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The latest IPCC report reiterates that climate action is not just a matter of technical fixes

The latest IPCC report reminds us that our ecosystem has already been irreparably damaged by human action and the window of opportunity for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 is closing fast. In this column, Suvojit Chattopadhyay picks four themes that are likely to shape climate action in the years to come.

School girl in Kenya

The two Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports (AR6) released this year are on expected lines. The status quo isn’t great. Mitigation actions have lagged far behind the curve. While on average, annual emissions were at their highest during 2010-2019, the decadal rate of growth was lower than the previous decade (2000-09). The window of opportunity for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 is closing fast. The Nationally Determined Contributions (national mitigation commitments made to the UNFCCC) outlined by countries are inadequate. By the end of this century, our planet is on course to warm nearly 3 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Much of this was already known. At last year’s COP 26[1] in Glasgow, there was no consensus on phasing out fossil fuels.

The latest report on ‘climate mitigation actions’ is rich with observations and recommendations, and the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) is quite accessible! I have picked the following four themes that are most likely to shape climate action in the years to come.

  1. ‘Climate justice’ arguments are not going away. See this graphic below[2]from the SPM that quite clearly demonstrates not just the share of cumulative (historical) emissions from different regions of the world, but also the share of emissions per-capita in 2019.

If one posits this against regions that are most vulnerable to (and are currently suffering) the disastrous effects of climate change, the case for ‘climate justice’ is quite easily made.  COP26 also acknowledged that industrialised countries had failed to meet their promise of contributing $100 billion in climate finance. And while there is now talk of financing a ‘just transition’ and compensation for ‘loss and damage’, the fact remains that industrialised countries are nowhere close putting their money where their mouths are. This then implies that we are likely to see a mixture of diplomacy and activism on this subject in the coming years.

  1. Current economic growth paths are simply untenable. In South Asian countries such as India, Nepal and Bangladesh, the sustainability of the current growth path faces severe challenges owing to the unabated environmental degradation that accompanies it. This has extracted a heavy toll in the form of ‘loss and damage’ from extreme events, as well as from a steady decline in the efficiency of the natural resource capital (the quality of water, soil and air, for instance). Persistent governments need to ensure that the domestic economic policy choices – in particular, policies relating to manufacturing, construction and power generation – are made with an eye on a sustainable future. And there is no substitute for domestic policy action at national and sub-national levels.
  2. The exponential increase in the use of renewable energy sources corresponds to a steep fall in costs. This has driven an exponential growth in the generation of solar energy, in India for example, whose installed solar energy capacity has grown 17 times since 2014. In Kenya, geothermal energy accounts for approximately one-third of the total installed capacity, worth 734 MW. See this graphic below from the SPM that captures this progress, but equally, reveals how much more can be done with more equitable technology transfer across the globe. For example, by 2020, the cost of solar photovoltaics had fallen to less than a sixth of its cost in 2000. Similarly, onshore wind now produces over 700 GW of electricity in 2020, from nearly nothing two decades ago. This also highlights the role for interventions that can bring about a step-change in demand for low-emission technologies in housing, transport, lighting, and so on.
  3. Decisions on climate action need to recognise synergies as well as inevitable trade-offs with development goals. This is particularly important as countries develop their NDCs and make ‘Net Zero’ pledges. Climate action plans that do not account for development outcomes and political imperatives are unlikely to be implemented. There is a risk that these voluntary plans remain as performative exercises. At the same time, there are synergies between possible climate action and development (green growth, for example) that should be researched and incorporated into national development plans. The IPCC report mentions several examples of this, such as sustainable urban planning, green buildings, improved management of soil and water resources, etc. It also mentions ‘carbon taxes’ as an instrument that could help balance equity concerns.

This calls also for international cooperation – not just between the industrialised west as donors and the rest, but also importantly, South-South cooperation. For instance, the IPCC report talks about how India and Kenya are exploring cooperation on addressing common problems of electricity access and poverty.

Overall, it is evident that the IPCC reports and more broadly, effective climate action, remains mired in politics. Climate change is the latest (and probably the largest) example of a global collective action problem. Climate change is deepening inequalities – both between and within countries and regions around the globe.  Meanwhile, fossil fuel exporting countries would rather advocate new technologies for ‘carbon capture’ than give into urgent calls for phasing out fossil fuels. Industrialised countries unwilling to accept ‘historical responsibility’ continue to hold back financial assistance to climate-vulnerable countries – and the climate finance that is available is often extremely difficult to access, wrapped up in complicated emissions-reductions estimations and general bureaucratese.

As we gear up towards COP 27 in Egypt, we would do well to remember that our ecosystem has already been irreparably damaged by human action. Limiting future damage and possibly even reversing the current trends is contingent on urgent concerted action – and it’s not a matter of technical fixes alone.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay
Principal Manager, Africa

[1] The UN Conference of Parties (COP) is the annual session under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) where governments and non-governmental actors meet to take stock of progress, and agree on goals and actions on global climate change. The Copenhagen COP in 2009 set the target that by 2020, the industrialised countries would raise $100 billion in climate finance annually to support developing countries. Paris 2015 was promising, where members agreed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”, and countries signed up to make commitments towards that goal.

[2] All graphics can be found here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/figures/summary-for-policymakers/

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