Updated: December 12, 2020 11:29:27 am
The Climate Ambition Summit, co-hosted by the UK, France and the UN, on the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris Agreement, comes at the end of a harrowing year. The world is craving for a return to normalcy, yet it is “normalcy” that has brought humanity to the brink. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere are at record levels, with the global lockdowns only having resulted in a temporary 4.2–7.5 per cent reduction in GHGs. Meanwhile, climate impacts, crowded out by COVID reportage, have continued unabated, with unprecedented wildfires, storms and cyclones raging through the pandemic.
Five years from Paris, are we inching closer to stabilising the climate? While all states have submitted their national contributions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, these contributions are radically insufficient to reach the “well below 2 degrees Celsius” limit and are even further from the “1.5 degrees Celsius” temperature limit identified in the Paris Agreement.
This initial shortfall was expected — the logic of the Paris Agreement relied on iterative scaling up of national targets over time to bridge the gap. The first of these moments for scaling up is 2020. Although 151 states have indicated that they will submit stronger targets before December 31, only 13 of them, covering 2.4 per cent of global emissions, have submitted such targets. Many are expected to submit their updated contributions or make other pledges at the Climate Ambition Summit. While states have been slow to update their national contributions for 2025-2030, several have announced “net zero” targets in the recent past. All G-7 states (except the US) and 11 G20 members have mid-century (2050 or 2060) net zero targets (carbon dioxide or other GHGs). These include Argentina, Mexico, UK, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, the Republic of Korea, Italy, China, and the EU. The Joe Biden administration is also expected to join this group.
While this is a heartening trend, net zero targets need to be subject to credibility, accountability and fairness checks before being applauded. First, the credibility check — are these long-term net zero goals aligned with short-term actions, policies and measures? It is crucial for updated national contributions to reflect targets and actions in 2030 that will take these states to their 2050 or 2060 net zero target. The IPCC 1.5 degrees Celsius Report indicated that to stay within a reasonable chance of achieving 1.5 degrees Celsius, global carbon dioxide emissions have to fall by 45 per cent from the 2010 levels by 2030. Current national contributions are not on track for such a fall. It is also important for short-term actions to be demonstrably integrated into COVID economic recovery plans. For many there is a mismatch between short-term actions and long-term commitments. Further, there is a significant “overshoot” in terms of GHGs in the short and medium-term, and a reliance on negative emissions (such as carbon dioxide removal) technologies to get there in the long-term.
Second, the accountability check — is there accountability for the long-term net zero goals and short-term national contributions? Many net zero goals have not yet been embedded in national contributions and long-term strategies under the Paris Agreement. In any case, accountability under the Paris Agreement is limited. States are not obliged to achieve their self-selected targets. There is no mechanism to review the adequacy of individual contributions. States are only asked to provide justifications for the fairness and ambition of their targets. The most commonly used metric by states (110 of them) is that their emissions are a “small share of global emissions”. Needless to say, this does not work for a collective action problem. The transparency framework does not contain a robust review function, and the compliance committee is facilitative and limited to ensuring compliance with a short list of binding procedural obligations. Accountability, therefore, has thus far been generated by non-state actors outside the UN regime rather than in the regime.
Third, the fairness check — are the spreads of goals and commitments across states fair and equitable? Is every state doing its fair share? The issue of equity and fairness, side-stepped in the Paris Agreement, is emerging in climate litigation before national and regional courts. In the landmark Urgenda case (2019), the Dutch Supreme court considered “fair shares” when identifying benchmarks against which the Netherland’s national effort could be judged in the context of a collective action problem. “Fair shares” are also an issue in the ongoing case filed by six Portuguese youngsters, including two children, in the European Court of Human Rights against 33 European states for inadequate climate action. Issues of fairness and justice, both between and within generations, are “unavoidable”. Are net zero targets, and pathways to net zero, fair? How much are states doing in comparison to others and relative to how much they should? How much are they doing now, and how much are they leaving for the “regeneration”?
Net zero pledges need to be credible, accountable and fair to get us to a stable climate. Not all states will be in a position to pledge net zero targets, nor should they be expected to. All states, including India, can, however, pledge actions that are credible, accountable and fair. Credible short-term commitments, with a clear pathway to medium-term decarbonisation, that take into account the multiple challenges states face, such as on air pollution, and development, might well be the more defensible choice for some.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 12, 2020 under the title ‘Five years after Paris’. The writer is professor of international environmental law, Oxford University and visiting professor, Centre for Policy Research.
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