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Age Debate: Curbs are history, not emissions

Published : Dec 17, 2015, 3:51 am IST
Updated : Dec 17, 2015, 3:51 am IST

In 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed upon, the threats to survival were seen to be a century away. Now they pose a clear and present danger.


In 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed upon, the threats to survival were seen to be a century away. Now they pose a clear and present danger. The destruction of Syria is a sad example of an ecosystem and civilisational collapse. We are in a planetary emergency.

This is a result of Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (COP15) at Copenhagen in 2009, where US President Barack Obama, along with the big polluters, undermined legally binding global targets and prompted a shift to voluntary commitments by countries. India was part of this shift to national voluntary commitments. As noted above, we are on the verge of an ecosystem and societal collapse and we need to address this reality. For this each citizen and his/her country must act.

On December 12, 2015, governments of the world agreed to a historic agreement on climate change in Paris at COP21. Paris was a wakeup call for governments to take actions to stop the buildup of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are causing climate instability and aggravating disasters like the recent Chennai floods, the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, the untimely rains of April 2015 which destroyed the rabi harvest in North India, the extreme drought that Bundelkhand, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are currently experiencing with severe consequences for farmer livelihoods and food security.

While the Paris agreement is not enough to avert such disasters, it has put up a warning sign that we must hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It also lays emphasis on pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius, recognising that this would significantly reduce the impact of climate change.

However, there is a significant gap between the aggregate effect of national mitigation pledges made voluntarily by governments and the global reduction of GHGs necessary to achieve the 1.5° Celsius target.

This “emissions gap” cannot be enforced through the Paris agreement. It rests on nations scaling up their commitments to reduce emissions, but most importantly, on citizens’ movements leading the path to a lower GHG pathway, while enhancing climate resilience and human well being. That’s why citizens must push for “liability” in terms of emissions — the principle “polluter pays”. Only when the destruction of plant and human lives is perceived as a crime against nature and humanity will this emissions gap be closed.

In 2007, in the run up to COP15, my research showed that 40-50 per cent of all GHGs including CO2, nitrogen oxide from chemical fertilisers and methane from food waste in landfills and factory farming came from a fossil fuel-based industrial model of agriculture.

The work of various non-governmental organisations, movements for ecological agriculture and of UN agencies shows that a transition from a fossil fuel-based agriculture to ecological agriculture dramatically reduces GHGs. Only by returning organic matter to the soil can we absorb the excess CO2 from the air and put it in the soil where it belongs.

Soil rich in humus and organic matter produces more and healthier food which is poison-free. It also retains more water. Thus, organic agriculture addresses food security of health, water and climate, all on its own. Transition to organic agriculture also reduces dependence on costly chemical inputs.

Imagine if the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, COP21, had collapsed like Copenhagen It would have been a free run for polluters in the absence of emissions cuts targets. Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

$Emissions gap must be addressed


The climate change agreement adopted in Paris is a step forward in tackling global warming. However, it is a small step while we need to take giant leaps. The Paris agreement is also the beginning of the end of developed-developing divide on climate change.

The deal does two things. It absolves the developed countries of their “historical responsibility” which means it weakens the obligations of developed countries to take actions due to their past emissions. And without historical responsibility, equity will now be interpreted through “respective capabilities” and “national circumstances”. This is important because it will help developed nations justify their lower ambition or inaction. On the other hand, it shifts the burden of tackling climate change to the developing countries. Developing countries will be asked to do more than their fair share in mitigation and also take the burden of adapting to the impacts of climate change. The deal explicitly absolves developed countries of any liability and compensation for the loss and damage suffered by the developing countries.

The fact is, Paris agreement is a “free for all” deal — all countries are free to decide and adopt the steps they would adopt to curb emissions. This will not be based on a fair share of the carbon budget since all references of carbon budget and targets have been removed. This makes the goal to restrict global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius — a target that may better help the world avoid the worst effects of climate change — very difficult.

Meeting the 1.5° Celsius temperature goal would require massive enhancement of financial and technological support from the developed countries to the developing countries so that they are able to move quickly onto low-carbon development pathways. In addition, developed countries will have to significantly increase the level of their own efforts and reach net zero emissions in the next 5-10 years. In the absence of such commitments, a 1.5° Celsius temperature target would remain a hollow shell — devoid of any real significance.

While the deal makes it look like India will not have to do much before 2030, if you go into the details, India will be under constant pressure to take more burden for mitigating climate change from now onwards. India has the third-highest gross domestic product (on PPP basis) and it is also the world’s third biggest greenhouse gas emitter. The Western media and NGOs are not going to heed to the fact that even by 2030 India is going to have lower per capita emissions than the global average. They are going to look at the aggregate and push India to do more.

Through the Paris agreement, the developed countries have kept their geopolitical and economic hegemony. They are the biggest winners. For the past six years — post the failed climate conference in Copenhagen — they worked very hard to get what they wanted. It involved wheeling-dealing and even horse-trading. Finally, they have been able to dilute differentiation between the developed and developing countries significantly.

Despite all this, COP21 witnessed tremendous energy on the part of civil society and the local government to combat global warming and to do something about the issue. There was a groundswell of opinion to stop global warming and save the planet. While the deal is a disappointment, Paris climate summit did move the climate change issue to the top of the national and international agenda.

As told to Stutee Kotnala

Chandra Bhushan is deputy director-general, Centre for Science and Environment

$Paris climate deal is a free-for-all