National governments need to deepen their commitments to reduce emissions and find faster technological fixes to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change

The world needs deeper emission cuts (Photo by P.M. Jurgen)

Ahead of the ongoing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Bangkok, its executive secretary Patricia Espinosa warned in no uncertain terms that governments were not on track to cap global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius before the end of the century and they needed to act with utmost urgency to avoid “catastrophic effects.”

Espinosa’s warning was echoed at the ninth successive annual conference of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on August 10-11, which was built around the theme of co-benefits and conflicts in climate change and sustainable development.

More specifically, it focused on how while all countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) wouldn’t restrict average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, there was increased attention on 1.5 degrees in the run-up to 2020, when the Paris agreement comes into effect.

Tejal Kanitkar, who is on the Centre’s faculty, examined the challenges for global equity in this context. She noted that past emissions, which the late environmentalist Anil Agarwal had harped upon, were “erased from memory.” Industrial countries weren’t even acknowledging their responsibility for causing such damage.

Selective amnesia

This means that industrial countries’ emissions, which had accumulated in the atmosphere from the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century and led to an increase of 1 degree since then, were being conveniently forgotten about, even though these considerably restricted the current consumption of energy of developing countries, and thereby their development.

“In the literature, papers constantly change definitions and timelines,” alleged Kanitkar. “Instead of taking 1870 as the base line, it has been shifted to 2005, 2015 and 2017. The emphasis is only on future emissions and future warming.”

She said that the world’s total carbon budget to keep emissions under 2 degrees by 2100 was 799 giga-tonnes of carbon (Gtc) and only 635 Gtc for 1.5 degrees. The remaining budget was 194 Gtc for the 2 degrees scenario and 30 Gtc for 1.5 degrees.

This was under the estimation that present emissions from 1993 — soon after the Rio Earth Summit when the UNFCCC kicked in — till 2017 were around 200 Gtc. Past emissions from 1870 till 1992 were around 405 Gtc.

She cited two authors who this year stated: “While limiting median projected global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius is undoubtedly challenging, our results indicate it is not impossible.”

Transformational change

The NDCs collectively lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but still imply a median warming of 2.6–3.1 degrees by 2100. It is obvious that these commitments have to be substantially enhanced to keep emissions from crossing the tipping point. While keeping temperature rise from remaining between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees was possible, she said, “it requires transformational change across the board of modernity.”

What was India’s share? Its actual emissions were far below its entitlement, so it had 310 Gtc left between 1870 and 2012, and 110 Gtc in the period after that till 2017.

The US had overdrawn from its past budget by 70 Gtc, 21 Gtc from its present budget and had only 5 Gtc left. The European Union, with 28 countries, had overdrawn 46 and 10 Gtc, respectively, and had only 8 Gtc left. China had a past balance of 46 Gtc, a present balance of 2 and 21 left, respectively, while India similarly had 54, 23 and 19 Gtc left, respectively.

According to Kanitkar, India’s best-case scenario from 2018 to 2100 was 42 Gtc, a potential entitlement of 19 Gtc and the worst case scenario below that.

Raghunandan of the Centre for Technology & Development in Delhi added a nuance to the argument by pointing out that it was necessary to advocate equity within nations, which includes NDCs, as well. In an article in the Economic & Political Weekly he had co-authored with Navroz Dubash in 2013, they had observed that an alternative development pathway would have co-benefits for climate.

As far as the target in India’s NDCs of afforesting one-third of the country’s area was concerned, there was an emphasis only on planting trees, without examining the ecological services they perform. Greening highways, for example, was a cosmetic initiative when the authorities were moving in the opposite direction by relaxing environmental curbs on infrastructure and real estate.

When it came to transport, there was an excessive reliance on highways, without any attempt to shift from road to rail, which would greatly reduce emissions. Surprisingly, there was no talk of tackling urban transport or air pollution. The poor bore the brunt of poor public transport. There was talk of smart cities but these haven’t been translated into better urban initiatives.

Kamal Murari, also from TISS, discussed the climate impacts of a 2 and 1.5 degrees warmer world and pointed out that the vast bulk of research before the Paris conference in 2015 centred around 2 degrees Celsius.

Regional impacts

While there were regional impacts for developed countries, particularly the US, EU and Australia, there was little work being done in developing countries. It may have come as a surprise to learn that from 2000 to 2017, there has been a slowing down in the rate of annual emissions.

However, even with a near 1 degree rise there were observed risks worldwide, which included the deluge that Mumbai faced in July 2005, when 944 mm of rain fell in less than 24 hours.

How much sooner might one see a 1.5 degrees scenario? The Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) is a predictor of long-term climate phases and similar to long-lived El Niño-like patterns, an index based on anomalies in Pacific Ocean sea-surface temperatures. Using the IPO, there was a probability that the five-year average mean Global Mean Surface Temperature could be as close to reaching 1.5 degrees as 2025.

Countries have three main approaches to attempt to restrict temperatures from crossing this limit. The first are deep emission cuts, which now appear improbable since the NDCs do not address these. The second are technological fixes, mainly forest cover and carbon capture and storage, which are problematic both in their effectiveness and implementation. Geo-engineering is even more ethically and otherwise unwise. This makes it virtually certain that the window for limiting emissions has closed.

In the event of overshoot, the hazards that a country like India would face are heat waves. One has only to recall that in 2016 Phalodi in Rajasthan registered 51 degrees Celsius, the highest in the country since 1956. The country would conversely also be prone to extreme precipitation and tropical cyclones.

With mean temperatures of another half a degree at 22 degrees, heat waves for tropical countries like India would last 50% longer, which would play havoc with human health and agriculture. There would be a 10 cm increase in sea level rise by 2100, which would inundate coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai and even cities close to the sea, like Kolkata.

“With a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, the availability of fresh water in the region would be about 10% lower than in the late 20th century. In a 2 degrees world, the researchers project this reduction to double to about 20%,” Murari observed. “Wheat yields would reduce twice as much at 2 degrees compared with a 1.5 degrees temperature increase.”

Uncertainty in policies

Vaibhav Chaturvedi and his colleagues from the Delhi-based think-tank, Council for Energy, Environment & Water (CEEW), outlined the uncertainties in India’s climate policy. He questioned whether future bids would replicate the low tariffs achieved in solar and wind auctions and would we see significant energy efficiency gains in the future across sectors? How would economic growth, urbanisation and rural-urban inequity evolve in the future?

As far as electricity generation was concerned, how would the mix evolve under an uncertain future and how will it be impacted by variable renewable energy? What were the implications of key uncertainties on India’s progress towards the NDC target of 40% share of non-fossil sources (all forms of renewable energy along with nuclear energy) in electricity generation capacity?

“When it came to emissions, in the absence of dedicated decarbonisation policies, how will India’s long-term carbon dioxide emissions evolve?” they asked. “By 2030, India aims to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% over 2005; how will this target be affected by its emissions and uncertainties in the end-use sectors over the long term?”

“How would India’s energy and emissions future be affected by a sectoral climate policy (coal cess) and by an alternative, economy-wide climate policy compatible with the 2 degrees target?”

They also questioned what India’s mid-century strategy and sustainable development policies would be: “How can India’s climate policy be aligned with sustainable development and national priorities, including equitable access to the global carbon space for its citizens?”

They concluded that the pace for transformation for a 2 degrees consistent pathway was going to be huge. Non-fossil energy capacity would very nearly need to double by 2050, while the share of electricity in the industrial sector increases to 55% in 2050.

Their assessment showed that solar was going to grow hugely, but this was sensitive to the cost of integration and who bore this cost. They didn’t see a decline in coal, unless there were dedicated decarbonisation policies.

NDC targets would be met and could be enhanced, but at a cost that needs to be better understood. An inequitable carbon budget means a drastic scale of energy system transformation, and India might need to bear this burden for the world.

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