Updated: August 12, 2021 8:39:13 am
Is there a way to shift from the sensational to the strategic? Earlier this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported on climate science, warning against the folly of a business-as-usual development model. Past assessments have been disregarded as sensationalist. For attention to shift from a day of front-page news to a more strategic conversation, we must understand what the science says, what the politics delivers, and what the economy demands.
Globally, average surface temperatures have already risen by 1.09°C between 1850-1900 and 2010-2019 thanks to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. What happens next depends on our development and technological choices.
The IPCC document explores several scenarios based on shared socioeconomic pathways and different levels of radiative forcing (or the change in the energy balance in the atmosphere due to natural or human causes). If we followed high fossil fuel development (doubling emissions by 2050), temperatures would rise by 4.4°C (range of 3.3-5.7°C) by 2100. If a more sustainable pathway were pursued (with net-zero emissions by 2060 and negative emissions thereafter), average global temperature rise would be 1.4°C (range of 1.0-1.8°C).
Regardless, it is likely that average rise in temperatures will breach the 1.5°C barrier within the next two decades. If emissions are not mitigated rapidly, we are staring at rising climate risks and catastrophic impacts.
Science has become better at attributing warming to human influence and extreme events to a changing climate. Less than 0.1°C of the warming observed since the pre-industrial era is thanks to natural reasons. Human influence is very likely the main reason behind glacial retreat since the 1990s. Since observations began, glaciers have lost the maximum mass during 2010-19.
India is particularly vulnerable. If warming exceeds 4°C, India could see about 40% increase in precipitation annually, leading to extreme rainfall events. My colleagues at CEEW find that three-quarters of India’s districts are now hotspots of extreme weather events. Since 1990, more than 300 such events have resulted in damages exceeding INR 5.6 lakh crore.
Just because our time horizons are limited does not mean that the climate will stop changing at the end of the century. Average rate of sea-level rise was 1.3 mm per year during 1901-71. Scientists say with high confidence that this rate increased to 3.7 mm annually during 2006-18. Even with warming restricted to 1.5°C, we are still on course for more than 2 metres of sea-level rise beyond this century. We are bequeathing a very different world to future generations.
The world needs transformational change but countries have more myopic outlooks. The IPCC says that in order to stabilise rise in temperatures, two things have to happen: Anthropogenic emissions must become net-zero and in the interim cumulative emissions cannot exceed a global carbon budget. To stay within the 1.5°C limit, starting in 2020 the remaining global carbon budget is 300-500 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) (with a likelihood of 50%-83%). But who will cut their emissions?
Of late, several large emitters have promised net-zero emission targets. But China and the United States have already emitted 129 GtCO2 and 344 GtCO2, respectively, between 1990 and 2010. CEEW analysts calculate that despite their self-laudatory targets, China would consume 87% of the global carbon space (if it reached net-zero in 2060) and the US would eat up 26% (if it reached net-zero in 2050). Clearly, mere announcements of net-zero targets do little to retard the “carbon grab” of the largest emitters. To use a Tokyo Olympics analogy, the largest current and historical polluters are putting gold medals on themselves, while poorer participants are left to compete on a very uneven playing field.
The carbon budget did not, however, begin in 2020. What’s left of it is a consequence of past inactions. In a pathbreaking study, CEEW researchers find that rich countries, as a whole, emitted ~25 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2eq) more than their estimated emission allowance during 2008-20, thanks to non-participation in pre-2020 climate agreements and misuse of accounting loopholes. To put it in context, this is more than half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, or nine years’ worth of India’s 2016 emissions. Climate justice demands that developed countries now take steps to free up carbon space for others.
If climate science is stark and climate politics has been unjust, how do we meet our development aspirations? The claim on a fair share of the carbon budget is not a licence to pollute. India must adopt a more climate-friendly development pathway for its own sake. Its per capita incomes, energy consumption and carbon footprint are well below the global average but it must deliver high rates of economic growth within a shrinking carbon budget.
India has an energy revolution underway. This ranges from household electrification to smart meters, scaling up solar and wind to new ambitions in biofuels and hydrogen, energy efficiency to clean cooking for millions, electrification of railways to electric vehicles, first country with a cooling action plan to skilling thousands in green jobs.
Next, the discourse must shift from energy to the economy. There are very few sunrise sectors that are not low-carbon. India must tap new technology frontiers (green hydrogen), new business models (distributed and digitalised services, for distributed energy, EV charging, cold chains), new construction materials (low-carbon cement, recycled plastic), new opportunities in the circular economy of minerals, municipal waste and agricultural residue, and new practices for sustainable agriculture and food systems. Many of these technologies and business models are proven but need policy and regulatory support.
Finally, it will become imperative to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and repair the climate in critical regions, such as the poles. If those tipping points are breached, there will be disastrous consequences. This will require new levels of international cooperation.
Climate science is not sensationalism but gets plugged that way because of our short attention spans. The climate crisis is a strategic threat to our development prospects. It deserves sober, continuing analysis, deliberation and action. The headlines look bad; reality will get worse.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 11, 2021 under the title ‘The Climate deadline’. The writer is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (ceew.in) and a member of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, an independent international scientific body
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.