The déjà vu moments at international climate meetings are coming more frequently than before. But these moments are important for the world community simply because they serve as a reminder of a grave future.
The frequency of such moments is also giving rise to growing complexities and entanglement of the issues, problems and, above all, the agenda of the meetings themselves. Take, for example, the Bonn Climate Change Conference under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It’s a bundle of mind-boggling meetings: The 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-23), the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP-13), and the second part of the first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1-2). To top it all, there is the meeting of the fourth part of the first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA 1-4) — whatever it means.
The quiet flow of the Rhine, on the banks of which the meeting is taking place in the sprawling UN campus in Bonn, and the freezing cold belie the ground realities.
These include, over the last two decades since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, the havoc caused by hurricanes and storms that touched the life of masses all over the globe, particularly small island countries and even rich countries. This year’s sweep of disasters in the Caribbean and the US, and nearly all over the world, vividly exemplify these realities and more than prove what is being professed by the United Nations that the poor countries, which did not contribute much to the global warming, would face the consequences in a disproportionate manner.
Apart from the ground realities, there are realities in the atmosphere as well. A week before, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) revealed data that included a shocking observation that carbon dioxide (C02) levels in the atmosphere have surged at “record-breaking speed” to new highs in 2016. The report indicates that carbon dioxide concentrations reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400 ppm in 2015. Such a level and the speed of rise was not observed over at least two centuries.
The UN agency bluntly reported, just one year after the historic and hard-earned Paris Climate Agreement entered into force, that “we are not moving in the right direction at all. In fact, we are actually moving in the wrong direction when we think about the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.” Never before was such a blunt warning given by the UN agency.
But warnings, whether by UN agencies or by more than 3,000 scientists from 130 countries working for the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), or by world-renowned economists like Lord Nicholas Stern, have either been refuted or overlooked. “Adaptation to climate change” is now considered on top of the “to-do” list, taking “mitigation” way down to the bottom. Mitigation is now used predominantly — and interestingly — not in the context of reducing emissions but for diluting the risks from the catastrophe and even the investments made in clean energy! Financial innovations are in play more vigorously in “hedging” than in action on reducing emissions.
So, what is the Bonn climate conference expected to achieve?
In one sentence, the simplified expectation is to make accelerated progress in operationalising the Paris Agreement, due for completion not later than COP-24 in 2018.
The dilemma is that while the emissions are rising, the political support to the Paris Climate agreement by one of the two largest emitters, the US, has fallen. More than that, there is a dark cloud that looms large over the Bonn meeting: Would the nationalist’s virus of “my nation first” spread and the political support wane by bringing the process of operationalising to square number one?
As per the Emission Gap Report of 2017, the Paris pledges, called NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions), are only a third of what is needed to avoid the worst impact of climate change. As things stand today, even full implementation of current NDCs makes a temperature increase of at least three degrees Celsius by 2100 “very likely” — meaning that governments need to deliver much stronger pledges when they are revised in 2020.
Even so, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The investments in clean energy are growing over the last three years as per many authentic studies, including that of the Paris-based International Energy Agency. In 2016, 80 percent of all the investments in the electricity sector have gone into renewable energy installations. Most of this has been in the developing countries.
Development economists, however, feel that this light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming from the other direction. The policymakers, in their zest for quick gains, may reduce the policy and financial support for renewable energy any time, making such investment risky.
I recall a speech of US Vice President Al Gore in December 1997 in Kyoto: “We have reached a fundamentally new stage in the development of human civilisation, in which it is necessary to take responsibility for a recent but profound alteration in the relationship between our species and our planet. Because of our new technological power and our growing numbers, we now must pay careful attention to the consequences of what we are doing to the Earth — especially to the atmosphere.”
The US, though it signed the Kyoto Protocol in November 1998, never submitted it to the Senate for ratification because the House was unanimous that developing countries were favoured.
Now, the US, though it ratified the Paris Agreement with then President Barack Obama using his special powers, his successor, Donald Trump, has declared his intention to withdraw, because developing countries are “unfavourably bestowed” with the promise of finances from the developed countries — mainly the US.
Yes, we are in square number one, maybe two.
(Rajendra Shende, an IIT alumnus, is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and a former UNEP Director. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)