Contrasting outcomes of recent global warming meetings
Two recent meetings on global warming, one scientific and the other political, are of great public interest as they have a bearing on human society’s future course to become a sustainable global community. The meetings contrasted each other in the clarity of their outcomes.
The first meeting was held by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of over 2,000 scientists. IPCC released its fifth assessment’s synthesis report in Copenhagen end-October 2014. The report states unequivocally that “Human influence on the climate system is clear.” Further, it warns that the emission of another 1,000 Giga tonnes1 (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), referred to as the carbon space, is likely to raise average global surface temperatures by 2oC above pre-industrial times. This is considered dangerous to the environment and human society.
Since the industrial revolution began in the mid-18th Century, humans have used 35% of the known 1,700 Gt of conventional fossil fuel reserves, and cut a third of the then existing 60 million km2 of forests to emit 2,000 GtCO2. The consequent 0.85oC average global temperature rise over pre-industrial times has triggered significant changes in the physical, biological and human environments. For example, rainfall variation has increased, extreme weather events are more frequent, pole-ward migration of species is noticeable and their extinction rate is higher, human health, food and water security are at greater risk, crop yield variations are higher, a 19 cm mean sea rise and a 40% reduction in Arctic’s summer ice extent have occurred over the last century, glaciers have shrunk by 275 Gt per annum in the last two decades, and social conflicts have increased.
In the second meeting held in early-December in Lima by the twentieth Intergovernmental Conference of the Parties (COP20), countries jostled to gain maximum advantage for them while negotiating global warming mitigation and adaptation measures. The Lima meeting is a run-up to the end-2015 Paris COP21, where a successor agreement to the expired Kyoto Protocol (KP) is to be finalized. The COP20 outcome is weak and dims hope for an effective, binding and just agreement to be signed in Paris. A face-saving Lima Call for Climate Action was cobbled together at the eleventh hour of COP20. It requests countries to communicate by mid-2015 their intended contribution to tackle global warming, including emission targets, which can be discussed in the Paris COP21.
International cooperation on global warming began in 1997 when the KP was drafted at the COP3 with the object of stabilizing greenhouse gases (GHGs), a basket of 6 gases, at levels that prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. The protocol granted preferential emission rights to 42 developed countries (termed Annex 1 or A1), obliging them to together reduce their GHG emissions in 2012 by 5.2% over their 1990 emissions. Since CO2 constitutes 76% of GHGs, it is often used to represent all of them.
International transport emissions were excluded from the protocol, and developing countries (non-Annex 1 or NA1) were exempt from making emission cuts. The US, the largest emitter till 2005 until China overtook it, did not ratify the KP and is not bound by it. By 2011, Canada’s emissions increased drastically and it pulled out of the KP.
Kyoto Protocol and recent emission reduction pledges—too little too late
In the 1990-2012 KP period, A1 countries reduced their emissions by 16%, i.e., 32 GtCO2. At first glance, it appears that the A1 countries met their emission reduction target comfortably. But there is more to this than meets the eye. A1 countries met their KP target because East Europe’s emission reduction compensated for the under-performance of other A1 countries. Emissions of non-European emitters—Canada, US, Japan and Australia—rose by 6%, instead of decreasing by 6% as per the KP. West Europe reduced emissions by 7%, a little under their 8% target. East Europe and Russia had a reduction target of 5-6%, but reduced emissions by 55% as their economies shrank drastically after the 1990 Soviet bloc collapse.
More importantly, A1 countries’ emission reduction is fictitious. Under the KP, emissions from the production of goods and services are credited to the country that produces them, regardless of where they are consumed. In the last two decades, A1 countries have become large net importers (imports minus exports) of goods and services from NA1 countries, particularly China and India. This is to the advantage of A1 countries. Cheap imports from NA1 countries helped A1 countries maintain high consumption levels at low costs. Emissions from producing the imports were credited to the producer NA1 countries and not the consumer A1 countries. A1 countries net trade emissions (emissions from producing imports minus that of exports) was 45 GtCO2, 40% over their stated 32 GtCO2 emission reduction by A1 countries during the KP period.
Substituting coal with gas in Europe and reducing the carbon intensity of A1 country economies helped reduce A1 country emissions, but not significantly.
The KP failed on another count. Its bar was too low. A1 country reduction of 32 GtCO2 represents merely 1.5% of their emissions between 1750 and 2012, and is too little to slowdown global warming.
The KP’s singular achievement, if any, is increasing awareness about global warming. The KP’s emission cost over the last 20 years is 3 million tonnes of travel emissions of the negotiators and lobbyists; the same as that of a small country such as the Kingdom of Tonga. It will take the forests area of the Nilgiri Biosphere (~5,000 km2) a full year to sequester this emission.
The four largest emitters, who release 60% of global GHG emissions, have recently announced emission reductions. But they are too little too late. European Union pledged a 40% emission reduction over 1990 by 2030, US by 26-28% over 2005 by 2025. India is to reduce emission intensity of 20-25% over 2005 by 2020, and China is to peak emissions by 2030.
If emissions trend in a business-as-usual manner, the remaining carbon space of 1,000 GtCO2 will fill by 2035. The math on the emission reduction pledges made by the four large emitters and several small countries indicates that the 1,000 GtCO2carbon space will fill by 2040 instead of 2035. Former Environment Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh’s optimism expressed recently about the US and China pledges being helpful is misplaced.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s Gap Synthesis Report, 2012, assesses that to avoid a temperature rise exceeding 2oC, global emissions must peak by 2020 at about 40 GtCO2 and reduce by 2-3% per annum thereafter. Emissions in 2014 were 37 GtCO2. If the current emissions growth rate of 3% per annum persists, emissions in 2020 are likely to be 44 GtCO2, 10% more than the desirable level. IPCC consequently warns that without greater mitigation, temperatures may increase by 4-5oC by this century-end, and that “The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.”
Developing countries in a Catch-22 situation
The discussion on the KP’s successor is about emission shares of various countries in the remaining carbon space, usually seen as being synonymous to development space. To retain their development advantage, A1 countries claim squatters’ rights in this space, while NA1 countries demand equity to gain more development room.
Since 1750, 75% of the cumulative emissions, termed historic emissions, were released by A1 countries. Their per capita (on current populations) historic emission is 1,300 tonnes, four times that of NA1 countries. Even if the entire remaining 1,000 GtCO2 of carbon space is allocated to NA1 countries they will not achieve A1 countries’ development levels.
To gain development space if NA1 countries refuse emission targets in the COP21 meeting, the consequences of global warming will hurt them the most, particularly their poor, as geographically and economically they are more vulnerable to climate change impacts than A1 countries. If they accept emission targets, development inequality between them and A1 countries will persist for a long time. Out of the box solutions must now be considered seriously.
Towards a sustainable and equitable society
Global warming is a consequence of fossil fuel overdraws to satisfy the ever rising consumption levels of rich nations and classes. Carbon space allocation cannot solve the global warming problem as it is rooted in anthropocentrism and ownership rights over nature.
Anthropocentrism prioritizes human use of nature. Humans have overdrawn natural resources for their benefit but to the detriment of other users. Consequently several life-support systems, e.g., land, water, forests, the carbon and nitrogen cycles, are now frayed. If this process persists, nature will no longer be able to support a healthy human society.
Ownership of nature allows the owner to harvest natural resources from his property to create and accumulate wealth. As natural resources from land were the easiest to harvest, it was colonized and privatized first, followed by water. The atmosphere holds few exploitable resources, so remained a global common till recently. The KP began privatizing the atmosphere by granting preferential GHG dumping rights to A1 countries.
The desire to accumulate more wealth expands colonization and privatization of new land and water spaces, resulting in economic growth. It is like riding a perpetual motion machine which is addictive and from which the rider cannot get off. As emissions increase with growth, so does the need for more carbon space. Preferential ownership or dumping rights over nature sanctifies and perpetuates an unequal class society, and invariably generates conflict.
These contentious but fundamental issues are skirted in the COP discussions, and technical fixes are instead proffered—energy efficiency, alternate energy sources and carbon capture. Technology can help, but cannot solve the problem of energy overdraw. Energy efficiency has technical limits. History shows that greater efficiency increases consumption, not reduce it. Green energies are less energy dense than fossil fuels, so are less attractive. Solar and wind energy provide less than 0.5% of the 13 Gtoe (giga tonnes of oil equivalent2) of global commercial energy consumption today and are not yet capable of replacing fossils. Nuclear energy has stagnated as it has safety and cost issues. More importantly, economically mineable uranium ore can fuel current nuclear generation capacity for just another 100 years. Carbon capture is an unproven technology.
COP delegates negotiate to maximize their countries’ gain while minimizing their give-aways. Global warming is a global problem. Only those who can set aside national identities can tackle it best. Alas, such negotiators do not exist today.
For human society to become sustainable, four global-level actions are needed: halving current global energy consumption; moving towards energy equity; relying primarily on the sun for our energy; eschewing anthropocentrism and altering private ownership rights over nature to usufruct rights by changing human society’s outlook from “gain maximization for a few” to “risk minimization for all.” This implies that North America must reduce its energy consumption by 90% and other A1 countries by 75%; guarantee minimum sustenance energy to all; innovate in new solar and biomass energy technologies; and implement a uniform risk and emission standards for all people.
These actions pose philosophical, political and technological challenges that national leaders alone cannot tackle. People must help and guide them, as they did recently in the climate change marches across the world with the slogan, “Keep the climate, change the economy.”
If Gandhi’s saying, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed” is not heeded, and if we fail to leave two thirds the remaining fossil fuels reserves underground to avoid overshooting the 1,000 GtCO2 of the remaining carbon space, nature will resolve the global warming problem with peak oil, i.e., oil extraction maxing followed by decline, which is happening now. At current consumption rates, there are only about 45 years of conventional oil reserves left, 55 years of conventional gas and 100 years of coal, after which the fossil fuel era ends. Mining of emission-intensive unconventional oil and gas (shales, etc.) is banned in many parts of Europe, America and Africa. If the COP climate negotiation process does not tackle global warming quickly, effectively and justly, the consequences of peak oil will be harsher than that of global warming, and may lead to a possible civilizational regress.
1 A Giga tonne (Gt) = 109 tonnes
2 A tonne of oil equivalent (toe) is the amount of energy contained in 1 tonne of crude oil = 42 Giga joules
(The author belongs to the most rapacious predator tribe that ever stalked the earth-humans, and to a net destructive discipline—engineering, that has to take more than a fair share of the responsibility for bringing earth and human society to tipping points. His email id is [email protected])
An edited version of this article was published on Kafila.org