Representative image. Photo: JuniperPhoton/Unsplash
This year’s edition of the United Nations’ annual climate summit, Conference of the Parties 28 (COP 28) scheduled in Dubai from November 20 to December 12, is yet another high-profile attempt at finding a global consensus on arresting a freefall into an abyss of climatic spirals.
Climate science is clear about what’s in store for us. To avert a catastrophe, the global community needs to find means to cut fossil fuel production by 6% by 2030. Despite several climate summits in the past, where political heads made pious rhetorical statements, the world continues to be on track for a 2% annual rise, leading to increased greenhouse gas concentrations.
What should be worrying is the fact that the decade from 2010 to 2019 had the highest increase in greenhouse emissions in human history. This has accentuated land and ocean temperatures, sea-level rise, melting ice and glacier retreat, causing extreme weather conditions in many parts of the world. The fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and storms of seemingly apocalyptic proportions have become a new normal.
The disproportionate impact of climate change threatens to exacerbate poverty, inequality, food security, water availability, and health challenges. The poor and marginalized will have to bear the major brunt of the impact.
Countries that together emit more than 65% of all greenhouse gases, as well as account for more than 70% of the world’s economy, have all committed to achieving carbon neutrality – a.k.a. net-zero emissions – by the year 2050.
The Paris Agreement of 2015 is an international deal that proclaims countries’ aspirations to limit global warming well below 2 °C by 2100. It also underlines countries’ intentions to achieve net-zero emissions by the second half of the century, when the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted might equal the amount removed from the atmosphere.
India is the world’s fourth biggest carbon emitter after China, the US and the European Union, even though its emissions per capita work out to be lower than that of other major world economies.
But, are we on a practical path to reaching the goal of carbon neutrality? Will COP28 be able to draw a realistic roadmap for long-term climatic recovery? Or, is this going to be another platform for high-voltage rhetoric with no follow-up target-oriented action from the countries that rank high in global green gas emissions?
Humanity has now surpassed seven of the nine biophysical boundaries in many large parts of the world, as identified in a recent paper published in Nature Sustainability. The authors of the paper say that 1.5 degrees is not a goal, but a physical limit.
The global community is urgently required to operate within the environmental limits to keep humanity safe. According to this recent study, transgressing these red lines now demands immediate action that includes creating new business models that focus on circularity, regeneration and social justice.
With this background, it is natural to ask if there would be serious discussions at COP28 on reforming the current economic model that has brought the world to what appears to be an irreversible degeneration of natural resources.
A resolution adopted in the last week of March at the United Nations General Assembly is being hailed as a victory for climate justice. The resolution means that the UN General Assembly will seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on countries’ obligations to address climate change.
Carbon neutrality is by definition the balance between carbon emissions (sources) and absorption (sinks). Natural sources include volcanism, decomposition and respiration; they are not in our control. Those in our control include activities like cement production, deforestation and the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
Carbon neutrality is the process of offsetting the sources with sinks, through a process known as carbon sequestration. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests, wetlands and oceans, which together remove 9.5 to 11 billion metric tonnes per year. This has to be seen against the emissions from combusting fossil fuels – roughly 36.7 billion metric tonnes in 2019, down to 34.81 in 2020.
But the gap between the sources and the sinks remains wide, and is only set to grow. The optimum utilisation of land by preserving its natural entities – like forests, wetlands, water bodies, etc. – is an important part of achieving carbon neutrality. This can be achieved only by recognising the quantum and sources of carbon sources and sinks and then creating a blueprint for developmental activities.
The studies indicate that optimisation of land use can help cut down a third of the emissions needed to keep temperatures below 1.5 °C, the goal set out in the Paris Agreement. The Laxenburg-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis identified twenty-four land management priority actions including a reduction in deforestation, peatland drainage and burning; restoring forests and coastal mangroves; improving forest management and agroforestry; and enhancing soil carbon sequestration.
But the recent Indian government decisions do not inspire confidence. To cite a leading example, the Char Dham road widening project in an ecologically fragile Uttarakhand Himalaya is now being executed against all the guiding principles of land use.
The accelerating negative impacts on the Himalayan topography are for everybody to see. Even the highest court of India chose to ignore these issues flagged by researchers. Considered synonymous with carbon neutrality, it is high time countries like India – the leading emitters of green gases – developed land-use policies based primarily on sustainability, if these countries are serious about the promises made in the Glasgow meeting.
Widespread concerns have been raised in some quarters over the UAE’s hosting of the event and Dr Al Jaber’s role leading the summit, due to his position as head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Al Jaber’s emphasis on phasing out fossil fuel “emissions” by relying on the strategy of carbon capture and storage technology adds to this general perception.
The fact of the matter is that carbon capture technology and storage cannot be a practical solution, nor will it be able to scale up to a global level. The only option is to go for the jugular and cut the emission by 45 per cent to hope for a chance at staying under the 1.5 C warming threshold.
It is not clear if COP28 will strive to issue a joint declaration to phase out fossil fuels, as the burning of fossil fuels is the key reason for climate change. In the previous summit meeting, a broad coalition of countries led by the USA and Europe, although pushed for a commitment to phase out fossil fuels with a timeline, India, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia objected and the joint declaration had to contend with the phrase “phase down”.
The world needs to cut fuel emissions by half by 2040 and the challenge before COP28 is to bring all the countries on board, agreeing to this fundamental requirement. The question of fulfilling the commitment of $100 billion for the Green Climate Fund to those in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceania would be another important step in addressing the disproportionate impact of climate change on developing nations.
C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct faculty at the National Centre for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru and a director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development, Connecticut, USA.