Paris Climate Summit: A success? A failure? Or a fraud?

Bhamy Shenoy writes in Deccan Herald: There is a comforting thought that the fall in solar energy and wind energy prices, and their greater adaption will provide solution to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Often ignored or overlooked reality is the difficulty in reforming the existing energy scenario both in the developed and developing countries.

Initial media reporting on the conclusion of the Paris Summit was euphoric -a history making agreement, a tipping point in fighting climate change, unprecedented international cooperation among 195 nations, first time 186 nations willingly and voluntarily submitting their intentions to reduce greenhouse gases. However within a day some activists including some leading scientists who have been involved in promoting policies to reduce GHGs started to draw attention to the half finished job of negotiators. James Hansen, a retired NASA scientist and often considered as father of creating climate change awareness has referred to Paris summit as a fraud.

Should we be excited about the outcome of the Paris Climate Summit or be despondent on what was negotiated? This is a good example of seeing glass half full or half empty and both the groups are right in their conclusions.

It is close to a miracle that despite the obvious drawbacks of Paris Agreement (submissions to reduce emissions are not legally binding, failure of developed nations to finance annual funding of $100 billions, lip service to have 1.5 degree Celsius as an aspirational goal, lack of accountability on the part of the nations, etc) summit can be considered as an astounding success. This is the first time both the developed and developing nations have agreed to fight climate change as a joint responsibility. They have also agreed to meet every five years to take stock of the actual emission reduction besides monitoring of efforts to reduce emissions. Doors are kept open to increase the emission reduction efforts in the future to limit the possible temperature rise to less than 2 degree Celsius.

There is unanimous agreement among the scientists that the summit agreement will not succeed to limit the temperature rise to less than 2 degree Celsius. More than likely it will end up with an increase of close to 4 degrees resulting in unmitigated disaster of devastating floods (some claim the recent flooding in Chennai as one such result) and droughts, melt down of Atlantic and Arctic ice, drowning of parts of several coastal cities due to sea rise, disappearance of islands like Marshal Islands ( which may be drowned even with 2 degree rise), dying of species, etc.

In their signature publication World Energy Outlook 2015, International Energy Administration (IEA) had concluded that under the New Policy scenario (which takes into consideration Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) it is not possible to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees. IEA had developed a 450 scenarios under which temperature rise can be limited to 2 degrees. But such a scenario requires tremendous energy sector reform which will not be easy if the mankind does not like to adapt simple life style suggested by Modi at Paris summit.

It is not a surprise that neither Indian media nor the international media has given any attention to Modis urgings. This is because no one likes to change ones lifestyle unless it is forced on by the nature. While the business as usual would have been a disaster and Paris summit is giving some breathing space, much more is needed. There is a comforting thought that fall in solar energy and wind energy, and their greater adaption will provide solution to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Often ignored or overlooked reality is the difficulty in reforming the existing energy scenario both in the developed and developing countries.

During the summit, while energy sector transition from fossil fuels to renewable and need for reforestation to capture CO2 were considered, there was hardly any mention of the impact of people switching over to vegetarian food habits from meat eating. Also there was not much discussion on the need to tax carbon to hasten decarbonization and promote renewables which are still not economical with respect to fossil fuels without subsidy.

It is unfortunate that India missed an opportunity to promote Indias civilizational values of simple living and high thinking as well as adopting vegetarian food habits (livestock accounts for 15% of emissions) to contribute to reduction of emissions. Instead, India concentrated more on securing funds and technology assistance from developed countries, to enforce liability on developed countries for taking larger volume of carbon space and establishing Indias rights to continue to depend on coal to meet its increasing energy needs for reducing poverty. While India should continue such efforts, it should give equal priority to promote simple life style as well as vegetarian food habits. Even by 2050, per capita carbon emission of Indians will be significantly lower than that of the developed countries. Only if the world adapts Indias civilizational values which may look like a dream now, there is some chance for the world to achieve zero GHG emissions in the second half this century as suggested in the Paris agreement.

Finally many assert that the world can reduce GHGs with affordable cost which is not all that significant ( one IPCC report estimates the cost to be just 0.14% of world GDP and a report by Dr. Stern estimates the cost to be 1% of World GDP) while continuing to pursue the development path of ever increasing GDP increase. In reality this is not true and India should refute such argument and promote simple life style. Even more important for India is to develop its own model of development with minimum energy input and greater emphasis on public transportation.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Deccan Herald)

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