Promises alone will not save us from climate change

Promises alone will not save us from climate change

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A report published last week revealed that extreme weather events caused by global warming and climate change had broken all records, not only in terms of the frequency of occurrence or the geographies concerned, but also in terms of damage they have caused to life and property around the world.

Worryingly, the report went on to caution that scientists expect the extent of the damage to continue to rise in the coming decade as the Earth continues to heat up thanks to incessant emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

After a reduction in 2020 as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, global greenhouse-gas emissions have bounced back sharply and are on course to reach prepandemic levels, if not by the end of this year then definitely next year.

Global carbon emissions, which fell by about 5.8 percent in 2020 because of the shutdown of industries and transport disruption, have bounced back sharply this year. For instance, China is likely to have pumped 4 percent more carbon into the atmosphere this year than last year. And emissions in India, one of the lowest-emitting countries in terms of per capita emissions, have increased by 12.6 percent this year, almost double the fall recorded in 2020.

It is not only developing countries in which this is happening, though. Carbon emissions are set to increase by 7.6 percent in both the EU and the US. The story is no different in relation to emissions of other greenhouse gases, all of which are expected to return to prepandemic levels in the months ahead.

It is worrying that the world as a whole is a long way from seeing a fall in emissions any time soon, despite the numerous promises made in the past two years, most notably during the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, last month.

Indeed, “net zero” has been the global climate change mantra doing the rounds of important meetings for the past half-decade or so. Effectively, it promises that by a certain date the countries that sign up to the pledge will not only curb their greenhouse-gas emissions, but also offset the emissions that remain through suitable methods such as capture and storage or other technologies, none of which have really been tried or tested in the real-world on a large scale.

In May this year 130 countries, responsible for 70 percent of global emissions, announced a wide range of targets to reach by 2050. At COP26, 10 other nations joined in, notably India, taking the total to 140 nations that collectively account for 90 percent of global emissions.

While these announcements are definitely welcome and set goals for countries and communities to aim for, far too many questions remain about the real meaning of these net-zero promises.

One of the biggest threats to success is that there is little clarity on whether net-zero targets apply only to actions within a country’s own borders or also to any activity overseas.

Ranvir S. Nayar

For example, none of these agreements are legally binding on a multilateral basis. Even in the rare cases where a nation’s parliament has passed laws obliging governments to achieve a net-zero target by a certain date, there is little certainty that a future government will not overturn the laws or push the date further into the future.

There are a number of other pitfalls on the way to a net-zero world. One of the biggest threats to success is that there is little clarity on whether net-zero targets apply only to actions within a country’s own borders or also to any activity overseas. Rich countries might opt to plant a few trees or set up solar panels in a poor country to claim offset credits, for example, while happily continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the air back home.

Also, far more details are needed about all the net-zero statements made so far. They lack clarity on the exact route that countries will take, and since each country has set a date based on its own convenience, or even whims, they need to detail exactly what share of net-zero goals will come from cutting emissions and from other methods such as capture and storage.

Even with the net-zero commitments currently in place, the Earth might warm by at least 2.4 C, way above the target of 1.5 C target set by the Paris Agreement in 2015, and also the limit set by the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Another major problem with emissions is that before COP26, the world needed to cut about 27 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2030. Even taking into account all the new commitments during, or in the run-up to, the Glasgow conference, there is still a gap of at least 19-23 billion tons.

Basically, the world needs to cut 45 percent of emissions from 2010 levels — and the bad news is that every single year since then, with the sole exception of 2020, global emissions have reached new highs and 2022 promises to follow the same trend. This means that we are far from cutting emissions to bring them down to below 30.6 billion tons in the next eight years, or removing close to 33 percent from the current levels.

These are the figures that really matter and, unfortunately, none of the promises that are in place, even if they are met fully and on time, will achieve them. Judging by the past performance of governments and businesses, even the current promises are likely to be broken and the targets missed by a wide margin.

This means that unless penalties and legal implications are imposed multilaterally, at the level of UN, the world is staring at a looming doomsday scenario.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group
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