Tackling climate change

Published : 10 May 2021 07:47 PM | Updated : 11 May 2021 12:05 AM

President Joe Biden has identified that we have ahead of us a ‘decisive decade’ and we need to tackle the emerging challenges of climate change with seriousness and commitment. He has also pointed out that there was a moral and economic imperative to immediately act on this issue. 

Underlining the need to initiate new carbon-cutting measures, Biden has added that “the signs are unmistakable, the science is undeniable and the cost of inaction keeps mounting”. He also reiterated that unlike his predecessor Trump, he was not walking away from the scenario but ensuring that the US has strong resolve in taking the required pre-emptive action.    

The US has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade. This new pledge, unveiled at the virtual summit of 40 global leaders, essentially doubled the US previous promise. The Americans hope that their ambitious new plan will encourage China, India and others to go further before the crucial COP26 meeting, in Glasgow in November.

However, there is some scepticism about the ability of the US to deliver on their new target, given the divided nature of American politics. The fact that President Biden is prepared to go slightly beyond this level will be a welcome surprise to many scientists and campaigners. “By announcing a bold target of cutting emissions 50-52% below 2005 by the end of the decade, President Biden has met the moment and the urgency that the climate crisis demands, said Nathaniel Keohane from the US Environmental Defense Fund. “This target aligns with what the science says is necessary to put the world on the path to a safer climate, and vaults the U.S. into the top tier of world leaders on climate ambition.”

It may be recalled that Biden was criticised by the left wing of the Democratic Party for not signing up to the highly ambitious Green New Deal. He answered his critics by promising to make the environment a key plank of his presidency. He appears to have taken some significant steps in this regard-  (a)  reinstated US membership of the Paris climate accord, (b) paused oil and gas drilling leases on federal land, (c) appointed John Kerry as a climate envoy, (d) secured a loose joint commitment with China to work together and (e) organized a global, two-day summit for Earth Day.

Welcoming the US's “return to the multilateral climate governance process”, China’s Xi has renewed his pledge for China to become carbon neutral by 2060. He has also urged other leaders to take “unprecedented ambition and action”. It has also been indicated that “China will scale up its intended nationally determined contributions to the Paris agreement by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. In this context Beijing will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects and limit the increase in coal consumption over the next five years. One needs to remember that China leads the world in the deployment of clean-energy technologies. Analysts have however pointed out that to reach net-zero emissions in less than 30 years, the country will have to increase and refine its efforts. In this context China has already launched a number of initiatives, such as green infrastructure and transport and finance as part of its Belt and Road initiative. It needs to be understood here that no global solution to climate change is likely without the US and China, since the world’s top two economies together account for nearly half of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Consistent with this effort Japan has also indicated that Japan plans to up its emissions cutting pledge for 2030. Their new target will be a 46% cut in carbon by the end of the decade compared to 2013 levels.

The other participants in this virtual summit of 40 head of governments and states also included several other world leaders including- Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and also UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

We, from Bangladesh, felt happy and proud that our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had been particularly invited by Biden, through John Kerry, on 9 April, to also participate in this important meeting. This was international recognition for a leader who is also the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum-CVF and V20.

The return of the United States to the Paris agreement and its strong political commitment has made Bangladesh ‘optimistic’ that the annual target of $100 billion global climate fund will be ensured this time. It may be recalled that ensuring this fund from 2020 onwards for the vulnerable countries was a pledge that had been made in the Paris climate agreement. Unfortunately, it could not be fulfilled principally due to the US’s withdrawal from the agreement during the Donald Trump Administration.

Prime Minister Hasina deeply appreciated the United States’ return to the Paris Climate Agreement and promised to engage in this regard with the international community. She also pointed out that “despite being a climate vulnerable country with resource constraints, Bangladesh had emerged as a global leader on adaptation and mitigation”. She also indicated that every year Bangladesh was spending about 5 billion dollars- about 2.5 percent of our GDP, on climate adaptation and resilience-building measures. It was also reiterated that the world should not only ensure the annual target of 100 billion US dollars but that it should also be balanced 50:50 between adaptation and mitigation with special attention to the vulnerable communities while pursuing resolution of the problems arising within the matrix of ‘Loss and Damage’. The country in this regard had already included new sectors in addition to the existing energy, industry and transport sectors in the mitigation process.

It was also stressed by her that while developed countries were trying to reduce their carbon emissions to keep the global temperature rise at 1.5 degree Celsius, they should also pay attention to another aspect. She correctly reiterated that major economies, international financial institutions and private sectors should come forward for concessional climate financing as well as innovation. It was also put forward that there should be more intensive focus on green economy and carbon neutral technologies with provision of technology transfer among nations. Such a measure would help all vulnerable countries to play a vital role in international efforts to combat climate change, adapt and build resilience to climate hazards.

Environmental activists and climatologists have carefully monitored the entire meeting and also the promises made by the world leadership regarding reducing carbon emissions. They have subsequently drawn attention to the fact that before the next COP meeting, they will hopefully be able to receive detailed policies about how such changes will be brought about.

Some among them have also brought up another important issue. This relates to the oceans all over the world being in serious distress. They have warned that the seas are suffering from overfishing, pollution and aquaculture and it should be the duty of the world leadership to protect the oceans. Otherwise, it will also fuel climate change, because the seas help to regulate global temperatures by taking up CO2 and producing oxygen.

Some interesting pieces of information have since emerged within this dynamic through a report recently published by the United Nations. It explains how rising carbon dioxide emissions have led to ocean acidification. The significant factors include the following- (a) the number of “dead zones”, or areas with reduced oxygen in the ocean, has increased from more than 400 globally in 2008 to about 700 in 2019, (b) around 90% of mangrove, sea grass, and marsh plant species - as well as 31 percent of species of seabirds - are threatened with extinction and (c) approximately 15% of all sandy beaches worldwide are seeing retreating shorelines at an average trend of 1 meter per year or more over the last 33 years. This is indeed a matter of serious concern because the seas help to regulate global temperatures by taking up CO2 and producing oxygen.  

The meeting also drew the attention of important civil society institutions who have followed carefully not only the denotations of the impact of the pandemic but also the connotations of climate variability. One such person has been Bill Gates, who heads an umbrella group of sustainable investment organizations. In his pertinent remarks he drew attention to a singular factor- something which the world leadership must note. He underlined at the summit not only that “young people are demanding action and rightly so” but also that “just using today’s technology will not allow us to meet those ambitious goals.” Such a view has also been supported by the COP26 Coalition, an alliance of civil society groups from Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom who are laying the groundwork to pressure negotiators in advance of the November meeting.

We also need to note the contents of a study published in March by Climate Action Tracker. It observed that the US would need to slice emissions around 60 percent in this decade to be consistent with that pathway. Brandon Wu, Washington-based director of Action Aid USA has also stressed on the associated critical moral considerations — adjusting for wealth and inequality in determining who pays for saving the climate.

We need to conclude by referring to the statement made by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He has hailed the pledges made at the summit by the world leaders but has also expressed the hope that this will be the turning point that will receive immediate action. This was reflected in his statement- “Today’s summit shows the tide is turning for climate action, but there is still a long way to go”. His anxiety was also mirrored in his declaration that “extreme weather and climate disruption, fuelled by anthropogenic climate change is affecting lives, destroying livelihoods and forcing many millions from their homes.”

It is clear that our efforts can meet with success in controlling greenhouse gas emissions if we all work together, forgetting narrow national interests. We have to save this world despite the numerous existing challenges. Political climate credibility is on the line.

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