As world leaders gather in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of Parties or COP, the highest decision-making body of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, four former COP presidents have warned that the world “is at a crossroads” and world leaders must take “decisive action” that includes “protecting those most vulnerable to climate change”.
The ongoing negotiations, which started on December 2 and will go on until December 14, are being considered the most critical since the 2015 Paris Agreement, under which countries agreed to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions to the joint effort to keep global temperatures increase below 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (before the 1800s). COP24 will finalise the rulebook to govern concerted efforts towards this end.
The outcome will be crucial for India, where about 600 million people are at risk from climate change fallouts. Thus far, with a 1°C rise in global temperatures, India has already experienced extreme weather events such as floods in Kerala, wildfires in Uttarakhand and heat waves in the north and the east, demonstrating its vulnerability.
India would have to make unprecedented efforts, but it is “very well placed” to do so, said Leena Srivastava, Vice Chancellor of the TERI School of Advanced Studies. Srivastava has been participating in and observing all COPs since COP3 in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan. She was the coordinating lead author for the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, published in 2001, presenting scientific, technical and socio-economic information on climate change, its potential effects, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
Srivastava says India is likely to meet its Nationally Determined Contributions commitments soon, a decade ahead of the 2030 target. For India to play a leading role in helping the world limit global warming to 1.5°C, it must have political will and a roadmap that breaks down the agenda into specific actions and responses.
What are the takeaways for India from the latest IPCC report on global warming? India is one of the most vulnerable countries?
The biggest takeaway is that the extreme events we are talking about are increasing both in frequency and intensity. So, from a preparedness point of view, we can’t look at historical experiences; rather, we have to be able to simulate what is likely to happen and then prepare. That is something that we have not been doing. So if you look at the Kerala floods as an example, you cannot say explicitly that the floods were on account of climate change because that had not been studied. To improve our preparedness, an extreme event has to be combined with our understanding of the human-made systems, with the management systems that are in place, with the existing degree of preparedness.
Now, it is very possible to use science and scientific methods to be able to simulate that – say, in case of a rain event of a certain intensity, given the way urban areas have developed, you could estimate the likelihood of flooding, the parts of the city likely to witness flooding, the adaptation measures that could be put in place, and the mitigation measures. You could also suggest how an individual could prepare, with proper awareness and in tandem with the institutional capacity available. These are the things that we are not bringing together.
There has to be a coherent approach to dealing with these extreme events. Today we have institutions that are doing their own things, but, we do not have communication channels among government entities, whether at the national or state levels, that will allow us to effectively minimise the impact of extreme weather events. So, I think there are a lot of lessons for us to learn and if we focus our attention in that direction, we should be able to do it.
The use of coal will have to be halved globally from 2010 levels over the next 12 years to 2030 and it should reach net zero by 2050, to limit global warming to the 1.5°C level, according to the IPCC report. What does this mean for India’s energy Industry? India is the second largest consumer of coal in the world (after China), and coal powers 60% of India’s power sector even while it has about 15 million households to electrify (as on October 11, 2018).
From an energy perspective, India has still got its act fairly right. We are supposed to be 2°C compliant. Given the fact that we are likely to meet our NDC [Nationally Determined Contributions] commitments – which were up to 2030 – pretty much now, that means we are at least a decade ahead of our time. Then we could do things that will get us more in line with what 1.5°C compliance would require. That has been made possible because we have given such a major push to renewables. Of course, we are having issues along the way, but that is part of the learning process.
Reducing emissions from the transportation sector has been more difficult for us. We need to transform the entire infrastructure because by nature the electricity industry and transportation industry are very different. The transport sector will require a lot more investment. The questions that are likely to come up are: Who is going to make those investments? And, how are they going to be compensated for the investment? So, of course the automobile industry is going to be a big challenge.
The energy efficiency of vehicles has definitely been a focus but what we need is a transformative change. And, that is something that we have not come to grips with as yet. Transformative change would mean that you discard your private vehicles and move to renewable electricity-based mass transit systems. We don’t have these systems as yet, but it is possible to have them. It will also require a change in lifestyles, which has to be addressed.
But the biggest challenge is going to be agriculture, because to a large extent our infrastructure for training and capacity building has been diluted over a period of time. But we need to know what are going to be our intervention strategies to reduce emissions from the agricultural sector as well, so that will require a lot more effort and organisation.
So it is easy to say political will is required, but we will also have to be able to break that down into specific actions and then the responses from there, which we have not done a very good job of. Even the scientific community [in India] has not really helped the government in these areas. The community can turn it around and say governments should have asked us to do this and they should have provided the financial resources, because it is also a well-known fact that research funding in India is abysmally low. But when you are not asking for and providing for the resources that would give you the inputs you want, the question comes up, who is accountable?
India has a long way to go in terms of energy efficiency. How can this be addressed?
Energy efficiency again comes in different magnitude for different sectors. The industry sector has the potential for improving energy efficiency by 20%-25%, at least, and if you combine that with a switch to renewables you can reduce the carbon footprint [or intensity] substantially. Time and again it has been shown that the return on investment in growth sectors is significantly higher than the return on investment in energy efficiency. Somewhere, some signals will have to be looked at and corrected so that industry finds it profitable to invest in energy efficiency.
Now, coming to appliances, a certain segment of India’s population has already started moving to efficient appliances because of the telescopic nature of electricity tariffs [the bill increases with consumption] that makes this attractive. For others, lower priced appliances, even though not as efficient, are more attractive. Again, today we have the option of designing a number of credit-based mechanisms to propel eco-friendly consumer choices; we just have to ensure that this flows down a lot more. In the case of appliances, we have such a huge grey market, which is recognised by everyone, but it has not been regulated. If climate change mitigation has indeed become a matter of survival, why are we not putting in the efforts required? Maybe, it is not feasible politically to make that investment of time and effort, but it needs to be done.
Curtailing global temperature increase to 1.5°C will cost $900 billion at 2015 prices for energy-related mitigation investment alone until 2050. Since the United States, the second largest carbon emitter after China, has decided to opt out of the Paris Agreement, how can the burden of paying for mitigation and adaptation be fairly spread across historical emitters and those bearing the brunt?
The negotiations at Katowice are going to focus more on the rules and procedures required to implement the Paris Agreement than on reopening and restarting negotiations. The Paris Agreement has taken a bottom-up approach in allowing countries to make their pledges depending on their national contexts. So, nothing is imposed at an aggregate level. Yes, there will be a stock-taking mechanism [to review and assess goals and efforts to reach them] in 2020, when we will take a look at where we are headed and then consider increasing ambitions.
Until 2020, I really don’t think we will be getting into these issues [of developed countries not providing funds to developing countries for climate actions]. COP24 would be about looking at rules, looking at how do we report, and looking at transparency. So I don’t think that the issue of finance or even the report on 1.5°C will have a significant impact on COP24 discussions. Though it will get flagged for sure.
The issue of developed countries taking a back-foot on providing funding to developing countries has been a point of discussion forever. For example, the commitment for adaptation funding by developed countries has never been met. So, that will continue as a discussion, but there is precious little that you can do about it, apart from the moral pressure that is being applied [on developed countries].
Indian cities, already witness to the heat island effect, could see severe heat stress in the years to come if global warming is not contained at 1.5°C. Indian cities such as Kolkata could experience temperature conditions equivalent to the deadly 2015 heatwave every year, the IPCC report said. The 2015 heatwave killed more than 2,000 people across many states. What are the things to take care of as India builds climate-resilient cities under its pledge to fight global warming?
The primary thing is the green cover. Look at what we are doing now with the Aravallis, where a lot of people are protesting [in the last week of October, thousands protested against the government’s plan of building a road through the Aravalli Biodiversity Park.] It is a proven fact that adequate green cover can improve the ambient air situation, among other things. We have done nothing about the urban heat-island situation. Cities cannot be reconstructed, at best you can adopt technologies such as cool-roofs in the new infrastructure that is coming up. You can ensure that you’re using better and more efficient building materials. You can reduce electricity loads within buildings and this will reduce energy consumption. All this will not only help deal with the urban heat island, it will also make a positive impact at the global level.
To minimise the urban heat-island effect, we must examine the high heat-generating activities in cities and either move these out or introduce technological changes. Some examples are thermal power plants, bus stops and railway stations, where activities generate a lot of heat. Urban heat islands can also be alleviated by water bodies and green covers, but usually, you don’t find them emphasised anywhere. In any city you look at, we are eroding green spaces and failing to manage water and water bodies. We are not doing anything to help ourselves.
What would be the trade-offs for India in curbing its emissions?
Right now we are at a situation where any actions will be a win-win for us, because our growth rate is still very high. So, if you are able to, in the first instance, ensure that all your incremental growth is climate-friendly, you can actually achieve a lot. Whether it is the construction industry, which is growing at 10%-11% annually, whether it is demand for vehicles, whether it is the infrastructure that we are setting up–the new roads and new railways, for example–whether it is meeting the incremental demand for energy... in all of these areas, India is actually very well placed to transform.
We just need to be determined to do so. India is very well placed to step up its ambitions significantly. But the government must move in partnership with industries and with financial institutions. It must set up a mission to achieve its goals and define a path to do so.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.