What COP-26 means for us

What COP-26 means for us

Rural and poorer communities expect dedicated research to build resilience to climate risks such as floods, droughts and cyclones.

So the expectation for the poor would be that the world community would increase their ambition to quickly reduce their emissions to slow or halt warming. Credit: AFP File Photo

The much-postponed global UN climate change convention is finally happening in Glasgow, with several world leaders, corporates, activists and academics in attendance. While many have written about what is at stake at the climate meet, every country and region looks at the convention from its own perspective.

India — the world’s third-largest emitter (though the per capita carbon emissions are less than half of the world average) — will be a key player. So, what does India expect from the convention? Here, we have to ask a question: Which India? There are two Indias. One consists of the urban rich and middle class, policy makers and corporates. The other consists of over 800 million poor and rural communities, who are directly exposed to and impacted by climate change; farmers, fishermen, forest dwellers, coastal settlements, and people living in flood, drought and cyclone-prone areas. In mass media and government circles, the focus is entirely on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, net zero emissions, funding from richer countries, technology transfer, capacity building, etc. But the priorities of 800 million people living in rural, coastal and mountain regions are different.

Let's focus on the 70% of India’s population, which directly depends on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, forests and livestock rearing. Here, the issues of GHG emission reduction are not relevant since their per capita emission is a fraction of the urban and rich population in the country. Their concern is also not about financing mitigation since the poor will not be involved in mitigation efforts. Their concern will not be technology transfer or capacity building since these are relevant only to large industries, power generation, electric vehicles, urban transportation, etc.

The middle class or rich may not be much worried about the success of the UN climate convention, or COP-26. Its failure may even enable them to continue their resource and energy-intensive lifestyle. They do not need to pay carbon tax or shift to public transport like metro or buses or reduce the use of air conditioners; they do not have to worry about installing solar PV systems or energy-efficient home appliances.

So what is actually at stake for the 70% of Indians and what does a successful COP-26 mean for the poor in India? In simple terms, COP-26 should aim at stabilising global warming between 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius to minimise the adverse impacts of climate change. This requires immediate greenhouse gas emission reductions, even before 2030. The earth has warmed by nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius and we have already seen the extreme events around the world including India — heat waves, floods, cyclones, forest fires, droughts, etc. In all likelihood, the earth is on track to warm by around 3 degrees Celsius, even if all the commitments made under the voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions on Greenhouse gas reductions to UN are met, which is highly unlikely to start with.

So the expectation for the poor would be that the world community would increase their ambition to quickly reduce their emissions to slow or halt warming. This need not mean any sacrifice of quality of life for the rich, but will involve doing all the right things such as using energy-efficient systems and shifting to renewable energy sources or growing forests. Today, solar PV electricity is cheaper than coal thermal electricity on per unit basis, even excluding the cost of environmental and health damage from coal extraction, transportation and burning. Further, renewable power generation creates more jobs and clean jobs per MW of installed capacity. Conserving existing forests, planting more trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing in trees and soil are good for biodiversity conservation, watershed protection, creating jobs, etc.

The rural and poorer communities expect dedicated research and dissemination to build resilience to climate risks, especially from extreme events such as floods, heat waves, forest fires, droughts and cyclones. This requires large investments in adaptation programmes. India has been implementing large developmental programmes, which can also contribute to reducing vulnerability to climate change risks and building resilience in communities and ecosystems. These include MGNREGA, integrated watershed management programmes, national afforestation programmes. How can we enhance the adaptation or resilience benefit from these programmes? How can we mainstream adaptation or resilience in developmental and infrastructure programmes? What dedicated programmes do we need? How can we improve early warning systems not just for cyclones, but also for droughts, floods, heat waves, and improve weather forecasts for farmers and fishermen?

There is only a cursory coverage of climate change concerns of the poorer sections of India compared to energy use or consumption lifestyles. Agreed that richer countries have a larger responsibility in mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions sooner. But this should include the upper middle class or rich Indian families also, whose carbon footprint may be closer to richer countries of Europe. The failure of COP-26, which means no serious agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming one or two decades, will spell doom for the poor, with increased and intensive heat waves, floods, droughts and cyclones. Mitigation efforts at the global level may take decades to have any impact on rural community in the form of reduced climate extremes and impacts. Rural and poorer communities cannot wait for decades for mitigation efforts to take effect, though it is very critical in the long-term perspective. They need to be protected now, their vulnerability for climate risks needs to be reduced now and adaptive capacity needs to be enhanced to cope with the adverse impacts of climate change in the next five to 10 years. They can't wait till 2050 for net zero emission and mitigation measures.

To conclude, we need to remember what Mahatma Gandhi said, “Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him” or protect him from climate change risks.

(The writer is a former professor at the Indian Institute of Science and a climate change expert)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox