Changing lifestyles is hard. A transformation will be difficult, time consuming and expensive.
It was way back in 1967 that a computer model was first used by researchers to predict the impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on the earth’s climate. The two scientists, Manabe and Wetherald had then concluded that “a doubling of the CO2 content in the atmosphere has the effect of raising the temperature of the atmosphere (whose relative humidity is fixed) by about 2 degree Celsius.” Yet, for almost five decades until the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report came out in 2015 and judged their paper as “the most influential climate change paper of all time” policymakers and climate modellers remained sceptical, and in denial. This continued despite 14 of the 17 climate models published between the early 1970s and late 2000s being accurate in predicting the average global temperature rise in the years after the initial publication.
The reasons for refusing to accept the original research and findings on the expected rise in global temperatures for so long are not difficult to recall. Apart from not highlighting in detail the consequences of the rise in temperature, the world-community, barely two decades out of the prolonged Second World War, was preoccupied with wiping away the horrific memories and repairing the damage done. Ushering in rapid economic growth became the pronounced goal of almost all nations, as they remained insensitive to the immediate, let alone long term, environmental impact. At that moment, reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) would have meant an all-round tightening of belts and slowing down the pace of recovery—a reality that was clearly understood by policymakers.
Unsurprisingly then, studying, talking and acting on measures to reduce the carbon footprint of individual and group actions was not in vogue. Leaders of neither national nor international organisations were overly concerned with the ongoing harm to the environment, and its long-term impact. Accordingly, low priority was given to such issues, and society, including major emitters of GHGs, continued with business as usual, unmindful of the deleterious impact they were causing on the environment.
Our contemporary lifestyles have been built around fossil fuel energy, the most common source of energy. Over the decades, these have seeped into almost all aspects of life and energy consumption has dramatically soared. Analysing the situation in 10 of the G20 nations (a mix of high-income countries UK, Canada, Finland, Japan, middle income China, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, and lower income Indonesia and India), the recent 1.5-Degree Lifestyles Report by the Hot or Cool Institute, a German think tank, studied six key areas of high consumption—food, housing, transportation, goods, leisure and services. The report concludes that the “carbon footprint of these nations far exceeds the Paris 2015 target for 2050” and “while the current global average lifestyle carbon footprint is 4.6 tonnes CO2 equivalent, this has to reduce to 0.7t CO2e by 2050.” The Indian footprint stands at 3t CO2e.
PUBLIC POLICY TO REALIGN CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION
Given the historic attitude and the resultant current situation, it is evident that everyone will need to drastically alter their lifestyles going ahead, with the burden falling more heavily on the affluent than those living at the margin. Furthermore, unless the state policies enable citizens to opt for low-carbon options, business as usual will continue, with all its disastrous consequences on the climate.
With the industrialised world continuing to emit more GHGs than the less developed, COP26 will have to go by making progress on the agreed principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Understandably, poorer countries have a strong sense of disappointment with the role played by developed countries since COP21—first, the US unilaterally walked out of the Paris Agreement, and then most well-endowed nations only paid lip service to their commitment of extending USD100 bn a year in financial assistance to developing nations to live up to their voluntary obligations. On an average, the actual assistance has been a fifth of the agreed quantum.
Despite the apparent devastation being caused by climate change occurrences, especially in the last two years, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of advanced nations have been far from encouraging. Beyond financial help, neither have affluent nations nor for that matter even the others have really tightened their rules and regulations adequately to make emitters and other polluters desist from continuing with their materialistic proclivities. Switching to lower consumption of raw materials, particularly those with higher carbon intensities, to lower their carbon footprint has to be both facilitated and enforced by state actions.
As per the 2021 IPCC report, human induced climate change is gathering pace; by 2030 itself, the planet will warm by 1.5 degree Celsius, and 2.7 degree Celsius by century-end. Consumption levels in the industrialised world continue to grow unabated—be it of food, consumer goods, durables, metals, oil, natural gas or a variety of industrial raw materials, all with significant carbon footprints in their extraction, processing and transportation. Such growing and arguably unwarranted levels of consumption directly take away from the impact of any gains seen from their efforts and resources towards greater energy efficiency.
The legal consequences of heavy polluting resulting in higher GHGs are still light enough on producers and extractors to not deter them from mending their ways. Most MSMEs tend to be even more irresponsible with the belief that they will stay under the radar and are too small to impact the climate. However, a nation as a whole can only become carbon neutral or eliminate fossil fuel burning when all its constituents strive to do so.
If we truly accept a goal of public policy to be rapid carbon footprint reduction, the direct consequence has also to be a realignment of consumption and production patterns. Not only should there be noticeable shifts away from carbon intensive items, but aggregate quantities produced and consumed must also decline. During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and social distancing norms did initially bring a fall in both consumption and production, with noticeable positive effects on emission levels. However, with all-out efforts to raise supply levels to meet pent-up demand now coming to the fore, the status quo ante has been almost restored, with various metrics of air pollution, along with effluents, getting back to the old undesirable levels.
The unfortunate reality is clear—during humanity’s march to carbon neutrality, there will be years of de-growth in economies and declines in GDP growth rates. As long as this is the result of a deliberate tightening of belts, however, this should not be a worry from a long-term perspective.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR TECHNOLOGY TRANSFER
The real concern is the transition in low-income and populous countries from fossil fuels, notably coal, to renewables and clean fuels. To facilitate the transfer of technology and equipment for the identified new processes to these countries, host countries where these innovations originate must subject inventors and other patent-seekers of clean energy technologies to a special set of intellectual property provisions. The concerned national regulators, as well as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a UN affiliate, will need to subject grantees to a dual jurisdiction when granting patents or trademarks viz. their own and the host government’s.
In assisting a user of such patented technologies in the identified third world countries, the host government should acquire the right to pass on the know-how and equipment without the payment of royalties or at highly subsidised levels. Alternatively, the host country could pay royalties and licence fees to the patent holder on behalf of the less developed country. Seamless transfer and access to state-of-the-art technical know-how, as well as wherewithal for manufacturing, must remain an important stated objective of a new Financing and Technology Assistance Agreement at COP26.
THE IMPERATIVE OF CLIMATE FINANCING
Climate financing must become a top priority. Keeping in mind the poor outcome of climate financing plans entered into at COP21 in Paris, it is imperative that this time at Glasgow, a detailed agreement delineating the responsibilities and obligations of nations is reached. It must settle once and for all whether developed country led climate initiatives should be funded only from public sources and provided as grants or concessional loans, or be from debts provided both by public and private sources.
OECD has repeatedly pointed out this aspect in its annual reports, as well as stated that figures for climate finance assistance have been inflated by including “funds for development projects such as health and education that only notionally target climate action.” While discounting even the OECD estimates of assistance, the Oxfam report on climate finance estimates that “in 2017-18, out of an average of $59.5 bn of public climate finance reported by developed countries, the climate-specific net assistance ranged only between $19 bn and $22.5 bn per year.” This figure is more in line with accounts provided by developed countries in their Biennial reports submitted to UNFCCC that show average climate-finance to be $26 bn between 2011-16, with a rise to $36.2 bn in 2017-18. Furthermore, between 2013-2018, the share of loans had continued to increase, while the share of grants had declined. This has the potential to exacerbate the debt crisis often faced by the poor nations.
COP26 also has to work out the country wide contributions of each developed country out of the agreed $100 bn per year, with the aggregate amount also needing to be periodically raised. The 2016 Adaptation Gap Report of UNEP had noted “the annual costs of adaptation in developing countries could range from $140 to $300 bn annually by 2030 and rise to $500 bn by 2050.” It is obvious that the quantum of currently available adaptation finance is far less than the needs indicated in the submitted NDCs of developing nations.
An international secretariat that oversees and monitors the assistance which is run by an independent developmental aid-body like the World Bank (but under the jurisdiction of UNFCCC) needs to be readied soon. Given that even optimistically, it will take at least 30 more years for the planet to become carbon-neutral, this will mean creating a more or less permanent set-up. In all likelihood, since developed countries would increasingly rely upon private funds for climate financing, this institution will have to develop the requisite in-house expertise to deal with new sources of funding, fast emerging market-based instruments, as well as evolving mechanisms to de-risk these sources by blending them with public finances.
Dr Ajay Dua, a progressive economist and a public policy specialist, is a former Union Secretary.
This is the third part of a series of four articles on the issues at hand at the forthcoming COP26.