Where is the last best hope for climate change?

President Abraham Lincoln’s concluding remarks in his 1862 address have astounding resonance in the world of today: “We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honourable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”

Lincoln’s invocation of America as the “last best hope of Earth” was referenced by Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, and current US State Department Secretary in his January 11, 2017 confirmation hearing.

And now, on March 28, 2017, a new US “Presidential Executive Order on Energy Independence and Economic Growth” was signed. Section 1 of the Order states: “It is in the nation’s interest to promote clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.”

Section 2 goes on to require all relevant US agencies to immediately review all existing actions and regulations that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with a particular focus on oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy resources.”

Section 3 rescinds all previous Presidential Executive Orders (EOs) and Memorandums ranging from the 2013 EO 13653 (Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change) to the 2016 Presidential Memorandum of September 21, 2016 (Climate Change and National Security).

The Order, amongst other topics, also calls for: “…lawful action to suspend, revise, or rescind…the Legal Memorandum Accompanying Clean Power Plan for Certain Issues,” which was published in conjunction with the Clean Power Plan; disbanding the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases; and lifting of “any and all moratoria on Federal land coal leasing activities.”

But what does this explicit focus on domestic energy independence and economic growth mean for the UN’s much lauded Paris Climate Agreement and for the energy access — climate mitigation partnership nexus in large aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting developing countries where the lack of access to clean energy negatively impacts the lives of millions of poor?

It is important to recall that the Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016 but its future success hinges entirely upon the so-called voluntary “ambition” or the level of voluntary commitments made by all countries.

When questioned at his recent confirmation hearing, Tillerson said: “It’s important that the US maintains its seat at the table about how to address the threat of climate change, which does require a global response.”

But this recent EO stokes fears of the voluntary yet consensus driven nature of the Agreement being eclipsed, and the global community will have to wait to see whether there will be future wave of diminishing voluntary mitigation commitments by major aggregate GHG emitters.

The linkage between energy and climate is absolutely crucial for all countries, and there is a broad global consensus that energy is the common denominator in addressing economic development and global climate change.

Energy fuels socio-economic development in all countries across the world but conversely the lack of access to cost-effective and modern energy services impacts negatively and toxically on the lives of the poor across the world in diverse ways.

But what is the immediate future for voluntary commitments, in particular, global public-private partnerships on clean energy for the poor and climate change mitigation now that the future of the UN’s universally adopted Paris Agreement is unclear, and especially if these two global challenges are confined into two separate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the UN’s 2030 Agenda?

Clean energy breakthrough
What is puzzling is these two separate SDGs happen to be part of a universally applicable UN 2030 Agenda that makes poverty eradication a cross-cutting priority, and “pledges to leave no one behind.”

It is a fallacy to expect a global clean energy breakthrough for the poor based on separate SDGs on sustainable energy and climate change. The idea that linkages between sustainable energy access for the poor and climate change are not being actively implemented also happens to contradicts the mission of much-lauded “Breakthrough Energy Coalition”.

The coalition — an initiative comprising an A to Z list of 28 philanthropic billionaires including Ambani, Gates, Ma, Tata and Zuckerberg — was launched in the margins of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. It recognised that “the urgency of climate change and the energy needs in the poorest parts of the world require an aggressive global programme for zero-emission energy innovation.”

Having two separate SDGs makes little implementation sense for developing countries like India. There is an urgent need for synergistic action on climate change and increasing access to clean energy in countries like India where according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “a population similar to that of the European Union and the United States combined lives without clean cooking facilities.”

Where is the “last best hope on Earth” for public-private partnerships germane to the lives of those who lack resources to advocate for themselves in the global assemblies of the future?

Where is the hope for the 2.7 billion people (IEA 2015 ) whose heavy reliance on solid biomass causes harmful short-term climate pollution? And hope for the “two billion children” (Unicef 2016) who live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by factors such as vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste exceeds minimum air quality international guidelines?

(The writer is a US-based expert on climate change)

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