Change of Guard in rapidly changing climate: 100 Days after Paris Agreement

Canada and USA, non-signatories to the Kyoto Protocol, are the first and second largest per capita emitter of Green House Gases (GHGs) .Outgoing President of world’s economic super power, United States of America, the only developed country that never signed on the Kyoto Protocol and the incoming Premier of its rich neighbor Canada, the only country that ratified and then walked out of the Kyoto Protocol without meeting the legally binding targets, met this month in Washington DC and signed a joint statement. The statement, by President Obama and Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, was replete with wish list and even resolution related to climate change. It said, “The two leaders regard the Paris Agreement as a turning point in global efforts to combat climate change and anchor economic growth in clean development”.  The statement continued to state the resolve of USA and Canada to fight climate change and added, that both countries ‘must and will play a leadership role internationally in the low carbon global economy over the coming decades’.

Canada and USA are the first and second largest per capita emitter of Green House Gases (GHGs) in the world today, the positions both of them would retain for years to come.

To many who are now quite conversant with such official rhetoric, the statement beckoned the end of 100 days of wordy celebrations of success of the Paris Climate Agreement of 12th December 2015 and start of yet another era of endless joint communiqué peppered with promotional promises. Similar bilateral statements intended to save the world and protect the future generations from climate cataclysm were plentifully propagated during the months leading to Paris meeting. This particular statement, though well intended, looked rather helpless because of several reasons.

First, Obama’s term as a President is coming to an end by end of 2016. Second, the future forerunners for the next President of USA are shunning away from issue of climate change, leave alone declaring any specific proposals on tacking it. The American presidential debates reveal familiar lines of business-as-usual or even signal the eminent danger of undoing the success of the Paris Agreement. Third, Canada presently not being part of the Kyoto Protocol, has not even declared their legally binding pre-2020 ambitious target of emission reduction. Such ambitious target is one of the key issues for the successful implementation of the universal agreement reached in Paris.

It’s not only the President Obama, one of the passionate champions of climate change, who would be exiting the world theater to end his tenure by end of 2016. There will be unprecedented and eminent exodus of key personalities that worked relentlessly for the fruitful outcome at Paris.

Recently, Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister and President of COP21, who was much credited as ‘ messiah’ of new universal climate agreement, quit both the posts to take another job. The Executive Secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figures, who was key figure in coordinating nuts and bolts of the Paris agreement, has declared that she will step down in July, at the end of her six-year term. She firmly stated that she would not accept any extension of her term. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that, inter alia, facilitates the implementation of the climate change agreement globally, will be finishing his tenure in UNEP soon and has already accepted new job, not directly related to climate change. Hela Cheikhrouhou, head of the UN’s Green Climate Fund set up to provide USD 100 billion per year to the developing countries to help them cope with climate change, also said that she would stand down in September. (The fund has so far attracted about $10bn in pledges from 43 nations, after repeated delays. It has so far dispersed USD 1.5 billion.) . To top it all, the towering figure that took Climate Change as global priority from day one of his UN assignment as Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon will be relinquishing his duty when his term ends by end 2016.

Indeed, it is true that the institutions matter more than the personalities when it comes to the serving the long-term cause like climate change. However, considering that the Paris agreement is not even open for the signature, (scheduled to start signatures on 22 April this year), leave alone the implantation, sheer number of impending exits of the high level inspiring personalities makes the whole scenario look like change of guards of climate change. It also takes the recent joint statement between USA and Canada somewhere in the ‘cloud-network’, to use contemporary terminology, with scant regards towards the need of urgency.

The matter of urgency is evident from fast depleting narrow global carbon budget available to the humanity. The scenarios of the devastating impacts of run away climate change, if the concentration of the carbon dioxide in atmosphere starts rising at unexpected rate, fall in unknown regime as stated by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),

During the 100 days after the historic agreement in Paris, the world is inundated with alarming news which all point to the fact that while climate change is happening faster than expected, the action to prevent it is slowing down. 2015 shattered record for the hottest year since reporting began in 1850, as per the independent findings of three premier institutes of the world, i.e. NASA, NOAA and UK met Office, showing that the average global temperature in 2015 was 0.75C higher than the long-term average between 1961 and 1990 and much higher than the 0.57C in 2014, which itself was a record. According to the estimates of these three institutes 2016 will also set a new record. This would mean that the global temperature records would have been broken for three years running. Scientists believe that global warming is now poised to drive the world’s climate into “uncharted territory” and that it showed the urgency of implementing the carbon-cutting pledges made by the world’s governments in Paris in December. On 9th March, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is recorded to be rising at the unprecedented rate as revealed by NASA.

John F Kennedy, soon after he was sworn in as 35th President of USA, was faced with a global threat of nuclear war due to deployment of nuclear missiles by USSR on Cuban soil. 54 years down the history, Barrack H. Obama, just before terminating his role as 44th President of USA has alerted the world on the Cuban soil on the threats posed by climate change due to ‘nature’s missiles’ of mounting temperatures and rising sea levels. Cooperative action helped to dilute the nuclear-threats in 1962. World is probably too late in 2016 diluting the threat of climate change, even though cooperative research and actions are agreed between USA and Cuba. There is still the guarded language used in the joint statement between USA and Cuba that “ Building on the successful conclusion of the December 2015 Paris Agreement, the United States and Cuba intend to sign and join the Paris Agreement as soon as feasible this year”. Surely climate change is not waiting for both countries to prepare ‘ feasibility report’ to sign and join the Paris agreement. Five decades back , even the seemingly formidable missile crisis was acted upon expediently.

The phrase “changing of the guard” is used to refer to the situation where the guards from earlier shift would change and the new guards for the next shift would replace them. It is not known if this change of the guard has ever taken place at the time, so dramatic and so critical as 2016, when uncontrolled climate change is fast approaching. Surely, time is not as festive as what we see in Buckingham palace. END.

By Rajendra Shende, IIT Alumni , Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former Director of UNEP.


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