The Paris Agreement has become a joke

M Ramesh | Updated on December 02, 2019

There’s too much wriggle room. The rise in emissions shows that funds and tech from developed nations haven’t been sufficient

The silver jubilee conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP25, began on Monday (December 2) in Madrid. Over the next ten days or so, representatives from almost all the countries of the world will grapple with several geo-technical issues, with one aim: how to stop global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels.

The COP25 is also being described as very important, because it is the last ‘conference of parties’ before the Paris Agreement kicks-in next year. Thus, when COP25 ends, it is expected — hoped — that all the rules of the game for making the agreement work, and the right atmosphere for that such as establishment of carbon markets, would be created.

It is, therefore, a good time to look back on what the Paris Agreement is all about and what has happened since the pact was hammered out in December 2015.

The so-called ‘historic’ Paris Agreement was the outcome of several years of intense negotiations that preceded the COP21 held in Paris. Some 194 countries agreed on a few things.

One was to politically accept what the scientists had been saying — that it is necessary to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over those mean temperature levels that obtained during the ‘pre-industrialisaton period’ (mid-19th century). Implicit in this is the recognition that if the world warms by more than two degrees, things will be unmanageably bad. They also agreed that it was wise to aim at ‘1.5 degrees’ — a safe level. Anything between 1.5 and two degrees is bad, but manageable.

Now, what needs to be done to get to ‘ two degrees’? For this, all countries were asked to come up with their own plans and turn them into pledges. Thus were born the NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions. The NDCs were not on common parameters; each country’s promise was in different terms.

For example, India committed to bringing down the quantum of emissions relative to one unit of GDP by 33 per cent from 2005 levels, plant enough trees to suck up two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and have 40 per cent of electricity generation capacity as non-fossil fuel based.

The European Union said it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent of what it was in 1990. Different countries, different pledges.

Reality unpleasant

And, they all agreed in principle that the developed countries, who are primarily responsible for messing up the climate, should mobilise funds — both loans and grants — though no quantum or timeline was specified. It was also agreed that the developed countries should give technology to the rest of the world for climate projects, and that all countries would review the status of climate action once in five years (called ‘global stocktake’) with a view to doing more in future (or ‘ratchet mechanism’). There was also a commitment to create ‘carbon markets’ so that those who put up climate combating projects and get market-trade-able carbon credits have an opportunity to monetise the credits.

Since all countries agreed (and later ratified) these terms, the Paris Agreement has been hailed as “historic”.

But the reality is not so rosy. Turns out that even if all countries fully act true to their commitments, temperature rise would be somewhere around 2.7 degrees — which is very, very bad. This was first pointed out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its Emissions Gap Report of 2016. (The ‘emissions gap’ refers to the difference between what emissions should be to meet the two degrees or 1.5 degrees target and what they are likely to be.) Several other independent estimates said pretty much the same — even with the Paris Agreement, the picture is scary.

And then, things started to worsen. The US said it would get out of the Agreement. President Trump has been batting for coal — the biggest CO2 source. Coal-rich Australia has always been ambivalent. Jair Bolsonaro, who pooh-poohs ‘climate change’, became the President of Brazil, the country home to the world’s biggest CO2 absorbing Amazonian rain forests and is now saying Brazil will continue to deforest.

China hasn’t been helpful either. Between January 2018 and June 2019, it built 43,000 MW of coal-fired power projects on its soil and a lot more in other countries, such as Pakistan — at a time when the rest of the world brought down coal power capacity by 8,100 MW. Experts such as by Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), have pointed out that global coal use and emissions remain far higher than the level required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Several recent assessments show the problem is worsening. UNEP’s latest Emissions Gap Report, released in November, has said that greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2 per cent in 2018, leave alone flatlining.

So, what is happening? The problem is, the Paris Agreement is fundamentally flawed. It is more a vision statement than an agreement. Unlike, say, the WTO, it contains no provisions to enforce anything or penalise the violators, relying only on shaming a violator into compliance. In a world that is increasingly right-leaning and nationalistic, when countries in breach take pride in their actions, where is the question of shaming them?

The agreement lacks specificity in terms of crucial aspects such as flow of finance and technology from the developed world to the developing; it leaves countries too much wriggle room. The continued growth of GHG emissions show what a joke the Paris Agreement has become.

It is against such a setting that the COP25 gets underway in Madrid. Apart from jostling on how to create a market for trading carbon credits, there will be talks about “enhancing ambition”. It is like grappling with how to increase the speed of the train from Mumbai to Delhi, when the train is on track to Chennai.

So far, 68 countries have promised to enhancing their contributions. Nice, but all of them put together account for 8 per cent of global emissions. The big emitters are apathetic.

What should India do?

India is one of the good boys of climate action because it is well on the way to keeping its Paris promises. But the world has quickly noted that India has set itself easy targets. Today, the targets are shibboleths. Their time has passed. India should first recognise and articulate the fact that nothing is going to come out of international action.

With melting glaciers and finicky monsoons, India is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The time now is to run for cover. Floods, droughts, heat-waves, water-shortage are all going to be the norm.

From storm-water drains and water harvesting to heat-resistant agriculture and flood-time action, Indian planners must start working on protecting its citizens from these emerging realities.

Published on December 02, 2019

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