COP26 must address the existential climate threat now facing the planet.

Perhaps no one has expressed greater concern recently about climate-change than the heads of a few low lying and island nations who view the situation as an existential crisis. Last week at the ongoing UN General Assembly, President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of the Maldives observed that “the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is a death sentence for the Maldives.” Joining him was President David Kauba of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean who warned “we simply have no higher ground to cede—and the world cannot delay climate ambition any further.” Similarly, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali was upfront when he implored the rich and the powerful national leaders: “We hold out similar hope that the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases that are affecting the welfare of all mankind will also come to the realization that, in the end, it will profit them little to emerge king over a world of dust.”
Sharing their apprehensions more broadly, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the upcoming COP26 as “a wakeup call to instill an urgency on the dire state of the climate process” and noted that it faces a high risk of failure unless world leaders take stronger measures to stem greenhouse gas emissions. The Nobel Laureate progressive economist Paul Krugman says it more strongly: “Civilisation faces an existential threat: if we don’t take action to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, in the long run nothing else—not health reform, not income inequality, not even financial crisis—will matter”.
The upcoming UN hosted COP26 in Glasgow, with 185 national-heads and other stakeholders follows the COP21 held in Paris in November 2015. By way of mitigation measures to ward off the worst impacts of global warming, world leaders had then agreed to limit the global temperature rise during the current century to 1.5 degrees Celsius (though as per detailed projections, it is inching towards 2 degrees Celsius), to cut global emissions in half by 2035, and to bring it down to net zero by 2060. A Climate Financing Plan of US$100 bn for assistance to poor countries to achieve their accepted national goals (called the nationally determined contributions) was also finalised. While most signatories to the global agreement went ahead to ratify them as per their own protocols, a major setback came from the United States, whose next President Donald Trump unilaterally decided to walk away from the Paris Agreement. With a major country like the US baulking, the future of the agreed objectives and assistance became uncertain. Consequently, global concern for climate change issues receded into the background.
However, the worldwide manifestation of climate change events in the last couple of years and the draconian consequences they’ve had, have once again restored the needed attention to this significant menace affecting all human, other biological and botanical life. A gradual rise in average global temperatures by 0.75 degree Celsius as seen in the last 137 years was perhaps as much as the human species could live with, but the sudden warming in the last 40 odd years since 1975 by almost two-thirds of it, has drastically changed the climate patterns. Snow melting has rapidly accelerated, the oceans have become warmer, rainfall has become unpredictable causing widespread floods in several hitherto “safe” parts of the earth. In others, severe famines and droughts are being seen. Calamitous events such as forest fires, hurricanes and storms on an unprecedented scale are becoming commonplace. The direct damage and casualties occurring from such events are no longer isolated and can’t be ignored. Other consequences are also evident—excessive heat leading to health impairments which have both immediate and long-term adverse effects and the productivity of land being impacted. In fact, with a growing quantum of land becoming arid and forests getting burnt down, the land under cultivation faces the prospect of sizably shrinking. Noticeable displacement of populations due to unfavourable climate events is inevitable.
While a few better-off nations and their societies may be able to face the consequences of climate change better than others, no one can ignore their adverse impact. While one can argue about the timing and severity of impact, there is no doubt the comity of nations as a whole is becoming worse off. Given this reality, it should be of little surprise that with a change of administration earlier this year, wiser counsel prevailed in the US. The Democrats led by President Joe Biden have thrown their weight behind climate change issues, and the US is committed to rejoin COP26 and honour its commitments made at Paris. The forthcoming deliberations at Glasgow have resultantly regained their significance.
The last 6 years (or even the last 12 years since COP15 at Copenhagen in 2009) have unfortunately witnessed little material progress in mitigating global average temperatures or greenhouse gas emissions. Despite leaders across the world mouthing platitudes and high sounding hollow concerns such as the “environment is something we are trustees of and have to leave behind a better environment for our children and great grandchildren,” not much concrete action has taken place. While the mean global temperature went up slowly in the twentieth century, the decade 2010-19 experienced the highest heat-rise. The earth scientists fear it will rise by as much as 1.5 degrees in the next 20 years and even 2 degrees Celsius by 2040. There has been no evidence of the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions despite the lower economic and social activities since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic some twenty months ago.
The causes of slow progress during the last few years, and even decades before it, would need to be exhaustively studied at the fortnight long forthcoming Summit. In parallel, should proceed deliberations on imposing stiffer macro (global) norms in a time framework shorter than before. Some critical elements need to be addressed—accepting no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in mean earth temperatures by the end of the century, developed nations including China becoming carbon neutral by 2040, with all others (including India) following by 2045, and global emissions being cut by half by 2030 by all nations. Prima facie, such goals may appear altruistic and requiring huge sacrifices by all. But when faced with the grim reality bordering on a threat to human survival, girding up the loins and getting cracking before it becomes too late is the only option.
Prompt and better ameliorative actions are called from both the rich and the not so well-off nations. That said, a few amongst them will necessarily have to bear a larger responsibility. Discharging these responsibilities cannot be confined to their national borders and must extend to those whose acts might be the causes for concern. Nature does not recognise man made borders, and the elements in their aggressive moods do not distinguish between the wealthy and poor, grown-ups and children, or between any race, ethnicity and culture. The so-called external economies and diseconomies fully manifest themselves in climate related events. Tackling them becomes as much a collective responsibility of all than just of those causing or directly suffering their current consequences.
Amongst the “mightier nations” that need to commit and achieve more are all the three partners of India in the new Quad grouping (US, Japan and Australia) as well as the primary provocateur for its formation viz China. Including India, almost 50% of the world’s population (about 4 bn) lives in these five countries, with almost two-thirds of the world’s GDP accounted for by them. They are not just large polluters but also nations that have the wherewithal to make substantial progress.
China is the world’s largest burner of coal, while India, though considerably less than China, is the second largest fossil fuel user. Both countries would be required to hasten their pace of moving to cleaner sources of energy. They will also be under pressure to make announcements about immediately stopping to add any new coal fired electricity generation capacity. The progress towards shutting down all the existing coal-based facilities to make sure they achieve the goal of halving emissions and becoming carbon neutral would also have to be firmly indicated.
The US, unsurprisingly, stands last in the assessment of progress made since COP21; in 2017 it had pulled out of the Paris Agreement whereafter climate change considerations hardly remained a focus of attention. However, neither Australia nor Japan has fared much better, while India has remained at the 10th position for the last two years. Per capita Japanese CO2 emission stands at 9.7 mt; Australia is at 17.27 mt. 15.52 mt is American, while in India, it remains at a lowly 1.9 mt, perhaps because of its large population. Undoubtedly, these numbers need to be reined in across the board. The three richer and technologically more advanced partners of India are also in a position to help in evolving several of the optimum solutions to check greenhouse emissions, such as for the elaborate global cold chain infrastructure created to store and transport Covid-19 vaccines. Reportedly, 3-3.5% of global greenhouse emissions are being caused by it alone. Sharing of their already developed technologies more equitably with the other nations by relaxing the IPRs, besides taking upon themselves and through their financial bodies, a greater portion of the climate financing plan alongside.
The urgency of immediate and comprehensive all-round action to turn greener is now paramount for nations, their institutions, NGOs, think tanks, and scientific cum technological establishments. Climate change, already in deadly action, is being deeply influenced by human activity. Many of these changes are almost irreversible. The Swiss Re Institute estimates that without the requisite mitigation measures being put in place, global GDP could reduce by a staggering 18% by 2050. In 2019, the International Labour Organisation had noted that because of heat stress, global productivity loss in 2030 could be the equivalent of 80 million full time jobs. A rapid transition to a green economy would no doubt cause many disruptions, including financial but the gains far outweigh the losses.
Dr Ajay Dua, a progressive economist and a public policy expert, is a former Union Secretary.
This is the first part of a series of 4 articles by Dr Dua on the issues at hand at the forthcoming COP26. These would appear in the ensuing weeks.