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The world is looking elsewhere for faster climate action, even as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change remains caught up in debate and discussion

UN climate envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba at a media briefing in New Delhi on June 23 (Photo by UN Information Centre)

UN climate envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba (left) at a media briefing in New Delhi on June 23 (Photo by UN Information Centre)

“Climate negotiations have ended with the Paris agreement,” declares Luis Alfonso de Alba, the special climate envoy of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “Now, urgency of action to implement the agreement has been identified as the necessity.”

From the other end of the spectrum, global climate negotiations were dealt a serious body blow at a meeting in Bonn this June, when Saudi Arabia forced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to drop last year’s special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from the negotiations process.

The IPCC special report had shown the extent to which the world would lower its risk of catastrophe if average global temperature rise from preindustrial days could be kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius. That suited everyone except the Donald Trump administration in the US, and countries dependent on oil exports. Under the UN system of requiring consensus from all 197 countries, Saudi Arabia was able to veto even a consideration of the report in subsequent negotiations.

Climate emergency

As climate change gathers pace and its effects show up in heat waves from India to Europe to North America, as the monsoon on which South Asia depends gets more erratic while faster melting glaciers cause flash floods, as more frequent droughts force more people out of their homes and their countries in Africa and Asia, as the sea level rises and people forced to drink salty water get their blood pressures up, there may be widespread support for more climate action and less of the climate negotiations that have been dragging on since the early 1990s.

But will the governments of developing countries agree? They have always seen the UNFCCC negotiations as the main forum to demand that industrialised countries take the lead in mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and provide developing countries with money and technology to help move towards a greener economy. They see the negotiations as based on the fact that industrialised countries have emitted most of the GHG since the start of the Industrial Age, leading to climate change, and that the rich nations need to make reparations.

For years, developing countries insisted on industrialised countries being held accountable under an international treaty. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was reached in this paradigm. But it did not work because many industrialised countries – led by the US – hit back and pointed out that China was the largest current emitter, and India was third (the US was second). This impasse led to the failure of the 2009 UNFCCC summit in Copenhagen.

Then the whole process was reversed. Now countries would submit their voluntary mitigation pledges, and all countries, not just the rich ones, would do so. That was what led to the 2015 Paris agreement, a process that had started at the 2010 UNFCCC summit in Cancun, Mexico.

Dangerous trajectory

Luis Alfonso de Alba was Mexico’s chief negotiator at the 2010 summit, and knows the process inside out. He also knows that the pledges made for the Paris agreement are not good enough. “We are on a trajectory of warming above three degrees Celsius (from pre-industrial days) and we need to bring this down to 1.5.”

That is why UN Secretary General Guterres has called a special summit on September 23, de Alba said while wrapping up a visit to New Delhi this week. “The SG (Secretary General) wants to show solutions. It’s going to be a meeting with no speeches. We have asked governments and businesses to come with concrete plans.”

These plans will require countries to ratchet up the pledges they made for the Paris agreement, something that the Indian government has been reluctant to do till it saw more action from industrialised countries, notably the US. So, did de Alba get even a hint of a raised commitment from his meetings in New Delhi at the ministries of environment, external affairs, power and renewable energy? He would not answer that question, saying it was for the Indian government to make the announcement.

Except in the area of planting trees, India is doing quite well in meeting its Paris pledges. But given the size of the economy, it will have to do more if GHG emission reductions are to go up 45% by 2030 as the scientists seek to keep to the 1.5 degrees ceiling. “My trip to India has a global purpose,” de Alba said.

Show us the money

The veteran climate negotiator from Mexico is quite aware that neither India nor other large developing countries will make substantial moves till industrialised countries fulfil their major commitments of providing USD 100 billion in climate finance every year from 2020 and also provide advanced green technologies with reduced or zero patent fees. “We’re ensuring that the USD 100 billion commitment by 2020 is fulfilled,” de Alba declared. “We’re looking at replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF). We’ve asked donors to double their commitments to GCF. Norway and Germany have done so already.”

But the Trump administration has withdrawn whatever money the previous US government had committed to the GCF, just as it has announced that it will withdraw from the Paris agreement. Can any international system work in this situation? Although de Alba admits that there are some “problem countries” he hastens to add, “We cannot stop because of that. There is overall consensus. China, India, 24 out of the 28 countries in the European Union, all of them has ambitious goals.”

The extent to which governments make pledges at the New York meet on September 23 remains to be seen. But Guterres is not depending on governments alone. He has formed a group, co-chaired by the governments of India and Sweden, to look at what industry can do to combat climate change. The co-chairs are reportedly concentrating on emissions from the cement industry, from oil and gas and from aviation and shipping – all contentious subjects. If the cement industry were a country, it would be third highest GHG emitter in the world, overtaking India.

Private sector participation

In the run-up to the September 23 summit, there are announcements on what private firms can do. Envoy de Alba announced that 28 companies around the world, with a combined market cap of USD 1.3 trillion, have just committed to set the 1.5 degrees target for themselves. These firms include Acciona, AstraZeneca, Banka BioLoo, BT, Dalmia Cement Ltd., Eco-Steel Africa Ltd., Enel, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Iberdrola, KLP, Levi Strauss & Co., Mahindra Group, Natura & Co, Novozymes, Royal DSM, SAP, Signify, Singtel, Telefonica, Telia, Unilever, Vodafone Group PLC and Zurich Insurance, collectively representing over one million employees from 17 sectors and more than 16 countries.

The firms have joined the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which independently assesses corporate emissions reduction targets against the latest climate science. Till now, 600 of the world’s largest businesses have set science-based GHG emissions reduction targets aligned with the Paris agreement. In April 2019, the SBTi released new target validation resources to enable companies to set targets consistent with the 1.5 degree ceiling.

Clean air initiative

On the same day this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO), UN Environment (UNEP) and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition announced the “Clean Air Initiative” that calls on national and subnational governments to commit to achieving air quality that is safe for citizens, and to align climate change and air pollution policies by 2030.

According to WHO, each year, air pollution causes seven million premature deaths, of which 600,000 are children. According to the World Bank, air pollution costs the global economy an estimated $5.11 trillion in welfare losses, and in the 15 countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, health impacts of air pollution are estimated to cost more than 4% of GDP.

Meeting the Paris agreement could save over a million lives a year by 2050 and yield health benefits worth an estimated $54.1 trillion – about twice the costs of mitigation – through reduced air pollution alone.

Climate envoy de Alba said, “The climate crisis and the air pollution crisis are driven by the same factors, and must be tackled by joint actions. Governments at all levels have both an urgent need and huge opportunity not only to address the climate crisis, but also to improve the health and save the lives of millions of people around the world, all the while making progress on sustainable development goals.” With 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, the issue is of obvious importance in India.

So should climate negotiations under UNFCCC be given up and climate action be coordinated by the UN Secretary General’s office? De Alba hesitated before pointing out that there is unfinished business on the implementation of the Paris agreement. The last summit could not resolve the issue raised by Brazil – on the need to carry over the monetary rewards of the good work done under the Kyoto Protocol not the Paris agreement, something that almost every industrialised country objected to. This may be the main debating point at this year’s summit. Then, de Alba said, the UNFCCC would be the best forum for a stocktake of the Paris pledges and for announcing enhanced pledges.

It was not as if the UNFCCC meeting in Bonn this June did nothing. It finalised the bulk of the guidelines to make the Paris Agreement operational. But the issue of payment for work done by developing countries in the past remained unresolved.

There is a growing feeling among observers of the climate negotiations process that the UNFCCC may remain the arena for debate, while the world looks elsewhere for the action.


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