Are we keeping our promises regarding climate change?

Published : 29 Dec 2020 09:04 PM

We are about to step into another year- 2021 and we are at the brink of a climate revolution. We also need to evaluate as to whether we are at the brink of a climate revolution. 

A statement by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on 12 December urged countries and world leaders who had announced net-zero targets to make good on promises at the one-day virtual Climate Ambition Summit. In this context Guterres also underlined that a state of emergency needs to remain in place until carbon neutrality is achieved.  Otherwise, there was every possibility of a global catastrophe. 

Antonio Guterres’s comments were part of his opening statement to the Climate Ambition Summit, a virtual gathering aimed at building momentum for much steeper cuts in planet-warming emissions on the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris climate accord attended by 196 nations. More than 70 world leaders addressed the one-day summit.

It may be recalled that five years ago, in Paris, States promised to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Guterres however pointed out that the pledges made to meet that goal were insufficient, and in some cases were themselves being ignored. As such, he warned that if the global community does not change course, the globe may be headed towards a terrible temperature increase of more than 3C (5.4F) sometime later during this century.

Interestingly, the UNSG also pointed out that G20 nations – responsible for the lion’s share of carbon pollution – were spending 50 percent more in their rescue packages on sectors linked to fossil fuels than to low-carbon energy.  In this regard he also added that- “Every country, city, financial institution and company needs to adapt plans to reach zero emissions by 2050, and start executing them now, by providing clear short-term targets.”  It was also stressed that key emitting sectors such as aviation and shipping need to also “present new transformational road maps in line with this goal”. This was reiterated because there is consensus that “Climate action can be the catalyst for new jobs, better health and resilient infrastructure.”

The views expressed by the UNSG were similar to that of Greta Thunberg- the Swedish climate activist. She had stated that most countries in the world were speeding in the wrong direction.

 This important Summit was co-hosted by the UN, Britain and France, in partnership with Chile and Italy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the world leaders who addressed the Summit. He called on the international community to support the Paris accord and make greater efforts to combat climate change. He also underlined that with regard to the challenge of climate change, “mankind shares a common destiny, and unilateralism will lead us nowhere”. He also remarked that “only by adhering to multilateralism, emphasizing unity and promoting cooperation can we achieve mutual benefit and win-win results and benefit the people of all countries.” The world was also informed that China aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP more than 65 percent by 2030 compared to 2005.

The interesting aspect of the current scenario is that, at this point of time, unlike previous climate Summits, no negotiations are planned in the near future.

It would be interesting to see the recent developments with regard to efforts to contain climate change by some other leading countries. This would enable us to understand how, as signatory in 2015, they have tried to implement their climate action plan which they had lodged with the UN pertaining to the measures they are going to adopt to curb carbon emissions.

We can start with the United Kingdom. It has a significant position. The world's fifth largest economy, the UK is also the incoming President of the Conference of the Parties or COP, the main UN climate negotiating forum, which will take place in Glasgow in November 2021.This global gathering of world leaders will try and work out how to improve the collective effort to tackle climate change, and take the next steps. 

COP26 in Glasgow will be the most important meeting since the Paris climate agreement was signed five years ago. Since 2008, the UK government has had to set five-year greenhouse gas targets by law, based on advice from the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC). Targets set under the first three carbon budgets have been met. As part of the EU, the UK's target for 2020 was a reduction of 16% on 2005 emissions. The UK easily achieved this. In fact, right now, Britain's total output of warming gases has gone down by around 45% from 1990 levels.

However, it is generally understood that the UK will have to register its own standalone plan to cut carbon with the UN after Brexit. Many socio-economists are saying that Britain, as of 2021, will focus more on reaching the net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 by planting more trees and focusing on the use of renewable energy- like wind and solar power. Analysts have also suggested that efforts will be made to ensure that half the cars on the road would be electric, up from around 6% at present. The EU comes next. It represents about a fifth of the world's economy – and, in 2019 was responsible for about 9 per cent of the global share of CO2 emissions- the third largest emitter.

Climatologists have pointed out that during the Trump Administration when the USA showed lack of sufficient interest in tackling the causes of climate variability, the EU stepped up in a leadership role, and attempted to build bridges with China on how to tackle the challenge. The EU is also well regarded in this context generally among developing countries and Small Island states who have always received pro-active participation in their plans from the EU.

There has been careful scrutiny as to whether the EU has lived up to its targets over the last five years. Economists think they have. It may be recalled that back in 2007, EU leaders set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of their 1990 levels by 2020. By 2018, the collective efforts had cut warming gases by 23.2%. 

The interesting aspect pertaining to this outcome was that this over-achievement caused many to think that the initial targets had been set far too low. The EU currently has a 40% target for 2030, which experts believe is also behind the times. In fact Dr Niklas Höhne from the Climate Action Tracker group has remarked that "If the EU would implement all the targets that it has for renewables and energy efficiency, it would already reduce emissions by 45%. So, the official target that they use today is outdated and needs to be revised."

It may be mentioned here that the EU, consistent with their idea of the European Green Deal has adopted the aim of having a climate-neutral economy by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.  This was agreed in principle when the EU met recently on 10-11 December. There are still differences of opinion within the EU, particularly from some of the Eastern European countries. However efforts are underway to iron them out through compromises.

India, another big CO2 emitter has also informed the world of its future intentions through a statement made on 12 December by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said that India, one of the top emitters of greenhouse gas, was focusing more on clean energy sources. In this context, in the coming years, India will try to create a 450 gigawatt renewable energy capacity by 2030. He was also optimistic about this capacity reaching 175 Gigawatt by 2022. 

Japanese Prime Minister Suga has called for “bold action” in the fight against climate change. He has promised significant measures to reduce carbon emissions and waste. Japan is apparently trying to achieve carbon neutrality and zero emissions of CO2 by 2050. That is indeed commendable.

One also needs to refer to Australia- not only because it is one of the biggest sources of fossil fuels, but also because it is also a country highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The world has watched with horror how over the past year the Wildfires in Australia were made worse by long running drought. It would be pertinent to point out here that emissions of greenhouse gases from Australian exports are responsible for 3.6% of global emissions. Strategic analysts have also pointed out that on a per capita basis, and including exports, Australians are responsible for four times as much CO2 as people living in the US.

It is indeed most unfortunate but Australia does not appear to be giving serious focus on taking pre-emptive measures regarding containing emissions. Australia set a target for 2030 of making a 26-28% reduction in its emissions compared with 2005 levels. Projections however published at the in 2019 suggested that Australian emissions will be only 16% lower than 2005 levels in 2030.

Climatologists are taking the whole situation very seriously given the fact that Australia has many small island neighbors. In this regard they have pointed out that a more serious effort by Australia towards developing cheap renewables- solar power, geothermal resources, biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources and wind driven turbines. It should not be difficult as Australia is well-known for sunshine, and strong wind flow.  That could usher in a clean energy revolution. This form of energy would also be functional in four important areas: electricity generation, air and water heating/cooling, transportation, and rural (off-grid) energy services.

We all need to understand that the dynamics of climate change also requires urgent action to protect the interests of youth and other segments of our most vulnerable populations. We must not also overlook the fact that the effects of climate change can drastically affect those who rely on the ocean for resources, transportation and livelihoods.

Consequently, Bangladesh, a vulnerable country, has correctly pointed out that if we do not understand this, the impact of climate change can have a profound impact on a wide variety of human rights, including the right to life, development, food, health, water, sanitation and housing. We need to work together and have a constructive inter-engagement. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow, Bangla Academy, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance