Forgotten Fifty: Filling the Fissures

Visit WebsiteParis Climate Talks could be ambitious by half a degree.
Finally, high-level Climate talks in Paris have decided to mimic the tradition of tribes in Africa to resolve the thorny and nagging issues between rich and poor countries that have proven to be insurmountable even for well-seasoned French Presidency.

‘Indaba’ is a word used in traditional Xhosa and Zulu tribes in Southern Africa for an open dialogue held by chiefs of their own or other tribes to resolve the issues that affect all. Everyone has a voice in ‘Indaba’ and every one is engaged in seeking a common story, in spirit of what tribes call it as a ‘spirit of Ubuntu’ (interdependence). Indaba harnesses hope to find wisdom in “coming together to solve common challenges for the larger community.” The Indaba attempts to avoid what is called the ‘tragedy of the commons’ where multiple groups (or nations in this case), acting independently and obsessed with self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

Indaba-strategy was employed in Durban climate talks of United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2011, and now in 2015, French presidency using it as tool of negotiations in open and transparent way. It seems to be working –at least partially. The Indabas have helped in making very final negotiating text-draft as of 9th Dec, of just about manageable 29 pages.

One of the hotly debated issues, apart from differentiation and financing, is issue of ambition that includes if the new agreement should include keeping temperature rise by end of this century below 2 deg C relative to pre-industrial level or aim for more ambitious target of below 1.5 deg C. Even Indabas are unable to bring this issue to the level of ‘common-story’ from the level of ‘ tragedy of commons’.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is quite explicit in providing the guidance on this issue to policy makers and negotiators. Its Fifth Assessment Report (2014-2015) assessed various options called as ‘ pathways’ related to temperature rise scenarios. They include business-as-usual and crash-mitigation scenarios. Average temperature rise in the scenarios, which are studied more than others, range from 1 deg C to 4 deg C. Each degree rise would result into increasing devastation of the ecosystems on earth and unbearable losses in terms of lives and infrastructure.

The range of mitigation actions needed for various pathways would include reducing the Green House Gases (GHGs) emissions from anthropogenic sources as well as creating ‘sinks’ to absorb GHGs, for example forests. IPCC’s Synthesis report of 2015 states that there is a greater than 66% chance, with 90 percent confidence that warming could be limited to 2 deg C by end of year 2100, provided we avoid delaying additional reduction in GHG emissions. It further states that GHG emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between now and 2050, and then to zero by 2100. The challenges associated with technological, economic, social and institutional transformations will be extremely formidable if there is further delay. Starting implementation of the new agreement only by 2020 as stipulated in the draft text of the agreement is one of the examples of such delays. Countries have to start the mitigation actions, as per INDCs submitted by them, immediately if it is not already done.
Fifty two small island countries who are taking part in Paris climate talks have taken very justifiable stand that the new agreement has to be ambitious to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 deg C and not 2 deg C. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Maldives, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are fighting for their very survival and even existence. There is no other shocking example other than SIDS where the victims are taken to gallows by rich nations, knowing well that they are not at all responsible for the acts, which they are being punished.
Climate expert agree with island states that 2 degree C is too high and that the 1.5 degree C goal would reduce risks. Canadian Minister of Environment McKenna supported “including in the Paris Agreement the ‎need to striving to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C”
In recent paper published in Nature magazine concludes that 1.5 degrees C is feasible, it just needs a further halving of the already tight 21st century carbon budget, and for negative emissions to be achieved some 10 to 20 years earlier than for the 2 degrees C scenarios.
There are other important measures that global political leaders have forgotten but can easily undertake for their own benefits. Reduction of GHG emissions usually considers carbon dioxide emissions from burning of fossil fuel in transport, power plants and industries like cement and steel. But there are other GHG emission called ‘ non-CO2 GHGs’ that include methane emitted mainly from the petroleum refineries, nitrous oxide mainly emitted from the excessive use of fertilizers, Hydrofluorocrbons (HFCs)-which have been used as alternatives to Chlorofluorocarbons, and other man made Per fluorocarbons used in transformers and electronic industries. In terms of their present contribution to total global warming, non-CO2 gases contribute about 20 percent. However by 2040, it is likely to reach 50 percent. They, unfortunately, are ‘forgotten-fifty’ in Paris climate talks.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) led Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) of more than 50 countries produced a paper, contributed by world renowned scientists including Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, which stated that early action on these gases, particularly those with shorter atmospheric life, can contribute to reduction of warming by 0.6 deg C by year 2100. This reduction is 0.1 deg C more than what SIDS are demanding. What more, such actions would have important benefits like economic savings for the farmers who use excessive fertilizers, reducing river and ocean pollution by drainage of excess fertilizers, savings for the refineries, savings for electronic and transformer industries by using cheaper alternatives, and increasing the efficiency of the air conditioners most of which presently use HFCs. Such energy efficiency advantages, if implemented, will be enormous as per the latest study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, USA. Their report stated that non-HFC super efficient air conditioner would mean saving the electricity in India equivalent of two times of solar power target of the Indian Government of 100 GW. Further, as most of the non-CO2 GHGs has shorter lifetime (10-15 years), their emission reduction would give early results related to reducing warming as compared to CO2 whose lifetime is about 100 years.
The ‘tragedy of commons’ is that the political pollution in climate talks does not allow the clear visibility of the options.
Probably French presidency can consider holding Indaba for non-CO2 GHGs to honor the wish of SIDS and even other countries. END

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

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