Let’s not fool ourselves. ‘Climate change’ has gone out of hand and the world is in for big trouble.
The next climate conference, COP27, has just begun, in the Egyptian city of Sharm el Sheikh. Only the naivest of optimists will expect anything meaningful to happen there.
Why do I say that? Because the previous 26 conferences of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have achieved precious little.
This is borne out by the recent Emissions Gap Report, 2022, released in October, which says that even if all the countries do exactly what they fully voluntarily agreed to do (or unconditional promises), the world will be warmer by 2.6°C by the end of this century, compared with the average temperatures of the pre-industrialization era (roughly, 1850-1900). Even if they do all that they said they would if helped by others (conditional promises), the world is sure to be hotter by 2.4°C.
To put things in a perspective, even 2.4°C is a lot. Today, the planet is hotter by 1.1°C and we are experiencing its deleterious effects. Pakistan floods ring alarm bells loud in the subcontinent; an encore might happen in India. If you want more examples, take a look at the drought in Ethiopia, forest fires in California and Australia. And these are only for starters.
On October 26, the United Nations released another report called the ‘NDC synthesis report’ (NDC stands for Nationally Determined Contributions, or simply, the promise made by each country). This report says that when global greenhouse gas emissions ought to come down by 45 per cent by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, the emissions have actually gone up by 10.6 per cent. Oh, by the way, that’s a little better than what last year’s assessment estimated, which was 13.7 per cent — so let’s celebrate, yeah?
The world is rushing into a certain disaster. In practical terms, this means that in the coming years there will be more of terrible climatic events — hurricanes, heat waves, rise in sea levels due to heat-driven expansion of sea water and melting of polar and glacial ice. The secondary effects will be diseases, displacement of people, water scarcity and the attendant social tensions.
These have already become unavoidable.
It is not to say that collective action has not achieved anything, but what has been done is a far cry from what is needs to be done. Yes, the world has made progress in terms of renewable energy, electric mobility and steps taken today for making hydrogen the fuel of choice are likely to be beneficial in the future. The problem is, all these are woefully short of what is required to be done, as has been pointed out by report after report by various bodies.
The sense of urgency you see in governments’ statements is absent in their actions. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow last year, all countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their climate plans. However, only 24 new or updated climate plans were submitted since COP 26. Government decisions and actions do not reflect the level of urgency, the gravity of the threats we are facing.
This was so even earlier; now we have this Ukraine war, energy crisis and global recession none of which bodes well for climate action.
It is now clear that it is a folly to place trust in global collective action and expect developed nations — the chief architects of global warming — would provide money and means to fight climate change.
Now is the time for each country to think of what it can do within its means to protect itself.
What are the options?
Indian planners should think more in terms of adaptation (protective measures against climate events that are very likely to happen) rather than mitigation (measures to prevent further global warming, such as renewable energy and electric mobility.)
Adaptation measures are many. At local city or township levels, these include building storm water drains, rescue boats, shelters to house a large number of people, distributed electricity systems such as mini grids that can quickly come online and sufficient food and medicine stocks. Heat waves could spark off forest fires; authorities should be ready with systems to fight such fires. Creating or doing-up water bodies that can both store water when it pours and has enough of it during times such as heat waves is something that governments should give top priority to. State-of-the-art weather prediction systems coupled with evacuation plans would minimise the need for all the above.
At the regional and national levels, governments should work towards climate-resilient agriculture. Since rivers will swell regularly, particularly those in the North that are fed by melting glaciers, building and strengthening levees and moving settlements away from river banks would be a good idea. Inter-linking of rivers (ILR) — a plan in the making for over 60 years — is now a climate imperative. Environmentalists are right when they say point out that ILR is fraught with difficulties and side-effects, but in the present context of climate change, the balance of convenience lies in linking up rivers.
In coastal areas, the no-build zone from the shoreline should be extended and nothing should be allowed to come up close to the sea. Chennai Metro Rail Ltd is building a large terminal barely 200 meters from the shoreline — not a smart idea when the place could well be under water in 20 years.
Today most of government’s actions fall under ‘mitigation’, with more money being allocated for renewable energy, batteries, green hydrogen etc. But the authorities should stand climate action on the other leg —adaptation. Mitigation’s benefits are global, adaptation’s are local. To think of global welfare is fine, but we need to fortify ourselves first. In this each-to-himself world, India should look at what all it can do to build protection against the inevitable.
In short, the government should follow the motto of boy scouts: Be Prepared.
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