Balancing concerns of climate and development

Emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) has already led to a global warming of 0.85°C. This warming is adversely impacting the planet. A recent study finds that the observed warming is responsible for 3/4 of the daily heat extremes around the world and about 1/5 of its rainfall extremes, further adversely impacting agricultural production, water resources, health, biodiversity etc. 

According to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), without significant and rapid reduction in GHG emissions, the global mean surface temperature is expected to increase to catastrophic levels of 3.7°C to 4.8°C, before the end of the century. Under the United Nations Climate Convention, governments have agreed to stabilise warming below 2°C, compared to the pre-industrial base, to avoid damage to sustained food production and ecosystem services.

To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming below the 2°C threshold, the long term atmospheric GHG concentration should not exceed the range of 450 to 500 parts per million (ppm). However, towards the end of 2014, the GHG concentration in the atmosphere had already crossed 481 ppm. Thus, the earth is already on the verge of this dangerous threshold and limiting GHG emissions to safe levels will be a challenge.

During the first fortnight of December, this year, 194 countries will be converging in Paris to negotiate a new international climate agreement, with the aim of finding ways to limiting the warming at safe levels. In preparation to the Paris meeting, countries had agreed to voluntarily declare their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). INDCs include GHG emission reduction targets and the related policies and investments.

They may also include adaptation plans and the financial support required for their mitigation and adaptation actions. India is one of the last countries among the major economies to submit its INDC by the deadline of October 1, 2015. Over 145 countries, accounting for 85 per cent of the current GHG emissions, have submitted their INDCs. The INDCs will be compiled by the UN Climate Secretariat and reviewed in terms of their feasibility and adequacy for avoiding the dangerous climate change.

As a part of its INDC, India has committed to reduce the GHG emissions intensity of its GDP (emissions per unit of GDP) by at least 1/3 by 2030 compared to the 2005 levels. It intends to meet this commitment by generating 40 per cent of its electricity in 2030 from ‘non-fossil fuel-based sources’ like solar, wind and hydropower, and by increasing its forest cover so that an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 is created by the year 2030. At least $2.5 trillion (Rs 162 lakh crore) would be required to implement India’s climate change actions between now and 2030.

India is a developing country with a very low per capita emission of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 compared to 7-15 of many developed countries. Hence, it seems fair that India continues to increase its emissions to meet its poverty reduction and development goals. At the same time, given India’s high vulnerability to climate change, it is in our best interest to work towards limiting the warming at safe levels.

Thus, India’s INDC attempts to strike a delicate balance between its climate and development concerns. India’s INDC implies that its emissions will not be peaking anytime soon but a unit of GDP will be produced at least 33 per cent more efficiently in terms of GHG emissions, compared to the 2005 levels..

Climate agreements

Under the Copenhagen Agreement, India already has a voluntary pledge to reduce its emission intensity by 20-25 per cent by 2020, of which 12 per cent has already been achieved over a period of only five years (2005-2010). Thus, a target of up to 35 per cent reduction over a period of 25 years (2005-2030) is a modest goal compared to what India has already achieved, and what it can potentially achieve.

Climate agreements in the past have not been successful due to differences between the developed and developing nations on pledges related to required emission reductions. Encouraging signs are emerging from the developing world this year through their INDCs. Brazil has announced a very ambitious target of GHG emission reduction of 42 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005.

Similarly, South Africa has announced that its GHG emissions would peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for a decade and then decline in absolute terms. China too aims to reduce the GHG emission intensity of its GDP by 60 to 65 per cent by 2030 over the 2005 levels.

The Paris convention is probably the last realistic chance to come to an agreement on limiting the dangerous climate change. However, in spite of ambitious pledges from many developed and developing countries, preliminary assessment of the submitted INDCs suggests that the emission reduction commitments announced are grossly inadequate for the purpose. There remains a significant gap between the GHG emission reduction commitments declared in the INDCs and the emission reductions required for limiting warming to below 2°C.

The governments congregating in Paris will have hard decisions to make regarding how to scale up the GHG emission reduction commitments far higher than the current INDC pledges. Overall, we believe that given the current GHG targets in INDCs, recent increasing trends in the global emissions and the slow progress in the recent global climate negotiations, it is unlikely that the emission reduction commitments in Paris would be adequate to limit the warming below the dangerous threshold.

Thus, nature, the human society and the poor in particular are destined to face the dangerous consequences of climate change, unless unexpected deep emission reduction commitments are agreed to in Paris.

(Ravindranath is Professor and Dr Chaturvedi is National Environment Fellow, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru)

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