The clock’s ticking
It is not often that the secretary-general of the United Nations, arguably the world’s most visible diplomat and peace-maker, tells it like he sees it. At COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, António Guterres did just that. The planet is fast approaching tipping points in terms of greenhouse emissions and their consequences. Climate change is the defining issue of the century but is clearly on the back-burner.
He was spot on vis-àvis the projections. The figure of 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures is the limit needed for net-zero emissions by the mid-point of the 21st century. There is now little chance of this being achieved. Significant increase in methane has now been added to the specific evidence of the rise in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. These three chemical compounds will combine to push global temperatures up faster.
The proximate reasons for the inaction or slow action are not far to seek. Two years ago, Joseph Biden’s election and the announcement of John Kerry as his envoy for climate change had raised hopes of an American initiative. Despite the pulls and pressures of domestic politics, the financial package and executive action approved by the outgoing Congress is the most far-reaching in history. Yet, there is a major hurdle ahead as climate-change deniers hold centre ground in the House of Representatives with its new Republican majority.
At the global level, the war in Ukraine and the post sanctions crisis in Europe have put fossil fuels and nuclear power back on the agenda even in Germany, a leader in the shift towards renewables. The squeeze on Russian energy has led to higher prices from the oil-exporting countries in the Gulf and Southeast Asia. In the short run at least, energy transitions are on the back-burner, as Guterres hinted.
The larger issue that has been a stumbling block since the UN Convention of 1994 remains so. The gap between the rich world and most of the developing countries is yawning. Per capita comparisons may skew the picture for India, China, Indonesia or Brazil. But that apart, many sub- Saharan countries have very low use of nitrogenous fertiliser, let alone gas and oil. The brave promise of 100-billion-dollar-a-year aid from the developed countries was tiny. Yet, it has not been met even in one calendar year.
Looking back at a somewhat longer time frame, it is evident that global environmental cooperation sought to take wings just when the great powers were losing interest in multilateral fora.
The first ever conference on human environment in 1972 was marred by the Cold War, with only two heads of government, those of Sweden and India, in attendance at Stockholm. The end of the1980s saw new, science-based concerns about the decline of biological diversity and global climate change evoke wide spread concern. All eyes in Rio de Janeiro were on the former president, George Bush, a veteran diplomat and senior leader. The United States of America did sign the agreement on biodiversity, but has dragged its feet on climate change ever since. Ronal Reagan’s sustained attack on environmental regulation (1980-89) at home was matched by the undermining of the UN system, with funds for global environmental monitoring programmes being a casualty. It is true that in the post-1945 world, the US accounted for 40% of the global gross domestic product but it makes up far less than that figure today. But the average American still uses as much energy in a month as an Indian in a year as per the World Resources Institute.
But history holds out hope. The end of the Cold War was made possible by Reagan and Gorbachev, both eyeing a place in the history books. The long years of work by scientists and peace activists helped create a wider realisation that there would be no winners in a nuclear war. The climate crises may not be as explosive but is no less a challenge to the continuation of civilisation. It is a chimera to believe that the rich world will be spared the human and ecological costs of climate change. Guterres’s counsel is timely. But time may not be at hand.
Mahesh Rangarajan teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University