Global warning

This article was first published in The Pioneer on Wednesday, 18 December 2019. | Dr K K Paul

Global warning

Irrespective of the disappointing outcome of the Madrid summit, as a responsible nation, India cannot be making a half-hearted approach to address the issue of climate change

Even as the thunderous reverberations of the 16-year-old environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, at the UN, just three months ago, are yet to die down, to our utter surprise, the Madrid climate talks under the aegis of COP25 ended in failure. This is not the first time that such discordance among member nations has been witnessed. The present talks failed despite the fact that while inaugurating this conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had issued a very stern warning. “I call on anyone who is still lobbying their Governments for a slow transition or even no transition, to end those activities now. The world is watching,” he emphasised. Today, the world community appears to be focussed more on the protection of their own domestic agenda rather than paying heed to the impending disaster.

The first decade after the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 saw a rare building up of consensus on almost all issues. Perhaps it was the decade after the Cold War and the first Gulf War when the world community saw immense merit in consensus-building. The same was also manifest during the signing of the WTO Agreement at Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1994. But in the very next decade, one saw the appearance of discordant notes, particularly as former US President George W Bush virtually refused to follow the Kyoto Protocol even as America was the largest polluter in the world. This trend was further aggravated when President Donald Trump followed the same route as charted earlier by Bush.

Unfortunately, despite the bleak scenario, the voice of a number of smaller and less polluting nations, prominently Tuvalu, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan among others, who are already facing the brunt of the climate change, seems to have been lost. On the other hand, high polluting nations such as China, India and the European Union could not account for their efforts at reducing global warming. They were unable to quantify in specific terms the targets achieved as was laid down under the Paris Agreement. But the prime reason for the failure of the Madrid Summit, which was participated by 197 countries across the world, was a lack of consensus on the development of a market mechanism to limit carbon emissions.

The concept of trading in carbon markets as a response to climate change was an important outcome of the Kyoto Protocol. The primary purpose of the Protocol was to make the developed countries pay for their emissions while at the same time, monetarily reward those nations with a good record in this regard. The underlying philosophy was that since the developing countries could start with cleaner technologies, they would be rewarded by those who were stuck with old and polluting technologies. In a way, this translated into wealthier countries purchasing the extent of reduction in carbon levels achieved by the developing countries.

In this manner, the developed and wealthier nations would not only be able to sell their technology to the developing countries but could also gather carbon credits to meet the requirements of Kyoto Protocol without any reduction in their emission levels. The failure of the Madrid summit, to achieve any results in this direction, may have also disappointed those who encouraged carbon trading mechanisms like the oil major Royal Dutch Shell Plc and the Spanish utility Iberdrola SA.

Such a market mechanism was also considered important by heavy industrialised countries, who are economically dependent on oil and gas production. In the normal course, large-scale de-carbonisation would take much longer than as prescribed under the Paris targets. Besides, it would also ensure that the rich and already developed countries could continue to pollute on the strength of carbon credit purchased by them, while the options of developing and relatively poor countries would be curtailed. It can, thus, be inferred that the summit spent more time in ensuring that the interests of the developed countries are well protected through the carbon trading mechanism.

In fact, the scheme of carbon credits is some kind of a smokescreen which enables the developed and richer countries to exploit those still developing. Those already developed, thus, escape the limits while the less industrialised and less polluting are loaded with the burden of further reductions. This may ultimately impact and retard their progress in the long-run.

In this context, let us take the example of the GFL gas project in Gujarat. GFL is one of the largest producers of carbon offset credits in the world, selling them to many of the biggest polluters in the EU. Europe’s polluters have had a cheap way to offset their climate responsibilities without actually greening even a small patch of the land. EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard admitted that such projects have a “total lack of environmental integrity.”

At the summit, not much time was spent on determining the targets to be achieved by each country so as to keep the emissions of greenhouse gases within the overall objective of the global warming being limited to the extent of 1.5 degrees between 2018 and 2100. For this to become a reality by 2050, we should be a net-zero emitter. So far only about 20 countries, including the UK, France, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, figure in the list of those who are expected to meet this target. India, China and the US still have a long way to go.

In India, with a perceived difficulty in cutting emissions in order to meet the targets, an ambitious plan for harnessing solar energy has been formulated. We are lucky that sunlight is available in abundance but the challenge lies in the procurement of solar Photo Voltaic (PV) cells, which is one of the major constraining factors in our efforts to realise the full potential. According to a report submitted by the parliamentary standing committee, in order to achieve the target of 100 GW of solar electricity capacity by 2022, India should have had an installed capacity of 32,000 MW by 2017-18. But as of January 31, 2018, the country only had a capacity of 18,455 MW in just four years — this is over 20,000 MW a year and appears difficult to achieve.

Irrespective of the disappointing outcome of the Madrid summit, as a responsible nation with high prestige in the international arena, India does not have the luxury of a half-hearted approach towards this vital area. The phenomenon of global warming has to be seen as a global warning.

(The author is a former Governor and a Senior Adviser at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)