Putting Earth’s Life-support Systems on Fire, Equity and Justice Forgotten

By Soumya Dutta, On behalf of Vikalp SangamonMay. 05, 2022in Perspectives

Background: Last year in 2021, the 26th Conference of Parties (conference of the member governments or ‘parties’ to the convention) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC CoP-26) was conducted in the Scottish city of Glasgow, from October 31st to November 13th. For a number of reasons, this CoP-26 was crucially important, and not the least of which is the clear indication that many of the earth systems are getting seriously disrupted and the resulting climate extreme events are putting crores of people across the world under massive distress. In the last 10-15 years these extreme events have rapidly increased in both frequency and intensity, adversely impacting an ever increasing section of people all across the continents. In that perspective, the urgent need to tackle this is now acknowledged everywhere.

In the year 2021, many states and cities in India faced devastating and untimely flooding. The west coast of USA lost millions of acres of forests in ravaging uncontrollable wildfires, several countries in central Europe faced extremely heavy rain-falls and severe flooding, losing many lives and massive amounts of property. Early on in the year we saw unprecedented bush-fires in Australia which killed – by a conservative estimate – over 100 crore animals and put somewhere near 700 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Cold countries and regions like Canada and northern USA faced temperatures in the high 40s (in some of these places, temperatures crossed 47° C). The usual snow-ice covered Siberia faced heat waves and massive wild-fires. Large areas of the oceans faced ‘never-before-seen’ marine heat waves, devastating marine life. Both the east and west coasts of India faced repeated strong cyclones, which is unusual for the west coast. Continuously rising ocean water temperatures and marine heat waves have already killed about 40% of the coral reefs, which support so much biodiversity that they are known as the rain-forest of the oceans. Global studies indicate that up to a million species are facing extinction – which will be the Sixth Mass Extinction event in the Earth’s 460 crore year history. A normally warm US state like Texas faced unprecedented snow storms disrupting life for millions, six hurricane-strength storms in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in one year! All these are pointing to the Earth’s climate systems going haywire. And the recent IPCC, WMO, IPBES, and other reports are sounding this alarm loud and clear.

After the much hyped Paris Agreement in the 21st Conference of Parties or CoP-21 in 2015 (PA), this Glasgow CoP was the most important for humanity’s present and future (along with the future of much of the living world). In Paris, almost all governments signed on to the agreement to limit global annual average temperature rise to well below 2° C above the pre-industrial average (the average global annual temperature between the years 1850-1900 is accepted to be this baseline), and do “best efforts” to limit this rise to 1.5° C. The average temperature rise has already crossed 1.1° C above pre-industrial in 2021, and land surface temperatures have increased more, affecting forests, agriculture, and all other living beings. There is general scientific consensus, that if the earth’s average annual temperature crosses 2° C above pre-industrial, many of the earth systems might collapse and the entire earth might rapidly start going towards a different state altogether, endangering most life. This dreaded possibility is called a run-away climate change and the danger of such a course is keeping many top earth-scientists and environmentalists sleepless.

What were the key issues in front of CoP-26 and what did it achieve in addressing these?

The primary reason for the relentless global heating is known to be the emission of excessive amounts of Green-House Gases (GHGs) – primarily Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel burning and deforestation, but also Methane (CH4), Nitrogen oxides, CFCs etc, all of which are building up in concentration in the earth’s atmosphere and have strong warming effects. In the last 200 years, the atmospheric CO2 concentrations have gone up by 40%, methane concentration has doubled and there are similar unprecedentedly fast rise of other GHGs – which is driving the fast temperature rise and climate chaos.

1. Thus the most important task before the CoP-26 was to work out plans and implement these – to rapidly decrease the emissions of all GHGs and eliminate them altogether before the year 2050. This needed to be reflected in drastically cutting support to fossil fuels through its entire exploration-production-processing-transportation-consumption chain. This will demand a complete Transition to a world-wide clean energy system, with justice for those working in the dirty fossil energy systems and also those impacted by this dirty energy infrastructure.

2. It is also known that deforestation is a major contributor the CO2, and also reduces the earth’s capacity to suck-in / sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. Thus stopping deforestation and increasing the forest cover – which have many other benefits, was also a priority.

3. As per the PA, to enable poorer countries take appropriate climate actions, the 37 early industrialised countries, also categorised as Annex-I countries, were to provide financial (and technological) assistance to the poor countries to the tune of USD 100 billion every year, starting from the year 2020. This was based on the earlier universally accepted principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capacities or CBDR-RC. This originate from the fact that it is the rich countries who have created the climate change crisis by extracting and burning disproportionately high amounts of fossil fuels, and the poor countries contributed very little – thus having much less responsibilities. On the other hand, it’s often the poor countries which are suffering more from the impacts of climate events, while they also have much less financial and technical capacity in comparison to the rich countries, to take appropriate climate actions.

4. To implement the Paris Agreement, the governments needed an agreed “Rule Book”, which was stuck because of very different positions taken by different governments, and an important task for CoP-26 was to finalize this Rule Book. One contentious issue preventing the finalization was the issue of Market Mechanism to reduce emissions. There were strong pressures on both sides – for a multi-dimensional carbon market, and against depending upon CMs too much for this mitigation or emission reduction.

5. Another key demand of the poorer countries was the issue of “Loss and Damage”. This pertain to the fact even if emissions are now drastically and urgently reduced (which is Not happening though), the climate systems have already changed significantly, severely impacting crores of farmers, fishers, workers, poor in general, every year and in increasing intensity and numbers. So the rich nations must take some responsibility for these losses and damages. In reality, the rich nations flatly refused to accept any financial liabilities for these losses, while agreeing to a token “technical assistance” for impacted countries approach.

For doing all these, the Governments that signed on to the Paris Agreement had submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, which details out their plans. It was shown by all analysis that these plans are highly inadequate, often non-serious and if all the submitted NDCs are taken together, the Earths projected temperature rise will still be between 2.7°—2.9° C by the year 2100, which will cause a complete world-wide climate catastrophe. So, all countries, major economies/emitters specially, were supposed to come in with and submit vastly upgraded NDCs at or before the Glasgow CoP-26.

We need to condemn the complete failure of the world’s governments, corporations and financial institutions to take appropriate actions – despite the genuine and widespread urgency of multi-dimensional climate actions, and many such calls for action from the climate and ecological justice movements. While the global scientific bodies including IPCC, IPBES, WMO, etc have sounded the alarm for the last few years, only a few small positive steps were taken at CoP-26 by the assembled parties to the UNFCCC. We also need to condemn the refusal to look into numerous people’s alternatives that have shown to take us to a sustainable Earth. Today’s inactions and wrong actions are not only endangering the human society, they are also putting our future generations to a very difficult world to cope with. Along with that, the entire living world is being put to massive difficulties, with many scientists foreseeing the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction. It is time we all strongly refute the idea that the profit seeking carbon markets can address the climate crisis, and condemn the adoption of market mechanisms (under Article 6 of the PA Rulebook) as a major method of reducing harmful emissions.

The highly disappointing outcomes of the Glasgow CoP-26 show why we should all be disillusioned, alarmed, and even angry.

1. The upgraded or modified NDCs are still way short of what is required. While the NDCs submitted at Paris totalled up to a projected temperature rise of up to 2.9 C above pre-industrial, the CoP-26 NDC pledges still show this to be about 2.4° C, well above the redline of 2° C, and way above the target of 1.5° C that the scientists agree is a comparatively safer limit.

2. The pledges in the NDCs apart, the actual actions of the governments, countries and businesses across the world are going in the wrong direction. Instead of emissions going down, the actual emissions kept increasing every year after Paris Agreement was signed, falling only in the massively COVID hit year of 2020. In the year 2021, these have started sharply rising again.

3. The global financial support to climate threatening fossil fuels since the PA, by the biggest Financial Institutions, who all pledged to work towards limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5° C, has reached an astronomical USD 5 trillion in these five years. This is happening despite worldwide climate movements demanding a complete halt to all fossil fuel financing and the rhetoric of “climate actions” by all the major FIs.

4. Instead of targeting to reduce their emissions to zero before or by the year 2050, as is shown to be absolutely essential, the NDCs submitted by all governments are targeting the fictitious Net-Zero by 2050. This mean, that the companies and other GHG emitting activities will still continue well beyond 2050, while some proposed “carbon sequestration and storage” (sucking out the emitted CO2 and permanently storing that somewhere, somehow) methods will be neutralising this continuing emissions! These proposed CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) methods are all in the developmental stage, except those based on forestry. But that didn’t seem to bother the proposing governments or the corporations pushing these “as-yet-undemonstrated-at-scale” methods.

5. Instead of actually shifting away from GHG emitting fossil fuel extraction-burning, the 197 signatory governments of parties to the Convention adopted Article 6 about “reducing CO2 emissions by new market mechanisms”! This was done despite global experience of complete failures of earlier market mechanisms like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), etc. This also shows the extent of domination of government agenda and actions by big businesses, including some of the biggest fossil fuel corporations. Now the flood gates of the fraudulent carbon markets will open, with global financial institutions and governments certifying the still polluting fossil fuel companies as “green”, condemning all life on earth to a very uncertain future.

6. The crucial aspect of Climate Finance for developing/poorer countries is still mired in lots of smokescreens and deceptions. While the originally agreed USD 100 billion per year is in itself a highly inadequate amount, the actual mobilisation and disbursals are far lower. Though the rich countries claimed that they have provided about USD 79 billion in the year 2019, an independent analysis by civil society shows that the New and Additional finance in the shape of Climate Finance to poor countries, are about USD 29-30 billion per year – for all poorer countries, to take every kind of climate actions, including shifting their economies to clean energies! One can have an idea of the meagre amounts we are talking about, if one looks at just one fancy project of the Indian PM Modi – the 508 KMs Bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, which has a budget of over USD 17 billion.

7. Though there were a slew of announcements and actions of increasing the share of renewable energies like solar and wind, there was absolutely no recognition of the completely unsustainable levels of current consumption (of both energy and materials) of rich countries and societies (also by the richer segments of the developing countries), and the fact the total ecological footprint of humanity has already reached about 1.7 times the total available EFP on Earth. And this do not pertain to only fossil fuels, but the range of over-extraction and consumption of – particularly the richer sections of human society.

8. The hitherto universally accepted principle of CBDR-RC was effectively thrown out, with the “responsibility of appropriate climate actions” now categorised as “common and shared responsibility”, with the crucial differentiation between those who created this crisis and have capacities to deal with – effectively buried.

There were a few positive actions announced though.
1. The first was the announcement that by 2030, the massive ongoing deforestation in the world will be completely stopped. There was a tentative financial provision made for this task.
2. The countries that signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, agreed to reduce the emission of the highly potent green house gas methane by 30% by the year 2030.
3. Most major economies have by now submitted their (doubtful, to say the least) Net-Zero plans, most by 2050, while China and India have indicated 2060 and 2070 as their target years.

These small (in comparison to what is required) actions, even if carried out honestly and in full (a case not shown to be common), will not lead us out of a disastrous course towards climate catastrophe in the coming decades, and we are thus condemning our children’s generations to unseen adverse conditions at global scale. We need to demand that all nations (represented by their governments) take immediate corrective steps to act honestly and genuinely on the above mentioned climate actions, bring many people’s alternatives into serious consideration and review these as genuine alternative pathways to a sustainable and equitable world – not only for all humanity today, but for all future generations to come and for all life on Earth.

Contact Soumya Dutta, On behalf of Vikalp Sangam

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