Paris climate pact: Opportunities and challenges

The Paris agreement provides a historic opportunity to address climate change but there are many challenges which may limit its effectiveness. It has received unprecedented global attention from policy makers to the press and the citizens.

Not surprisingly, the pact has been greeted with diverse opinions with the UN Secretary General calling it a “monumental triumph for the earth” to the US President Barack Obama saying that the agreement provides the “best chance we have of saving the planet”. On the other hand, Professor Hansen — credited as being the ‘father of climate change awareness’ described the climate deal as just “worthless words”, with “no action, just promises”, and the Centre for Science and Environment concluding that, “on the whole, the Paris agreement is weak and unambitious”.

However, the truth lies somewhere in between as summed up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the “Paris agreement has no winners or losers…and we are all working towards a greener future”. Here, we try to explain the achievements and limitations of the accord in the context of the global goal of limiting warming to safe levels, and its implications for India’s mitigation and adaptation efforts.

The Paris pact adopted an ambitious goal of limiting warming to below 2°C. It also for the first time offered to pursue efforts to limiting warming to 1.5°C. To achieve these ambitious temperature targets, the agreement aims for a net zero emission of greenhouse gases (which means balancing of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning with that of carbon sequestration, for example in the forests) in the second half of the century.

This sends a very strong long-term negative signal to the fossil fuel industry where long-term investments may decline. At the same time, the investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency industries will get a boost. Indeed, there is potential for a transformational shift from fossil fuel dominated energy systems to renewable energy. India unveiled a ‘Solar Alliance’ at the Paris Convention with more than 100 tropical nations.

India also has a very ambitious voluntary pledge of bringing 40 per cent of its installed power capacity under renewables in the next 15 years, compared to 13 per cent currently. Further, the Paris agreement is not just about government pledges, it includes green pledges from a whole host of global corporates, mayors of global cities, and bilateral and multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and UN.

The accord has a provision for carbon pricing mechanism in which Indian companies can participate. This mechanism will certainly incentivise green investments aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, and will drive a long-term shift towards green technologies.

Developed countries have committed annually to provide $10 billion starting in 2020. If the mitigation part of this funding is wisely invested in energy efficient and renewable energy technologies, it could create a critical mass and drive demand for green technologies, leading to market expansion and further reduction in prices of renewable energy.

The accord could also drive Research and Development in green energy technologies, for example Bill Gates announced an Energy Research Initiative drawing on billions of dollars in investments from private investors, individuals, universities and 20 governments — including the US, China and India.

Incorporation of forestry mechanisms in the legal part of the Paris agreement and promotion of synergy between mitigation and adaptation, which is possible in forest sector, can boost investments aimed at forest and biodiversity conservation and flow of ecosystem services in India. Halting deforestation, and afforestation provide low cost and high co-benefit opportunity to address climate change.

On the flip side, the currently submitted voluntary pledges are inadequate to meet the temperature goals agreed at Paris, and could well lead the world on a warming path of 3°C or more. The deal is especially weak in the sense that though it agrees to pursue efforts to limiting warming at 1.5°C, still it postponed some of the most difficult decisions to the next decade, in the process losing the critical climate mitigation window available to limiting warming at 1.5°C.

Emission targets

However, the Paris agreement offers a hope that countries can scale up their climate pledges post 2020/2023, to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 2°C. The commitment of $100 billion annually from 2020 onwards, for mitigation and adaptation, is not legally binding. Further, according to the International Energy Agency, emission targets outlined in the agreement alone will require $16.5 trillion of investment in renewables and energy efficiency through 2030.

Thus, the financial commitments made under the Paris agreement are highly inadequate. Similarly, no serious commitments are made on creating low-cost or free access to green technologies, potentially due to its WTO ramifications.

Global mean temperature has already risen to 1°C compared to the pre-industrial times. This warming is already adversely impacting the climate, natural ecosystems, food production and hydrology. Many extreme events in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, including the recent Chennai floods, can potentially be linked to climate change. There is a need for serious adaptation even to the ongoing impacts of climate change.

As things stand today, Paris agreement can take us on a risky warming path of 3°C or more. Such warming levels will have severe implications for food production, water resources and climate extremes. Thus India with 700-800 million people depending on climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fishery, forests, livestock etc, will be adversely impacted by climate change. India will soon need a strategy to build resilience in ecosystems and food production systems.

At the same time, India should be well prepared, with enabling policies and institutions to benefit from the Global Climate Finance mechanisms to promote transformation to sustainable energy and climate resilient development.

(Ravindranath is a Professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru and  Chaturvedi is a Senior Researcher at Divecha Centre for Climate Change, IISc)

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