissions of about half a trillion tonnes of carbon. Tellingly, the countries with the highest contributions to global concentrations also have the highest economic wealth today; similarly, GDP growth rates for much of the past century have been synchronous with growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Some European countries and Japan have made significant strides to decouple their economies from energy and carbon growth, but China, now responsible for producing consumer goods for much of the world, has shot up in carbon emissions in just the past decade. Even the U.S., responsible for a quarter of the cumulative emissions of CO{-2}and until recently the leading annual emitter, has reduced its emissions from energy in the past five years by about 5 per cent. Today, apart from CO{-2}, other contributors to global warming are also becoming significant, such as nitrous oxides, black carbon, hydroflourocarbons and methane, further complicating the picture.

Nevertheless, if future climate impacts are to be reduced to manageable levels, it has become clear that all countries need to shift their development pathways such that global emissions peak well before mid-century. Even this, it appears, may barely be sufficient to provide a fighting chance for avoiding a 2° rise in global average temperatures, which is seen by most scientists as a ‘guardrail’ against cascading climate effects.

The impact of climate change has just begun to make its mark. Its most devastating effects will be experienced by the poorest in those countries that have emitted the least. Thus, Bangladesh, responsible for less than 0.2 per cent of cumulative emissions will face devastating challenges as a result of sea level rise, floods and landslides, affecting nearly 120 million of some of the poorest people in the world. Several small island states face the prospect of losing their land entirely, creating a new category of ‘climate exiles’. India too can expect to face more intense cyclones, flooding, droughts, sea level rise and variability in the monsoons accompanied by secondary effects such as destruction of ecosystems and threats to livelihoods, public health and food security. Even if emissions are reduced substantially today, many of these impacts will be felt over time. An emerging country such as India needs to get serious about climate compatible development that prioritises the provision of energy services for the 300 million or so of its poor. Planning cities, power stations, agriculture and modes of living that are sustainable for generations to come is the real challenge. Along the way, policies should avoid technological and institutional pathways that lock the economy into high-carbon and unsustainable modes of growth that worsen inequality rather than reduce it.

In Paris

Since 1994, when the UNFCCC entered into force, global negotiations on reducing the threat of climate change have gone through several twists and turns, with the discussions themselves becoming more arcane and complicated. Climate negotiations have become so complex that only large teams of lawyers seem to be able to understand their intricacies.

This week’s summit and future preparatory meetings over the coming year, including an agreement on Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, are building up to the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in late 2015. In Paris, international negotiators are expected to make pledges or set targets to reduce emissions so that global temperatures, which are now moving toward an increase of more than 4°C have a chance of remaining below the 2°C guardrail.

The emerging global citizen’s movement for climate justice is a sign of an undercurrent of gathering impatience towards politically entrenched interests worldwide that have stalled the movement to reduce greenhouse gases. If, as most informed observers believe, climate change really turns out to be the most important environment and development challenge of the 21st century, world leaders, including our own, cannot afford to remain on the sidelines.

(Sujatha Byravan is advisor, Center for Study of Science Technology and Policy, Bangalore, and Sudhir Chella Rajan is professor, IIT Madras.)

India needs to get serious about climate compatible development prioritising provision of energy services for its poor

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