Thanks to the American people and Joe Biden, statistics will retain its place among the sciences and the large number of pollsters who had forecast Biden’s victory will not have to eat crickets on TV as they had to after the 2016 US presidential polls. Biden has ridden a wave of change and a shift will certainly be seen, especially in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and in the way the US acts internationally. The major case in point will be climate change. Proponents of climate action, who were appalled by President Donald Trump’s climate denial approach, are obviously elated. So are the traditional US allies in Europe and multilateralists.
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change seeks to limit global temperature rise this century to below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels with a striving to keep this rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. All countries, including the largest GHG emitters, China, the US and EU, came on board with nationally determined commitments (NDCs). The agreement was touted as a major triumph for the US as it weakened the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, which had placed the onus for GHG reductions on the developed countries. Yet, within six months of taking over, Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the pact — the process was completed on November 4, ironically the day after he lost.
Trump blamed President Barack Obama for allowing the US to be tricked into economic actions that would diminish it in comparison to China and others in the developing world. While this may have served Trump domestically, internationally it slackened global pressures on climate change and gave space to the Chinese, the largest emitters in the world, to try and position themselves as climate leaders.
Analyses indicate that an aggregation of the NDCs of countries do not add up to keep temperatures within the 2 degrees C limit. Much more action on GHG reduction, introduction of green technologies and adaptation are needed and the election of a climate-friendly president in the US, the largest contributor to the stock of GHG in the atmosphere, must be welcomed. It is expected that one of Biden’s first acts as President would be to bring the US back into the Paris fold.
However, the Democrats have barely retained the House of Representatives and not succeeded in taking the Senate. With Trumpism alive, Biden’s activism on climate may thus lean heavily on the other major emitters to take GHG reduction commitments. The nomination of former Secretary of State and a strong proponent of international action on climate change, John Kerry, underscores this direction. China today emits around 30 per cent of global GHGs but having worked on shutting coal-guzzling power plants in the past few years, Beijing has shown signs of tapering its emissions. The US follows at around 15 per cent, with Europe at 10 per cent. India is fourth at 7 per cent of the global total but with per-capita emissions that are less than half the global average. Interestingly, in global negotiations, Biden’s US and China may be on the same side.
India has committed to reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving 40 per cent non-fossil-fuel installed electricity production capacity. It also established the International Solar Alliance with France. India is one of the few major climate stakeholders on track to over-achieve the targets it had committed. With civilisational links to nature, India is a strong proponent of global action on global warming. Such action is also critical, for India is acutely vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change. The link between GHG emissions, energy usage and GDP is, however, such that even with energetic induction of cleaner technologies and newer fuels plus renewable energy in the economy, India’s growth and development, which are an absolute must for a better quality of life for 17 per cent of humankind, cannot be decoupled from rising GHG emissions — at least in the short run.
The Conference of Parties (CoP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which the Paris Agreement was reached, could not be held this year because of COVID. It will now be held in Glasgow in late 2021 and is likely to be an energised exercise in stock-taking and pushing countries to enhance their commitments. The UN Secretary General has recently spelt out his intention to seek a goal of net-zero emissions of GHGs by 2050, with the central objective of the UN in 2021 to establish a Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality. He would push this at the virtual Climate Ambition Summit on December 12 being organised by France and the UK. For India, engagement in global climate negotiations must be imbued with a strategic perspective and informed by the building of a GREEN (Growth with Renewable Energy, Entrepreneurship and Nature) coalition of countries with development imperatives and climate perspectives.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 7, 2020 under the title ‘In a New Climate’. The writer is Distinguished Fellow, TERI, former ambassador and DPR of India to the UN and former lead negotiator for India at climate change negotiations