Climate talks, a story of skewed priorities

M Ramesh | Updated on January 09, 2018


India and other developing nations worry about ‘adapting’ to disasters, but rich nations are keen to mitigate future impacts

Another climate conference is underway, in Bonn, but by the looks of it there is little cheer for India. But first, a little background. In Paris in December 2015, all the countries in the world (save Nicaragua and Syria, both of whom have since come on board, while the US has opted out) agreed to do their best to prevent the earth from getting hotter than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, over the average temperatures of the pre-industrialisation period of the mid 19th century. Each country promised to do something and that something, called ‘nationally determined contributions’, became part of the Paris Agreement.

Ever since, all the countries have been trying to frame rules for implementing what was agreed in Paris. The 23rd Conference of Parties meeting that is happening in Bonn right now, is part of that effort.

Now, all the things to do under ‘dealing with climate change’ fall into three broad categories: mitigation, adaptation and loss & damage.

Focus on mitigation

Mitigation is all about limiting further rise in global temperature. This involves phasing out fossil fuels and shifting to renewables, electric vehicles, green buildings etc. Adaptation is about what to do to cope with the effects of climate change that are already upon us, or bracing ourselves for floods, droughts and diseases. Loss and damage (L&D) is about all the repair work that would need to be done after a certain climate event, say a hurricane, hits a place. One might think of mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage, roughly, as relating to future, present and past, respectively.

Mitigation is important to the developed countries. They are better equipped to handle disasters and they only need to ensure that the disasters don’t grow bigger than they can handle. Adaptation is crucial for developing countries. India is particularly vulnerable to climate risks. North India will be visited upon alternately by floods and droughts if the Himalayan glaciers melt (they are melting). South India is already experiencing the deleterious effects of erratic monsoons. L&D measures are like life jackets for the least developed countries, particularly the small island nations.

Logically, there ought to be equal attention on all the three, but there isn’t. The entire narrative around climate change has been always terribly skewed towards mitigation. The powerful developed world has made the whole climate narrative mitigation-centric because that is what is in its interests. But, to be fair to them, mitigation is easier to handle. Adaptation is more local, more site-specific, whereas you can, for instance, put up a wind or a solar plant anywhere, any time. Besides, the world has less experience with adaptation than mitigation, and indeed even less with L&D.

Whatever the reasons, it is not in India’s interests to let the status quo continue. Now Fiji has taken over the Presidency of the Conference of Parties (from Morocco) and the country’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, could be expected to course-correct the talks towards L&D. India, in its own interests, should be the adaptation battering-ram.

Christiana Figueres, who was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) between 2010 and 2016 and led the Convention during the crucial Paris talks, pointed out in an interview to this newspaper in June, that there is not enough attention on adaptation (and L&D). Earlier this month, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) brought out its (second) Adaptations Gap report, in which it agrees that adaptation has not gained much traction. Despite the awareness, it has not translated sufficiently into tangible action.

Where’s the money?

A good illustration of that is the Adaptation Fund. It was conceived in 2001, but took six years to operationalise. Guess how much the fund has given out in the ten years of its operations? $462 million. At Bonn, Germany contributed €50 million to the Fund — it is like offering a banana to a hungry elephant.

The Green Climate Fund, set up in 2010 with target of making available $100 billion annually by 2020, has so far collected a corpus of $9.2 billion — cumulatively, in the last seven years. It has so far allocated a paltry $2.65 billion to 54 projects (including $35 million to a water project in Odisha.) The GCF had avowed to divide its resources equally between mitigation and adaptation, but only a third of the allocations have gone to adaptation. You also see similar skewness towards mitigation also in World Bank’s allocations of its climate funds.

Adaptation finance available to developing countries today doesn’t even scratch the surface. The most conservative estimate of the cost of damage wreaked by hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico recently is $45 billion. Typhoon Haiyan, which it the Phillipplines in 2014, cost the country $12 billion.

Challenges for India

Experts have been crying themselves hoarse against this skewness but, apparently, to no avail. Arunabha Ghosh, CEO of the Council for Energy, Environment and Water, an Indian think-tank, points to the recent droughts and forest fires in California and the havoc-wreaking rains in Houston and observes that even developed countries are not quite immune to climate impact. “Treating adaptation as the step-child of climate negotiations is not only myopic but also a strategic error,” Ghosh, who was at the Bonn conference, told Business Line.

Arivudai Nambi Appadurai, who heads India Adaptation Strategy at World Resources Institute, notes that India, which has 121 highly climate-vulnerable agro-climatic zones, urgently needs to pay attention to adaptation. India has its own National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change with ₹531 crore from the Budget. Appadurai says that the demand is so high that the government cannot manage from its own resources.

India needs to seek more multilateral funding from the developed world going by the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Money is needed not only to build physical defences but also equally for increasing knowledge base of “adaptation science”—which can be anything from predicting weather to developing heat-resistant crop varieties.

The importance of adaptation, even if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees, can never be overstressed. But it is evident that the 2 degrees target is not going to be met. “Too many climate-related policies the world over are of the ‘yes, but’ type,” observes Toine van Megen, Co-founder of Auroville Consulting. The recent Emissions Gap Report of UNEP projects a 3 degrees warmer world by 2100. This means we should expect big trouble. The least we can do is to learn to deal with it and the first step towards it is to treat adaptation on par with mitigation.

Published on November 16, 2017

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