Climate change is a slow, relentless environmental crisis, but one of far greater scale and complexity. The challenge, however, is to carry our thriving civilisation into a future made perilously uncertain by the side effects of our own prosperity. Each of us constitutes a link between the past and the future, and we share a human need to participate in the life of something that perjures beyond our own years. Preventing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above the 19th-century baseline, the latest aim of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will, as they put it, requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Only a vanishingly unlikely set of coordinated global actions — an extraordinary political breakthrough — can save us from what the most pessimistic media portrayals describe as ‘catastrophe’, ‘apocalypse’, and the ‘end of civilization’. But this is unlikely to happen even though we may change our energy system and social order. And so climate politics has become with increasingly desperate exhortations to impracticable action, presumably in hopes of inspiring at least some half-measures.
The best manifestation is the continuing rift between the developed nations and the developing countries and this has widened once again at the recently concluded COP25. But while this rift has been continuing, it has emerged a problem that the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are inadequate to keep global temperatures rise below 2.50C. While politicians appear not quite concerned, the leaders of the First World, except of course a few countries, do not give any importance to this serious issue that may manifest in various ways.
It has been revealed that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 may not be possible as only 73 countries, representing nearly 13 per cent of total global emissions, have so far agreed to formally commit to higher mitigation targets next year. Except the European Union and a few of its member nations like France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, most others in the list of 73 are small developing and island nations whose emission are negligible compared to big emitters like USA, China and India. These three together accounted for 50 per cent of global emissions in 2018 and there is no possibility of these receding.
At the conference the BASIC nations – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – were quite justified in threatening rich countries with derailment of the current climate conference due to latter’s failure to deliver past promises. The EU at the end of the conference set out a ‘Green Deal’ with the objective of achieving ‘net zero’ emission by 2050. The ‘Green Deal’ proposes a European ‘Climate Law’, enshrining the 2050 climate neutrality objective (by March 2020), and presenting a plan by mid next year to increase the EU’s climate (emission reduction) target for 2030 to at least 50% and towards 55% from its 1990 levels.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ambient air pollution causes 1.3 million urban deaths worldwide each year. Exposure to these particles is estimated to cause 12.4 lakh deaths aged less than 70 in 2017 and 77% of India’s population is exposed to outdoor air population across India.
In the recent past, apart from the severity of air pollution in metros and cities, people living in rural areas are also badly suffering badly due to trans-boundary movement from thermal power plants, sponge iron, coal washeries, crop burning, households and others. But this problem remains quite hidden. Different forms of industrial pollution is also on the rise as the government, whether in India or other Third World countries, or the political class does not want to go against the interests of the business community. The insufficient understanding of public pro-environmental intentions and behaviours has become a barrier to implementing appropriate regulations for air quality improvement.
The whole situation that has emerged from the end of 2019 is the inexorable and uncontrolled increase in emissions and the future appears bleak. There is possibly no remedy in sight which forced the UN Secretary General at New York in September to appeal to member countries to scale up the NDCs. The other key issue is the urgent need to make rules for carbon market (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) as the progress over the accumulated carbon credits of Kyoto Protocol (pre-2020) period to the Paris Agreement (post 2020) phase has not yet been resolved.
Thus with air pollution becoming acute in most countries, not to speak of India, has become a cause of concern. Cars are increasing in cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai in our country as also in other metros of many countries, where with increasing prosperity of the middle class, purchase of more than one vehicle is on the rise. And road space is not increasing to the extent necessary to accommodate movements of so many cars.
One may mention here that a few years ago, the Supreme Court put the first congestion charge to deter trucks from travelling through the city, spewing pollutants. In fact, there is now consensus that all coal use must be banned or encroachment of pollution from this dirty fuel stepped up. Also there is need to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by investing in buses, metros, cycling tracks and safe pavements for walking. But this strategy is only on paper and strict enforcement is yet to be seen.
Additionally, there is need to electrify our transportation fleet, build up our national power grid, and scale up next-generation nuclear power plants. Direct air capture technology, which generates low-carbon gasoline, diesel, and kerosene, can be used to replace some fossil fuels in the near term. If tomorrow brings us a political consensus to treat carbon dioxide as waste, the same technology can help clean it up. In spite of constraints, we must increase our public and private investments in energy research and development, and seek new sources of power that can be commercialised and deployed globally.
Meanwhile, we should continue to subsidise, through loan guarantees and other means, the deployment of proven clean energy technologies. The current generation of renewables might be supplanted by some abundant alternative, but for now, wind and solar both offer increasingly competitive alternatives to new coal-fired generation as India has been doing. There is an opportunity to prevent the construction of new fossil fuel plants by accelerating the deployment of renewable alternatives.
Our mission must be to provide future generations with better technological alternatives than the ones currently on offer. Policy measures that need to be pursued in the near term should express the ethos of abundance and continuity. These should avoid emission cuts today that might limit wealth and technology options tomorrow. And these should set us up to take the best advantage of whatever breakthroughs, technological or political, we might be fortunate enough to see in the coming years.