Climate politics eclipses climate science (Comment)

For the last few weeks, leaders of industrialised countries have been busy reducing expectations from next month’s critical Copenhagen climate summit, while their counterparts in the developing world declare ambitious plans to control emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the world.

In the process, it now appears that the industrialised countries are ignoring the overwhelming majority of climate scientists around the world, who have said global GHG emissions must start falling by 2015 if the world is to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. Many of the rich countries have not declared the extent to which they will reduce their GHG emissions after 2012, though the deadline for doing so is past.

The declarations that have been made are clearly not enough for GHG emissions to start going down after 2015.

In its benchmark fourth assessment report published in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a group of over 2,500 scientists and over 7,500 peer reviewers from around the world, headed by R.K. Pachauri of India – had said that if global warming was to be kept within two degrees Celsius, GHG emissions must start falling after 2015.

That IPCC report was based on scientific evidence of climate change between 2003 and 2006. Since then, past and present members of the IPCC have found evidence that global warming effects are accelerating faster than they had predicted – be it in the area of more frequent and more severe extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms; or the retreat of Himalayan glaciers, especially small ones; or the melting of Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets which are already raising the sea level to the point where the first line of islands in the Sundarbans facing the Bay of Bengal have disappeared.

So despite the continued carping of the few climate sceptics left around the globe, it is now clear that climate change is here, it is already affecting our lives adversely and now we are essentially left with two issues. One, how do we keep global warming down to a minimum? Two, how do we adapt to the changed climate?

Science has a clear answer to the first question – minimise use of fossil fuels, as their use is the major cause of the emission of carbon dioxide, the main GHG.

This is where climate politics takes over because, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, most industrialised countries are reluctant to change over from coal- and oil-based economies. Their argument: there is no point in their doing so when large emerging economies like India and China are going to base their economies on coal and oil in the foreseeable future.

This argument does not take into account the fact that almost all the GHGs in the atmosphere today have been put there by the rich countries. It ignores the fact that China overtook the US as the world’s biggest GHG emitter only in 2007, and that India is still fifth. The per capita GHG emissions in the US is around 20 tonnes per year.

But the developing countries are the ones taking action. India has an ambitious plan to generate 20,000 MW from solar power by 2022, a hundredfold increase from today. China has set some tough energy efficiency standards. Brazil has announced it will reduce GHG emissions by 38-42 percent by 2020.

Among the rich countries, the EU had consistently led the way to a greener economy, till its industrial leaders started telling its governments a few months back that this was making them uncompetitive vis-a-vis the US, which has so far steadfastly refused to be part of any legally binding global treaty to reduce emissions. Now, in their anxiety to bring the US within such a system, the EU leaders have been bending backwards to weaken any possible Copenhagen agreement.

It has now reached the point where most observers feel there will be no legally binding treaty to indicate the extent to which rich countries will reduce their GHG emissions after 2012, when the commitment period of the current treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, runs out. At best, there may be a political statement of intent, and even that at the insistence of host country Denmark.

Rich countries are also unwilling to pay poor countries to help them mitigate GHG emissions and to adapt to the effects of the climate change caused by the industrialised world.

The most conservative estimate – made by the World Bank – of the money needed for adoption is $70-100 billion a year. Not even a miniscule fraction of that is on the table, while developing countries are already being forced to spend huge sums to cope with climate change effects. India spent over 2.7 percent of its GDP last fiscal, according to the government’s latest economic survey.

As a worried world readies for the Copenhagen summit (Dec 6-18), veteran observers offer one crumb of comfort. The squabbles were just as intense before the Kyoto climate summit, where the current protocol was signed.

For the last few weeks, leaders of industrialised countries have been busy reducing expectations from next month’s critical Copenhagen climate summit, while their counterparts in the developing world declare ambitious plans to control emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the world.

In the process, it now appears that the industrialised countries are ignoring the overwhelming majority of climate scientists around the world, who have said global GHG emissions must start falling by 2015 if the world is to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. Many of the rich countries have not declared the extent to which they will reduce their GHG emissions after 2012, though the deadline for doing so is past.

The declarations that have been made are clearly not enough for GHG emissions to start going down after 2015.

In its benchmark fourth assessment report published in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a group of over 2,500 scientists and over 7,500 peer reviewers from around the world, headed by R.K. Pachauri of India – had said that if global warming was to be kept within two degrees Celsius, GHG emissions must start falling after 2015.

That IPCC report was based on scientific evidence of climate change between 2003 and 2006. Since then, past and present members of the IPCC have found evidence that global warming effects are accelerating faster than they had predicted – be it in the area of more frequent and more severe extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms; or the retreat of Himalayan glaciers, especially small ones; or the melting of Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets which are already raising the sea level to the point where the first line of islands in the Sundarbans facing the Bay of Bengal have disappeared.

So despite the continued carping of the few climate sceptics left around the globe, it is now clear that climate change is here, it is already affecting our lives adversely and now we are essentially left with two issues. One, how do we keep global warming down to a minimum? Two, how do we adapt to the changed climate?

Science has a clear answer to the first question – minimise use of fossil fuels, as their use is the major cause of the emission of carbon dioxide, the main GHG.

This is where climate politics takes over because, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, most industrialised countries are reluctant to change over from coal- and oil-based economies. Their argument: there is no point in their doing so when large emerging economies like India and China are going to base their economies on coal and oil in the foreseeable future.

This argument does not take into account the fact that almost all the GHGs in the atmosphere today have been put there by the rich countries. It ignores the fact that China overtook the US as the world’s biggest GHG emitter only in 2007, and that India is still fifth. The per capita GHG emissions in the US is around 20 tonnes per year.

But the developing countries are the ones taking action. India has an ambitious plan to generate 20,000 MW from solar power by 2022, a hundredfold increase from today. China has set some tough energy efficiency standards. Brazil has announced it will reduce GHG emissions by 38-42 percent by 2020.

Among the rich countries, the EU had consistently led the way to a greener economy, till its industrial leaders started telling its governments a few months back that this was making them uncompetitive vis-a-vis the US, which has so far steadfastly refused to be part of any legally binding global treaty to reduce emissions. Now, in their anxiety to bring the US within such a system, the EU leaders have been bending backwards to weaken any possible Copenhagen agreement.

It has now reached the point where most observers feel there will be no legally binding treaty to indicate the extent to which rich countries will reduce their GHG emissions after 2012, when the commitment period of the current treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, runs out. At best, there may be a political statement of intent, and even that at the insistence of host country Denmark.

Rich countries are also unwilling to pay poor countries to help them mitigate GHG emissions and to adapt to the effects of the climate change caused by the industrialised world.

The most conservative estimate – made by the World Bank – of the money needed for adoption is $70-100 billion a year. Not even a miniscule fraction of that is on the table, while developing countries are already being forced to spend huge sums to cope with climate change effects. India spent over 2.7 percent of its GDP last fiscal, according to the government’s latest economic survey.

As a worried world readies for the Copenhagen summit (Dec 6-18), veteran observers offer one crumb of comfort. The squabbles were just as intense before the Kyoto climate summit, where the current protocol was signed.