World Meteorological Organization released its annual statement in November 2018 stating that 2018 is to be the 4th warmest year on record and the warmest 20 years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years. And the average global temperature of the first 10 months of 2018, starting from January till October was nearly 1 degree Celsius more than the pre industrial baseline. With such alarming evidences of climate change in the background, began 24th Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Since the first COP that was organized in Berlin in 1995, representatives from the countries that are party to the UNFCCC have been assembling annually along with environmental enthusiasts and other stakeholders, to discuss and deliberate on ways to tackle climate change and the rise in global temperature. The Framework and the associated COPs have been successful in making the issue of global emission of Green house gases by anthropogenic activities a topic of widespread public debate and concern. This concern further led to some landmark events in the history of Framework such as the Kyoto protocol of 1997 COP 3 that established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, COP 16 of 2010 in Cancun, Mexico where the leaders agreed to limit the future global warming below 2.0 degree Celsius relative to the pre industrial level (1850-1900).The most recent and remarkable among these all is the 2015 COP 21 that was concluded with adoption of Paris Agreement in 2016 which would govern the emission reductions by countries from 2020 based on their target submissions in the form of Nationally Determined Contributions. The Agreement aims to limit the rise of global average temperature well below 2.0 degree Celsius above pre industrial levels and to further reduce it to 1.5 degree Celsius.
This year Katowice, Poland was chosen as the host city to organize 24th COP from 4th December to 14th December 2018. COP 24 is in succession to COP 23 of Bonn which had put forward ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ that is a year long process to assess countries’ progress on climate actions. The major objectives that were supposed to be met by the conference were –
- Finalize guidelines or ‘rule book’ for implementation of Paris Agreement adopted in 2016
- Building consensus on raking up Climate Finance of up to $100 billion every year from 2020 onwards for adaptation and mitigation measures.
- Evaluate the progress on implementation of Gender Action Plan adopted at COP 23 to incorporate gender equality and women’s empowerment in climate change actions
At the end of 12 days conference, the first major objective was achieved as the ‘Katowice Climate Package’ was adopted by 200 nations which are being touted as the ‘rule book’ for robust implementation of Paris Climate Agreement. The guidelines that together constitute the Package aim to operationalize the ‘Transparency framework’ and facilitate implementation of the climate action goals by 2020. Transparency framework involves monitoring, reporting, and verification guidelines for the governments to promote their emission cutting efforts. This will be achieved through common set of standards and transparency to be followed by countries at the time of reporting their plans and actions in reducing greenhouse gas emissions which are also called as ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’. Moreover, the countries agreed to follow Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) guidelines in reporting their emissions and make their climate pledges available on a public registry which will enable the public to track and evaluate each country’s progress in reducing emissions. The guidelines further allow the developing countries to claim flexibility in following these fixed rules for as long as they explain why they need it and till what duration. One important issue that stayed unresolved is of the Carbon trading mechanism. Rules for carbon credits, which may be awarded to the countries for their emission cutting efforts and development of carbon sinks like forests, could not be formalized owing to the disagreements among leaders.
The second major objective of Climate Finance failed to be convincingly achieved by the Conference. The guidelines talk about process for establishing new targets on finance from 2025 onwards to follow on the current target of $100 billion per year from 2020. Also, it has been decided to continue high level ministerial dialogues and workshops on long term finance every two years after 2020. Though there has not been seen much progress in this regard in all such previously held dialogues. The text of the rule book states that developed countries ‘shall’ and developing countries ‘should’ report all the finances they put towards climate change adaptation and mitigation. But what makes this clause inefficient is the provision of counting loans provided by developed countries in addition to grants at the time of reporting climate financing. This makes the climate finance classification ambiguous. There has also not been provided any clarity on how the already promised $100 billion dollars every year will be mobilized by the developed countries.
On the Gender equality front, there was seen some progress as more than half of the participating bodies had female representation of 38 percent or more along with female delegates being elected to the position of Chair or Co- Chair of these bodies. More such initiatives are required to promote female participation and empowerment.
Issues of contention
What prevents the COPs from registering any pragmatic progress on the climate change front is the fact that the need for rapid global action is felt by some countries and not all the parties to the framework. The reason for such a difference is the different geographical realities that they are facing which makes some of the countries more vulnerable to climate change compared to others. The island nations like Maldives, Kiribati and the areas of extreme weather activities like Saleh are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and this justifies their immediate concerns. This difference in approach was clearly visible at COP 24 when industrialized nations like US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait questioned the correctness of October 2018 report by IPCC which warned that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’. The report says that global anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide need to be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and should reach ‘net zero’ around 2050. At present the parties are following processes to reduce emissions by 20% from 2010 levels and the vested interests of leading oil producers prompted them to question and block the endorsement of the report by the COP amid vehement protests from the island nations.
Another contentious issue is of the provision of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ in dealing with climate change. The developing nations proclaim that industrialized nations had taken advantage of restriction free economic development in their colonial past and therefore they should take greater responsibility and support the developing nations in meeting global emission targets. On the other hand, the industrialized nations claim that some of the developing countries like China and India are now having record emissions and hence should be made to share climate action responsibility to a greater extent. While asking for greater support from developed nations, countries like China and India refer to the higher per capita emission in these developed countries while failing to acknowledge the fact that even though their inhabitants are having comparatively lesser per capita emission but when these emissions are seen collectively, their population of more than a billion each emits much more in comparison to the population of a country like US or the European Union. There is a need for consensus and a shared vision in taking up the responsibilities and not making everything about past advantages or future prospects.
The Katowice Climate Package though attempts to make the process of reporting climate actions transparent, but there has not been provided any set standards of obligatory actions to be followed by the parties. The domestic plans and actions are still dependent on the respective countries. There is a need to define set targets that should be achieved by all the parties in stipulated time frame. Due to varied socio economic stages and aspirations of development along with rising populism in the countries party to the framework, concerns for climate change often take a backseat and the immediate economic and political interests take priority. This could be seen clearly in the decision of United States to withdraw itself from the Paris Agreement despite being the second largest emitter of green-house gases in the world.
The fight against climate change is not an easy task and has its own complications. The world needs not just the leaders who are strongly determined to protect the environment but also the followers and supporters who are empathetic to this cause. The ongoing ‘Yellow vest’ protests in France can be studied in this regard. The government in France raised the taxes on fuel by almost 20% and had plans to raise taxes on gas and electricity from January 2019 onwards. These decisions were in direction of the country’s plan to end sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 which is in regard to meeting France’s targets under Paris Climate Accord. The rising fuel taxes though led to the widespread protests by middle class workers and families in major cities of France. In the city of Paris alone more than 100,000 protesters gathered to raise their concerns against the high cost of living owing to the rise in multiple taxes. There had also been reported some incidents of violence and vandalization. This prompted the government to suspend the planned increases to fuel taxes for the next six months.
The incidents that occurred in France could become a reality for any other country that may wish to implement stringent actions to combat climate change. Before undertaking any such step, there is a need to have at place some affordable and accessible substitutes to the fossil fuels. Biofuels like ethanol are blended with petrol to reduce emissions in countries like USA, Brazil and to some extent in India. But the production of biofuels is not only commercially unviable but also puts strain on the availability of limited water resources. Switching to hybrid and electric motor vehicles is the most practical of all options that are available at present. This has been achieved by Norway which is considered as the world capital of electric vehicles as most of its residents own an electric car, thanks to the government promoted subsidies and tax exemptions. But now the same government is thinking of ending the subsidies soon after 2025 as it is taking a toll on the public exchequer. Electric Vehicles mobility requires not just high powered Li ion batteries for vehicles but also expensive infrastructures like charging stations and hydroelectric power to sustain these stations. But these limitations should promote intense research and development in this sector rather than continued reliance on fossils. We have seen taking this into consideration, Katowice Partnership for Electro mobility has been launched at COP 24. Led by the governments of United Kingdom and Poland, the initiative aims to develop e-mobility sector by establishing a dedicated trust fund in cooperation with the World Bank. This would go a long way in supporting developing countries like India which are willing to switch to hybrid and electric vehicles but require financial and technical support in achieving the same as soon as possible.
Besides these issues, there is still left one major point of concern that is shifting the workforce which is involved in fossil fuels production and processing industries. Millions of such employees need to be shifted to other sources of livelihood. This may take years or even decades as the conventional sources of energy gets gradually replaced by non conventional and renewable ones. So far there has not been any serious discussion on this topic, but it is expected that the successive Conferences may take this issue under consideration.
Hypocrisy needs to end
What was ironical about the venue of COP 24 is the fact that Katowice has been built on the coal residues found in 20th century Poland and it still has active and running coal mines in its vicinity. Poland itself generates 78% of its electricity needs from coal and 33 of its cities are among the 50 dirtiest cities of European Union. Despite having the baggage of such unwanted credentials, the Polish PM had declared right before the Conference that ‘Poland still possess coal resources that may last for at least the next 200 years’. This shows there intention of not ending coal mining and production any time in the near future. Since the beginning of COP, the Polish government had been discussing the measures of adaptation and CO2 capture and storage, but not decarbonisation, which is what the whole climate negotiation is about. Also we have had OPEC’s secretary general at the summit declaring that ‘oil industry must be a part of the solution to the climate challenge’. This was supported by the likes of US, Russia and Saudi Arabia for whom oil is the most profitable commodity that generates huge revenues. The unresolved issue of Carbon Credit Mechanism could not reach consensus as a major party like Brazil was adamant at keeping the old system of Carbon offsets in place as it has accumulated a major chunk of these credits which may not be available once the existing system gets replaced by a new one. The countries that are party to the framework need to look beyond their individual interests and should start thinking about the collective world. The effects of climate change are not selective in nature and may cause destruction all across the globe. If a country like India had been a witness to calamity like Kerala floods, United States of America had to deal with frequent hurricanes and rampant forest fires in 2018.
One of the positive outcomes of the COP 24 is the provision of rules to conduct ‘global stocktaking of parties’ efforts in ‘averting, minimizing and addressing the loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change’. The first of such stocktaking is set to take place in 2023 and the successive ones will be conducted every five years. This will promote collective progress towards achieving long term Paris accord goals, as the countries will get to know the areas where they lack and will be inspired to take enhanced climate pledges. This should not just be of concern to the environmentalists, researchers, NGOs etc. but also the general public. The citizens of the respective parties to the UNFCCC should also come forward and contribute in making the earth a better place not just for themselves but also for the future generations. To achieve this goal, first and foremost they need to make themselves aware of the changing climate and phenomena associated to it. The citizens should be informed about the decisions and contributions made by their respective countries in this regard. Most importantly they can play a very active role in electing such leaders to power who are actually concerned about the earth and its changing climate rather than the ones who consider climate change a hoax. The motivation to act on individual level should come from the fact that whenever there occurs a climate disaster, the ones who get most affected by it are the ordinary citizens. Poor and downtrodden section of the society is the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. What we the individuals have in hand is the power to change the ways we live our life and adapt to climate friendly behavior. Most importantly we possess the power to raise our collective voice and make the leaders work not in favor of just the economy but also the environment.
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Image source: The National
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