Living in uncertain times

Living in uncertain times

Somerset Maugham's, "We live in uncertain times and our all may yet be taken from us" works oddly enough as a reflection of the current state of flux in global climate change negotiations. The uncertainty of our times is reflected in the fact that 195 countries pledged to undertake ambitious action to meet the goal of holding global warming to "well below 2 degrees Celsius (0C)" in 2015.

Back then, the planet's ultimate New Year resolution – the 2015 Paris Agreement (PA) ­ was widely hailed as the first fully inclusive yet completely voluntary global climate change accord. But the future looks a lot murkier now because the pact hinges entirely on the level of "ambition" of the voluntary national pledges of climate action referred to as "Independent Nationally Determined Contributions" (INDCs).

It was only a year ago that three of the world's largest aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters - China, the US and India - ratified the Paris Agreement, which entered into force on November 4, 2016. But then, on June 1, 2017, the new US administration made a formal announcement withdrawing from it. In so doing, the US referenced its intention to re-open global negotiations related to the Paris Agreement, with a view to either re-entering the pact under new terms or pushing for an entirely different climate deal.

The decision by the second largest aggregate greenhouse gas emitter to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement and call for a new set of negotiations was spurned by several countries, including France, Germany and Italy, who said that the Paris Agreement "cannot be renegotiated".

Meanwhile, India's foreign minister pushed back against the US claim that India's ratification of the agreement was "contingent upon receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid from developed countries" by categorically stating that, "India signed the Paris Agreement not because of any pressure or out of greed. We are committed to the environment and this commitment is 5,000 years old".

Negotiators from across the world will gather again at the annual Climate Change Conference - the 23rd such conference - to be held from Nov 6-17 in Bonn, Germany, and presided over by the small island nation of Fiji. But it remains to be seen whether the invocation of "scientific uncertainty" will be used to stoke disarray in the negotiations process, and who pays the price for delayed action related to the already growing gap between voluntary pledges of action versus concrete GHG emissions reductions pathways.

The just-released UN Environment Programme's Emissions Gap Report 2017 - the eighth such serial report - has sounded the alarm about the looming "gap" between "the emissions reductions necessary to achieve the globally agreed PA targets at lowest cost and the likely emissions reductions" from full implementation of INDCs -- which the UNEP report refers to as NDCs (leaving out the word "independent" in their use of the acronym).

The report is explicit and upfront in finding that "the NDCs that form the foundation of the Paris Agreement cover only approximately one-third of the emissions reductions needed to be on a least-cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2 °C. The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high." The report goes on to warn: "Looking beyond 2030, it is clear that if the emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2 °C can still be reached."

Will this warning spark the heated indoor air of conference rooms, and force negotiators to divert from word-parsing exercises towards practical, cost-effective solutions directly linking sustainable energy and climate change mitigation at their annual convening?

It turns out that like other New Year resolutions, the PA's aspirational verbiage is not measurable. What is measurable in terms of curbing anthropogenic climate change are the quantifiable, practical actions taken towards sustainable energy in all countries across the world. But tracking this kind of action requires effectively integrated climate-sustainable energy processes within the UN.

Big nexus

And then there is another long-overlooked aspect of the sustainable energy-climate change-pollution nexus - which is that close to three billion people depend on highly inefficient and polluting energy sources that impact negatively on their health, and also contribute to short-lived climate pollutants.  

According to a recent 2017 WHO Report - "Don't Pollute My Future"- "92% of the global population, including billions of children, live in areas with ambient air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits. Over three billion people are exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels. Air pollution causes approximately 600,000 deaths in children under five years annually and increases the risk for respiratory infections, asthma, adverse neonatal conditions and congenital anomalies".

The linkages between the heavy reliance on the use of polluting solid fuels in poor households, air pollution and short-term climate mitigation are not new. What is troubling is that addressing the linkages between sustainable energy services for the poor and climate change has not been the modus operandi within the UN context.

There have always been two separate UN global negotiations processes - silos - on sustainable energy and climate change, currently represented by two different global sustainable development goals (SDGs) and targets.

We do live in uncertain times, and all have been taken from those who die at the toxic intersection of poverty and polluting energy sources. It is time for developing countries, where the majority of the energy-poor reside, to contend with the fallacy of expecting a global clean energy breakthrough within a Paris Agreement process that functions like a silo and separates out sustainable energy for all from climate change mitigation.

(The writer is an expert on climate change based in the US)

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