The latest round of UN climate change negotiations has been prefaced by a warning—today’s generation is the last that can act to prevent catastrophic global warming. The fact that Poland, which is hosting the meeting in its coal-town, Katowice, has allowed two coal companies to sign on as sponsors for the event speaks volumes about the present direction of global climate efforts. The country, which generates 80% of its power from coal, has committed to cut coal-based generation by a third by 2040, but continues to add such capacity. This schizophrenia is not uncommon when it comes to climate change. Countries face a shared fate of devastation from the current climate trajectory; for instance, Miami, an American city of over six million residents, could simply disappear as the sea-level rises by 1.5 metres before the end of century under the worst-case scenario. But, global political consensus has been hard to achieve.
The Kyoto Protocol, developed nations had argued, put onerous responsibilities on them while sparing emerging economies with comparable emission-shares. The global community then adopted an “ambition cycle” model in 2015, at Paris, under which all participating countries made voluntary climate action commitments that were to be scaled up every five years. However, most made dull commitments, and the concept of historical responsibility was entirely dispensed with. Moreover, a framework for enforcement was missing. After the US—the worst climate offender historically—walked out of the agreement, Brazil, another large emitter, has just threatened to follow suit. At Katowice, the rift over climate action is already showing. The US, EU and a host of other developed nations are against making disclosure of financial reparations, that they have to make for loss and damage sustained by poor countries due to climate change, mandatory under the Paris Agreement. As per a Business Standard report, they have also refused to set a baseline year against which their financial contributions can be compared to see if they are contributing more than what they did pre-2020, as required under the Paris accord. Oil-exporting nations have objected strongly to the explicit mention of pathways to keep warming under 1.5oC, vis-a-vis the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proposing the complete phase-out of coal, oil and gas by 2050 as some of the steps to achieve this goal.
Global emissions, that the world needs to cut by half from pre-industrial levels by 2030, have been rising again. The UN estimates that the target of ensuring peak fossil-fuel emissions by 2020, a Paris goal, wouldn’t have been met even by 2030. Current contributions put the planet on a 2.6oC-3.2oC trajectory, well above the desired 1.5oC and the Paris goal of 2oC. For perspective, anthropogenic climate change so far has added just 1oC to the pre-industrial global temperature—causing unusual weather phenomena like the deadly cold and heat waves across Europe and North America and the recent Kerala floods. Even as global leaders make the right noises on climate action for mitigation, the focus must shift to adaptation/resilience. With climate extremes becoming the new normal, the effort must be to get the billions at risk to adapt before the worst hits. Though India has done admirably on national efforts to keep to the Paris warming target, it alone, or even with a few other countries, can’t stave off catastrophic climate change. So, at Katowice, India must cut through the staple of rhetoric and futile back-end talks that have come to mark UN climate negotiations. Along with like-minded countries, it should work on developing adaptation strategies, apart from keeping up the pressure on top emitters like the US and Australia, amongst others, to either act or pay up.