Failures of CoP25 should make us think out of the box

Failures of CoP25 should make us think out of the box

The world has already started to experience the impact of climate change. But world leaders fail to show any urgency to tackle it.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is an often-used phrase to convey the Roman emperor’s supreme indifference to the sufferings of his people as a great fire swept through the city. At the Conference of Parties (CoP25) on climate change in Madrid last month, world leaders did much the same as Nero did in 64 AD.  

By any standard, CoP25 was a monumental failure, as many NGOs have described it. All that the assembled world leaders accomplished was to push a decision on mechanisms for carbon trading to the next meeting, CoP26, in Glasgow this year. They will also determine the quantum of Green House Gas (GHG) reductions to be made by countries to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial level. 

The world has already started to experience the impact of climate change. But world leaders fail to show any urgency to tackle it. According to the Emissions Gap Report 2019 by a UN agency, even if all the countries agreed to do what they agreed to in the Paris Accord in 2015, global temperature will still rise by 3.2 degrees C by 2100 – a really scary scenario.  

Only about 80 countries (mostly developing and island-nations) are seriously concerned about the climate crisis. The US, history’s biggest GHG emitter, is the posterchild of this indifference. Trump has withdrawn America from the Paris Accord. On the other hand, the EU parliament felt that “their house is on fire” and declared a climate and environmental emergency in November. The EU wants to reach zero net GHG emission by 2050. 

If we look at India’s energy mix during the last decade, the share of coal has gone up while the share of transition fuel, gas, has gone down -- not an encouraging development -- while the share of hydroelectricity and modern renewables has remained the same. India’s transition to decarbonization has not yet started while the world’s transition has taken some baby steps – the share of coal is decreasing while that of renewables is going up. 

A developing country like India can defend its need to consume more coal since our per capita energy consumption and per capita GHG emission is one of the lowest. Also, developed countries like the US, EU and Japan have overused the carbon budget for their industrialization. Thus, we can argue that the developed world has no moral right to demand sacrifice from us though India is the third-largest emitter of GHG in absolute terms.

As their costs have fallen, wind and solar are now competing with fossil fuel-generated electricity. Electric vehicles are becoming popular and so also shared mobility. This should result in decreasing fossil fuel-driven vehicles. While ‘peak oil’ has been replaced by ‘peak demand’, no one can predict with any certainty when it will occur -- as early as 2025 or latest by 2040. Some progressive institutions -- banks, universities, trusts, etc -- have decided not to invest in fossil fuel companies. Still, achieving a zero-carbon economy by 2050 will remain a pipedream unless we come up with out-of-the-box thinking. 

It is time we start questioning why every country is trying to maximize GDP growth. Bhutan is an exception which tries to maximize ‘gross happiness product’. Currently, every decision of every country is influenced by a relentless effort to increase GDP year after year. There are some efforts to promote greater use of Human Development Index (HDI) as a measure of development, instead. HDI is a composite of health, education and income. Thus, even HDI stresses income directly or indirectly, and thus GDP. The GDP concept came into vogue only in the middle of the 20th century. Mankind can live without worrying about it. 

Is there a limit at which the wants of people living in the developed world (developing countries are also adapting similar goals) will be satiated? We want bigger houses, and multiple houses. We want bigger cars. We want every possible gadget, which consumes directly or indirectly more carbon-emitting energy. In short, there is no end to our consumption needs. Though we know that wealth does not give happiness, with very few exceptions, everyone is trying to maximize wealth and consumption.

In 1972, the Club of Rome predicted that lack of natural resources will limit economic growth. Economists ridiculed the study and said that supply and demand will always work and the world need not worry. Indeed, world GDP continued to increase. However, climate change science is not influenced by supply and demand, nor by Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. Now, we are at a stage when nature will limit GDP growth in a cruel way. Should we now think of totally revising our concept of development and start minimizing carbon emission and stabilizing it in the shortest period? 

We, in India, also have to adapt a slightly tweaked approach since our per capita income is not anywhere close to the desired level to wipe out poverty. Developed countries can manage with income inequality, we cannot. We need to grow to meet the minimum needs of poor people. But we need to adapt the sustainable development path, in word and deed. 

The Modi government’s stated goal is a $5 trillion GDP by 2024 and to thence become the third-largest economy in the world. Have we asked why? When we reach that ambitious goal, what will happen to our environment? How much more carbon will we emit into the environment? Will it help the poor?

Let us drop out of the race of climbing the income table and adapt India’s civilizational message of “simple living and high thinking.” Indian civilization has always admired people who led a simple life -- Mahatma Gandhi, for instance. Now we need another person like him to put fighting climate change on the national agenda to protect our environment. India needs our own Greta Thunberg. 

(The writer is former governing council member of Manipal Institute of Technology, and an international oil expert)

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