For the next two weeks, countries will sit down, meet, argue, refuse and agree on how to tackle climate change in COP 24 or Conference of the Parties. It is unfortunate that after 24 COPs, things are worse than ever. It makes you wonder about the "sapien" in homo sapiens, which means "wise".
A few weeks ago, the International Panel on climate change (IPCC), a body of over 1,000 scientists from around the world, released a report that rang all the alarm bells from bad to doomsday levels. There were no good scenarios, only "perhaps-we-won't-die-if-we-knuckle-down-and-do-as-we-agreed-in-Paris" scenario.
So let's break down a few agreements already in place. Way back in 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio, South America, called the Earth Summit. At this event, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was adopted. At this time, it was still somewhat ok to debate climate change; what it is, why it's happening, what is the future and so on. However, in this treaty, everyone agreed greenhouse gases need to be stabilized to prevent human activity from having a dangerous impact on climate systems. Today, this framework has 196 signatories.
Many sticking points over the years has meant slow action on the promises made.
The first and biggest sticking point is the historical-polluters-pay-first principle. Many developing nations feel that the bulk of the climate crisis is to be blamed on developed nations and that they must make the biggest concessions to clean up, while not punishing developing nations for building their economy and bringing their people prosperity.
The second hurdle is what is called the "carbon budget urgency" – all the carbon we have left to use before critically overloading the system. That is not much and this means countries that will generate more carbon – and need to – than they can be allotted want developed countries to reduce their share of the carbon budget as they got to use so much of it already.
The third – and in my mind the crucial – sticking point is the fact that none of these treaties are legally binding. Which means there is no actual limit on how much carbon emission is allowed by each country and no enforcement. Effectively, the countries can gather every year and talk and make grand promises only to break them.
So here we are at COP 24 after the dramatic Paris Agreement three years ago (COP 21) and, according to the latest IPCC report, on track to break every promise. The agreement ratified by 184 parties (the United States, the 2nd largest carbon emitter under President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw although they can legally do so only in 2020. He is famous for denying climate change.) came into effect in November 2016.
The commitments made were significant. All parties agreed that they would
– try to limit average temperature rise to below 2 degrees celcius, preferably to only 1.5 degrees
– enable financing for climate action including the annual 100 billion dollars from donor nations to countries with low income levels.
– develop climate plans by 2020 by sticking to their self-determined climate goals.
– protect ecosystems that enabled the absorption of carbon dioxide, including forests
– work towards better resilience and climate change mitigation
It has been a spectacular fail.
An "F" all around on the promises.
Right now, the new IPCC report says global emissions are on track to take us past a two-degree Celsius temperature rise. If temperatures stay below the global average rise of 1.5 degrees, permanent damage can be averted. But at over 2 degrees, it is catastrophe. Ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic irreversibly damaged, rising sea levels will devastate low-lying shores, coral reefs will vanish affecting biodiversity in the ocean and therefore food resources, more deadly weather events like cyclones, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires will erupt.
We are already seeing all of this. It is bad but perhaps survivable as temperatures are already a degree hotter that they were pre-industrialization.
Let's look at India, our promises and what we face.
In our pledge prior to the Paris agreement, we said:
1. We would reduce carbon emissions by 33-35% below 2005 levels by 2030.
2. 40% of our power needs would be met by renewables by 2030.
3. We would increase forest cover so that an additional carbon sink capable of absorbing 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon would be created.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoted the international solar alliance, a group of mainly "sunshine" countries. The idea is to harness the power of the sun. so far, 121 countries are part of this alliance that aims to mobilise more than 1,000 billion in investments by 2030 for the use of solar energy. It is the only treaty-based international intergovernmental organization based out of India.
A new report prepared by jointly by the New climate institute, Netherlands Environmental Investigation Agency and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, says India is one of the nine countries in the list of 25 top emitters that are on track to achieving their self-declared targets.
Critics have argued that the goals India set for itself were less than what it needs to do, not only to stop global average temperatures from rising but to help mitigation within India.
The actual facts, however, seem to contradict where we are going as a nation. This year, India slipped to its lowest-ever ranking on the Environment Performance Index. We are at 177 out of 180 countries. We rank at 178 out of 180 as far as air quality is concerned. We rank 120 out of 122 countries in the water quality index.
While the government keeps putting out figures about our growing green cover, it is obvious that mature trees and forests are vanishing in the name of development.
In India, rising temperatures mean deadlier heat-waves and more unpredictable weather creating huge challenges for the agricultural sector and millions of people along a 7,000 km coastline vulnerable to rising sea levels and growth of vector-borne diseases.
Globally, our window to keep temperatures from soaring over 2 degrees Celsius can only be achieved if all countries become carbon neutral by 2050, that is we generate no carbon at all. We have already set in motion dangerous wobbles to the world climate systems and we have to learn to live with the repercussions.
It is perhaps the greatest moral crisis of any generation, as in this fight the people who stand to lose the most are the people whose carbon footprints are the lightest on the planet.
We are living on the borrowed future of coming generations and the poorest of our poor. Perhaps COP 24 could be the first step forward in changing this.
(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of 'Born Wild', a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.