A low carbon future is possible

In Paris, developing countries must stop asking for the right to development and focus instead on the right to sustainable development.

Written by Joyeeta Gupta | Published:December 10, 2015 12:09 am

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At Paris this week in the hottest year in recorded history, there are expectations that a global legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be adopted for the period beyond 2020.

Negotiators are discussing a heavily bracketed text — which implies that there is still a lot that has to be settled — but there is an air of optimism and commitment. More than 170 countries have already submitted their targets (intended nationally determined contributions) for this period, covering 95 per cent of global emissions. Initial assessments of these targets show that they are consistent with a 2.7 to 4 degree rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels, if implemented. This is above the 2 degrees Celsius target that was agreed to by parties in 2009 and 2010, as well as the 1.5 degree target seen as necessary by the small island states. If the conference is successful, we will have some kind of legally binding agreement for all states, which at least starts the process of getting to the long-term objective of the climate convention. It would be a great pity if the developing countries make the mistake of not demanding a legally binding agreement, especially since they face the biggest risks, with an expected population rise of three billion at the very least and great risks to their water resources, which will influence their agricultural, energy and industrial sectors, and hence their potential for continued economic growth. Fixing the targets also puts a price on carbon and facilitates market mechanisms. Paradoxically, opposing a legally binding agreement plays into the hands of the US, which can squarely put the blame on the developing countries for a weak agreement.

Of course, this potential legally binding agreement probably does not seem fair to India and other developing countries, especially in light of the last 20 years of negotiations. Before 1990, it was clear that the developed countries were the biggest polluters, and that the developing countries would suffer. The developed countries then agreed to lead the way by reducing their own emissions, and helping the developing countries with technologies and financial assistance. But the framework climate convention did not include legally binding targets for the developed countries, even though the EU more or less achieved the implicit target of bringing its emissions down to 1990 levels by 2000. The Kyoto Protocol had country-specific targets for the period of 2008-12; however the US and Canada didn’t participate.

The Doha Amendments have targets for the developed countries for 2012-20 — but the US, Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand don’t participate in this agreement. The demand of the developed countries that the developing countries commit from 2020 onwards is clearly unfair in the light of the recalcitrant behaviour of some developed countries. At the same time, if the developing countries agree to legally binding targets, this forces the rich countries to take action. They can no longer hide behind the excuse that the developing countries are not taking action.

Clearly, many of the rich countries, and the US in particular, have not played the game in accordance with the leadership paradigm agreed to in 1992. However, as time passes, the planet is rapidly becoming climate unstable, with particularly high risks for the developing countries. The window for discussing fairness is closing fast. This does not mean that alternative ways of demanding fairness from the developed countries do not exist and should not be

explored. But it does mean that the developing countries have to stop asking for the right to development, and instead focus on the right to sustainable development. The developed countries are far more locked into fossil fuel economies than the greenfield economies of the South; it is much easier for the South to change the path of development than for the North. And it is needed. While climate mitigation may be essentially an energy problem, climate impacts are a water problem — so making a tradeoff in favour of short-term energy solutions will have long-term water impact, and underestimating
the role of water in society, economy and politics is problematic.

But this requires deliberation on how a low-carbon future can become a reality. It implies not just looking half-heartedly at co-benefits, as the Indian government is doing, but a much deeper societal debate about how best to address carbon, water and food issues in society. It is not enough to take a symptomatic approach; India has to look at structural approaches. It is about dreaming the impossible — a carbon-free India — and then making it possible. This helps in add-ressing energy, food and water security as well. Make no mistake, the technologies

exist and are not difficult to develop further, given the enormous intellectual capacity in India. The question is, are politicians daring enough, or are they locked into five-year election cycles? China is already way ahead in terms of its huge investments in renewable energy, both solar and wind.

There are massive opportunities in thinking out-of-the-box and unleashing a low GHG future. There are huge opportunities in the energy, transport, building and agricultural sectors. There are also tradeoffs. For example, between rice and potato/ grain production, where the former requires large quantities of water and has major methane emissions in comparison to the latter. They need deliberation. It is also important to think about stranded resources and assets. Leaving coal/ gas/ oil resources underground leads to stranded resources. But if one invests in infrastructure for extracting and developing these resources, one risks stranded assets. Even though it appears as if politicians in the developed world do not want to phase-out fossil fuels, the fact that China is being allowed to buy energy resources in parts of the North is worrying. It may mean that the developed countries and companies are getting rid of these assets before the value drops to zero as the world phases out fossil fuels. Denmark has already announced a phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050; 50 per cent of energy in Germany already comes from renewable sources. So it is important to read the writing on the wall and become financially savvy in this field.

The writer is professor of environment  and development in the global south  at the University of Amsterdam,  and the Unesco-IHE Institute for  Water Education in Delft, the Netherlands. She is author, most recently, of ‘The History  of Global Climate Governance’

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