The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) completed 25 years of its adoption in 2017. But there were little celebrations. An exhibition titled Richard Kinley Gallery at UNFCCC’s headquarters was the only reminder of the occasion. But there are many things to remember in 2017. It was the warmest non-El Niño year and the second-hottest year on record after 2016. The year was marred with unpredictable and deadly weather across the globe. The Arctic and the Antarctic experienced heat waves, all major cities of India were hit by extreme rainfall and the Caribbean and American coast were battered for the first time by three high intensity hurricanes in a single season. The US is also experiencing record cold this winter, dubbed ‘bomb cyclone’, with the US president Donald Trump asking for “a little bit of that good old Global Warming”. But Trump and his likes are wilfully ignorant. A warmer Arctic will bring record cold in the US and Canada. What 2017 will be most remembered for is exposing, like never before, the inherent weaknesses in the UNFCCC.
UNFCCC was adopted with an objective to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. It was to be achieved using the principles of Equity, and Common but Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities (CBDRRC). In other words, countries were to take action based on their responsibility of causing and capability of solving climate change. As developed countries are responsible for the largest share of global emissions, they had to be the first to cut emissions. They also had to support developing countries, through finance and technology, so that these countries pollute less and grow their economy at the same time.
Over the past 25 years, GHG emissions, far from stabilising, have risen by 60%. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased from 356 parts per million (ppm) in 1992 to 407 ppm in 2017—400 ppm of CO2 was last witnessed on Earth about 3 million years ago. Global temperature too has steadily increased, from 0.25oC above the pre-industrial era in the early 1990s, to 1.1oC in 2016. Very soon, the temperature increase is likely to hit 1.5oC, declared in the Paris Agreement as a desirable goal. All this while, the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events have significantly increased. Scientists are now warning about ‘tipping points’ that could lead to unstoppable and destructive climate change.
On the positive side, the world’s economy is becoming less emission-intensive. The global GDP (constant 2010 $) has doubled from $39.1 trillion to $77.5 trillion in the last 25 years, while GHG emissions have only grown by 60%. This is largely because of investments made in energy efficiency. In addition, renewable energy is now a reality. Solar is now the cheapest source of electricity during day-time in most parts of the world. With reducing prices of battery storage, by 2025, solar with battery would be cost-competitive with all fossil fuel sources.
The world is at crossroads. We can build on the technological revolution, work together and halt climate change, or we can continue fighting with each other and jeopardise the gains.
The fight between the developed and the developing countries have turned the UNFCCC negotiations toxic and counterproductive. The fight is over who should do what. Truth is, both sides are trying to do as little as possible. Developing countries want the developed to do more as they have a historical responsibility of causing climate change. For the developed countries, however, this is an anathema as they think it is unfair to hold them responsible for the emissions of their forefathers. They want emerging economies, like China and India, to do more as they believe that these economies have a trade advantage because they do not have to cut emissions. This was the reason that led the US to walk out of the Kyoto protocol as under the protocol, only the developed economies had obligations to reduce emissions, the developing had none.
Since then, it has been the singular focus of developed countries to erase their historical responsibility and demolish the CBDRRC principle. They have successfully done that, but in the process have fatally weakened UNFCCC. The Paris Agreement is an exemplar of what has gone wrong.
To bring emerging economies on par, the US crafted the Paris Agreement as a voluntary mechanism under which all the big polluters—developed and developing—are free to choose their climate targets. They have all chosen the least ambitious targets. The result: this agreement, even if implemented fully, will take the world to a temperature increase of 3°C and more. Now, the US itself has left the agreement, exposing the futility of the UNFCCC.
Today, it is worth asking whether climate change negotiations should continue business-as-usual or should we devise new principles and mechanisms for a meaningful international coalition?
A new climate multilateralism?
The global emissions must peak now and reduce by at least 50% by 2050 to give us a fighting chance to avoid catastrophic impacts. We are fast reaching a point where every country, even the least developed ones, must start reducing emissions. How can this be done?
First, we will have to negotiate under principles that unite the world and not divide it. The principle of CBDRRC has divided the world and should be replaced with the principle of Common Responsibility based on Respective Capability (CRRC). CRRC recognises that every country must take action, but some will do more than others because they are more capable. This means that along with developed countries, countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and South Korea, etc, must start reducing emissions significantly. In addition, as per a graduation principle every other country must start cutting emissions once they cross a certain threshold of emissions or income.
Second, the negotiations need to shift to smaller ‘sectoral’ negotiating platforms on industry, energy, transport, agriculture, etc. UNFCCC negotiations cover the entire economy. The negotiators, mainly diplomats and environment ministry officials, have poor understanding of the science, economics and politics of different sectors. They, therefore, shoot in the dark and negotiate a common minimum denominator. This can be avoided at the smaller platforms as the negotiations would be connected to the real world and done by sectoral experts.
Lastly, it is in the interest of the rich countries that poor countries leapfrog to renewables and other low-carbon technologies. We are reaching a point of inflection on many of these technologies. A major push through global cooperation, built around sectoral negotiations, will ensure quick transition. It is estimated that we can make fossil fuels history by investing about a trillion dollars annually from now until 2050. Though this sounds like a lot of money, it is less than 1% of the global GDP and less than half of what the world spends on military. This is too good a deal to be missed.
The bottom line is the current UNFCCC negotiations is going nowhere. It is better we tried something different now then regret later.
Deputy director, Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @Bh-Chandra Views are personal