An inconvenient truth

The conference in Paris is unlikely to result in an agreement that can address the challenge of climate change.

Written by Shyam Saran | Updated: August 11, 2015 1:15 pm
Paris, Climate conference, Global warming, UN climate deal, Paris climate conference, UN climate conference, paris climate deal, climate change, climate change news, world news, indian express news One needs to appreciate the integral link between energy and climate in assessing what Paris is likely to achieve. (Illusration: C R Sasikumar)

High expectations are being built around the forthcoming 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will convene in Paris at the end of the year. People around the world are looking for a global compact to address the intensifying challenge of climate change, whose impacts are likely to create a planetary emergency in coming years.

Several reasons have been cited for optimism. These include mitigation commitments announced by the two largest emitters, China and the US, with US President Barack Obama announcing a more ambitious emission reduction target just last week as part of his Clean Power Plan. There is a steady upward trend in the use of renewable and clean sources of energy in major economies, including India. The ongoing multilateral negotiations under the UNFCCC have achieved broad consensus on the outcome that will emerge from Paris. Participating countries want the process to succeed and to avoid the kind of bitter contestation witnessed in the recent past.

Paris may succeed in delivering an agreement which all parties can live with.

The agreed template is essentially a “pledge and review” approach, with each country submitting voluntary contributions to addressing global climate change in the form of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) and accepting some form of international review of implementation. Each country may include not only mitigation actions but also measures to adapt to climate change or contributions in finance and technology.

From the INDCs submitted so far, and those anticipated in the next couple of months, it is certain that the aggregate of these pledges will not be sufficient to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade, which is the stated objective of the negotiations. There are varying estimates but experts observe that, based on current and anticipated trends, we are on track for a 3-4 degree centigrade temperature rise towards the second half of this century. This may lead to irreversible and catastrophic consequences for the planet’s life-sustaining systems.

The “pledge and review” mechanism goes against the original intent and purpose of the UNFCCC concluded in 1992. The global consensus at that time was that science should determine the nature of the threat posed and the scale of international effort required to address it. That effort would be delivered through multilateral negotiations under the UNFCCC, based on the principle of equity, with parties assuming commitments in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities. The industrialised countries assumed commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in absolute terms. Developing countries were to be enabled to undertake climate change action through the provision of finance and technology from the developed world. Further, the achievement of emissions reduction targets by developed countries was subject to strict international compliance with penalties for shortfalls. This legal regime has now been overturned, with negotiated targets being replaced by voluntary contributions by all countries with no compliance procedure. Developing countries, including India, resisted this during the course of the negotiations, but eventually acquiesced in the “pledge and review” format favoured by the US and other developed countries. This is the reason why an outcome, albeit a weak one, is virtually assured in Paris.

In the China-US understanding on their respective climate change commitments, China agreed to peak its GHG emissions by 2030. The US, in its original submission, agreed to reduce its emissions by 26-28 per cent in 2025 over 2005. In the latest announcement by Obama, the target has been revised marginally upward to 32 per cent reduction by 2030. If these targets are examined in the light of current emissions trajectories of the two countries, both may converge around 14 tonnes per capita of GHG emissions by 2030. These are extraordinarily high figures for the two largest emitters in the world and can in no way be described as ambitious. India’s per capita emissions are about 1.7 tonnes per capita currently and even the most elevated trajectories do not predict an increase beyond 7-8 tonnes per capita by 2030. It is difficult to understand why India is being asked to “step up to the plate” in the light of the US-China
understanding.

One needs to appreciate the integral link between energy and climate in assessing what Paris is likely to achieve. Climate change leading to global warming is the result of the accumulation of GHGs generated by the burning of fossil fuels, chiefly coal, oil and gas. The long-term answer to global warming is, therefore, a strategic shift from our current reliance on fossil fuels to a pattern of production and consumption progressively based on renewable and clean sources of energy, such as solar and nuclear power. This energy transformation can only be brought about through shifts in corresponding investment patterns. Are we seeing this shift? The latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report states: “Our estimates do not show a clear diminishing trend in the share of investment going to fossil fuels since 2000 despite a quadrupling of the volume of investment going into non-fossil energy supply — including all renewable technologies, nuclear and biofuels.”

Between the years 2014-35, out of a total projected investment in energy of $48 trillion, about $23 trillion will be devoted to fossil fuels and only $6 trillion to renewables and $1 trillion to nuclear. The conclusion is inescapable. The world is far from transitioning to a low-carbon growth path.

The investment shift we are looking for can only come about if the prices of carbon-based fuels are high enough to encourage businesses to shift to renewables. Currently, oil and gas prices are falling and renewables are becoming less competitive. Investment in renewables, having touched a respectable figure of $310 billion in 2011, declined sharply to $250 billion in 2014. Investment in fossil fuels continues at $750-800 billion per year for the past few years. As these investments are typically undertaken in a 30-40-year timeframe, it is unlikely that we will see significant change in energy infrastructure even by mid-century.

For India, the dilemma lies in safeguarding its development prospects without having to accept, prematurely, any constraint on its energy choices. Yet, if a weak climate regime emerges at Paris, India will be one of the worst affected. In a longer-term perspective, India’s energy security will be better served by a graduated shift from fossil fuels to renewables, such as solar energy and clean energy like nuclear energy. India is dependent for 80 per cent of its oil supplies on imports and its dependence on imports of even coal and gas is rising relentlessly.

This is no energy security. Therefore, our approach should be to highlight, in our proposed INDCs, the significant efforts we are making to promote renewables, in particular solar energy, as part of the graduated shift away from fossil fuels. We should also seek to obtain both finance and technology from the global climate change regime to enable us to accelerate that shift. This would be a more positive approach than merely resisting, defensively, international expectations that we should be more active in mitigation as the third-largest source of global GHGs.

There is one incorrect statement in the article. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will not raise the US emission reduction ambition to 32 per cent. It only seeks to achieve emissions reduction from the power sector between 2005 and 2030 by 32 per cent through a shift from coal to gas. The overall Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of the US remains unchanged between 26-28 per cent between 2005 and 2025.This does not in any way alter the argument about the lack of ambition on part of the US and other major emitters. The error is regretted.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, served as the prime minister’s special envoy for climate change.