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Less Talk, More Action Required on Climate Change

Dr. Sunita Narain, CSEThe roadmap for future climate negotiations is clear: in 2013, talks move to Warsaw in Poland, then to either Venezuela or Peru, and in 2015, to Paris for a grand finale of the Durban Platform agreement. What is not clear is whether the world will be able to get around to take action to cut emissions at the scale and pace demanded by science. There is no reason to believe as yet that this will happen. In fact, there is every reason to believe that despite the growing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, the world is even more addicted to life on carbon dioxide.

In the wake of Doha Climate Conference that took place in Qatar in November-December 2012, Dr. Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, India, analyzes the inconclusive outcomes of world climate summits that took place over the years and wonders whether any definite action plan would ever be agreed upon.

Climate Change ActionHigh on Rhetoric

The concern about a potentially warmer planet began in mid-1980s when two separate scientific conferences – in Bellagio in 1987 and then in Toronto in 1988 – presented evidence of the impact of anthropogenic carbon dioxide on climate.

In August 1990, the first assessment report of the newly created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released. This report warned the world that global temperatures would increase by 1°C above the 1990 values by 2005, if urgent action to control emissions was not taken. In November that year, the world climate conference met and agreed to negotiate a treaty. In February 1991, negotiations began and by June 1992, just over a year later, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was ready for signature at the Rio Conference.

But even in 1992, the U.S. had made its opposition to any agreement to cut emissions clear. Emission reduction targets were dispensed with primarily because the U.S. said it would not agree to it. The European Union’s (EU) plans for carbon tax were scuttled. The U.S. also stridently opposed, including in the Convention, the proposal to include historical responsibilities for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The clear legal concept of “polluter pays” was junked in favour of a diluted principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Then U.S.-led countries insisted they were taking on differentiated responsibilities, not because they were responsible for climate change but because they had the capability to act. All in all, the action on climate change was subverted even before it got going.

This lack of intent to do something meaningful has grown stronger in the past 20 years. Actions taken post-1992 have been weaker and much below expectations.

In 1992, when the Convention was being discussed, it was agreed that the industrialised world needed to cut emissions to 20 per cent below the 1990 levels for temperature increase to remain below 1°C. This was considered the “safe” limit. In Berlin in 1995, when the world agreed to begin negotiations on a protocol for emission reduction, the targets were the same – 20 per cent reduction below the 1990 levels. Eventually, when this protocol was signed in 1997 in Kyoto, the target had been annihilated to roughly 6 per cent below the 1990 levels, that too with so many loopholes that it meant little but business-as- usual. All this while, the U.S. opposition had become shrill. It rejected the Kyoto Protocol and made the engagement of China and India it’s starting and ending point for negotiations. But even after China and India bowed to the pressure and agreed to announce targets for reduction, the U.S. will has been wanting. Its current target translates to a mere 3 per cent reduction over the 1990 levels by 2020, which can at best be considered a joke on the planet.

In Bali 2007, efforts for hard action were resurrected – the Kyoto Protocol was coming to an end and new targets had to be set. The draft Bali agreement said, “Annex 1 countries (the already industrialised countries) as a group would reduce emissions in the range of 25-40 per cent below the 1990 levels by 2020, and that global emissions of greenhouse gases would need to peak in the next 10-15 years and be reduced to very low levels, well below half of the levels in 2000 by 2050.”

The post-Bali agreement was to leave out the numbers; to set up the working group on the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period to agree that the U.S. would cut comparable numbers; and that China and India and others would agree to take on domestic actions that could be measured, verified and funded. All this came to a close in Doha when it was agreed to do nothing. All in all, a miserable track record in climate change despite high rhetoric and drama.

Action Delinked from Science

This is when science has become more certain. The initial shove came with IPCC’s first assessment report; but even then there were huge challenges to interpret and extrapolate future trends. In 2007, IPCC’s fourth assessment report was taken with the same pinches of salt. It was the Nobel Peace Prize that catapulted the science of climate change into public notice. This, along with co-prize winner Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth. It was also in 2009, after the much-hyped Copenhagen conference, that the orchestrated move to belittle and discredit climate science began.

But since then, each year the world has seen the future predictions of science come true. Each year, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events has grown as has economic cost of recovery and adaptation. By the time climate negotiators arrived in Doha, the island nation of the Philippines had been pulverised by 17 typhoons and Bopha had left over 700 dead. The same week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $ 60 billion to pay for damages post-tropical storm Sandy even as his negotiators at Doha turned down any request for financial assistance to pay for mitigation or adaptation under climate.

So, science is more certain, action is even more uncertain. The question is where does the world go from here?

Different, But Differentiation Remains

There is also no doubt that the world of 1992 is distinctly different from 2012.

China in 1990, with over a quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for some 10 per cent of annual emissions; by 2010, it contributed some 27 per cent annually. China’s per capita is also moving towards European levels. It is also an economic powerhouse and serious competitor for the old power wealth and wellbeing.