India should take lead in climate talks

There is “heated” expectation that the 150 world leaders and the 50,000 negotiators and participants from 196 countries gathered in Le Bourget for the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) will produce a comprehensive global agreement.

But for all stakeholders confronted with the development imperative of eradicating poverty, the “burning” question is: Will COP-21 focus on the energy poor who have contributed the least to the creation of the problem, but who are amongst the most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climatic change – sea-level rise, coastal zone flooding, drought and desertification?

On December 2, the third day of COP-21, Oxfam released a report entitled “Extreme Carbon Inequality” outlining the harshly, inequitable toll that climate change imposes on the poorest in the world: “The poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10 per cent of global emissions yet live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change, while the richest 10 per cent of people in the world are responsible for around 50 per cent of global emissions.”

This finding is shocking in its scale and scope. But, if the past portends the future, then what is really worrisome is whether COP-21 will take full stock of this.

In the 27 years since the UN first adopted a resolution recognising climate change as a “common concern of mankind”, there have been several global climate change fora held in many countries, including 20 previous annual COPs. And yet, an examination of over two decades of globally agreed climate change negotiated outcomes reveals a paucity of concrete guidance, measures and options that are focused on addressing the climate change-poverty-sustainable energy nexus.

The energy sector has been globally recognised as a principal driver of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. But, energy also happens to be the key in addressing a wide variety of poverty reduction measures such as: reducing infant mortality, improving the lives of women and girls, promoting education, improving access to clean water, and enabling productive livelihoods.

Close to three billion people depend on highly inefficient and polluting energy sources which impact negatively on their daily lives and health as they contribute to short-lived climate pollutants. So why have the agreed outcomes of numerous global climate change COPs not addressed the sustainable energy needs of the poor?

This question and the linkages between sustainable energy for the poor and climate change goals can no longer be avoided by COP-21 negotiators because world leaders have already agreed that eradicating poverty by 2030 is a fundamental and overarching priority of the UN’s newly adopted 2030 sustainable development agenda. This priority cuts across all the new 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the sole goal – Goal 13 on climate change – whose outcome depends entirely on COP-21.

The simultaneous launches of the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” – an initiative of 28 philanthropic billionaires including Ambani, Gates, Tata and Zuckerberg; and of “Missi-on Innovation”– an initiative of 20 countries including the wor-ld’s most powerful and populous as well as the biggest oil, gas and renewable energy producers, are two clear signals that rich and powerful individuals and countries see clean energy as an increasing trend of the future. 

Ensuring access to sustainable energy services, systems and technologies for the poor is absolutely critical for India, as it is for a vast number of developing countries. This is precisely why India should take the lead advocating an integrated approach on climate change and energy access at COP-21.

In 2013, WHO and the UN Environment Programme pointed out that about three billion people cook and heat their homes using solid fuels, open fires and inefficient stoves that produce high levels of household air pollution, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into lungs which have a range of unhealthy impacts, felt mostly by young children and women who spend most time near household hearths; and which also contribute to short lived climate pollutants.

This “energy poverty” is inequitable because it is most severely experienced in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. For more than two decades of UNFCCC negotiations, India has argued that equity and poverty reduction be prioritised and now it is time to act.
India can lead a real “breakthrough” in negotiations by ensuring that the lives of the energy poor who are also amongst the most climate vulnerable become a central focus of COP-21’s climate agreement.

(The writer is an independent global energy and sustainable development expert)

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