Sink or swim, onus on us

The Katowice Climate Package spells out how countries will provide information about their domestic climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, and details of financial support for climate action in developing countries. During last month’s 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Poland, there was an agreement on a five-yearly global stock-taking.

COP24’s primary objective was to discuss and agree on a common “rule book” or a robust set of guidelines for all countries to follow in implementing the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. The 2015 agreement commits the world to keeping global temperatures within 2°C above those recorded in the pre-industrial era (and preferably within 1.5°C).

Many believe that it’s too little, too late. The sentiment seems to be running high that countries are not doing enough to address climate change and there is no sense of urgency.  The scenario is already worrying. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the world is now nearly 1°C warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution. The year 2018 saw record high temperatures in many countries across the world — in Asia, Europe, North America and Africa — accompanied by prolonged spells of hot weather.

A few weeks before COP24, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its Special Report, had sent an unequivocal message of the impact if the temperature rise was not kept within 1.5°C. It stated, “Even 1.5°C of warming would cause sea level rises, extinction of species, droughts, floods, storms and heat waves that would threaten the world’s stability. Levels of warming greater than that would devastate parts of the globe, wiping out agricultural productivity, melting the glaciers and rendering many areas uninhabitable.”

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, US and Russia, however, objected to the meeting “welcoming” the report on keeping global temperature rise within the 1.5°C limit. As a compromise, in the final statement, the report was only to be “noted”.

Small island countries, facing a crisis due to the rising sea levels, worry that the findings of this UN-backed scientific report are not being taken seriously. Former President of Maldives Mohamed Nasheed was quoted as having said, “Almost 10 years since I was last present at these climate negotiations, nothing much seems to have changed. We are still using the same old words. Still making the same tedious points.”

At the current pace of progress, achieving the 2020 goal (for implementing the agreement on 2°C limit) appears beyond reach. In fact, the world seems on course for a 3°C rise in atmospheric temperature. When that happens, it will put small island countries such as Kiribati and Maldives at risk of submersion. Hundreds of millions will be displaced and their lives will be endangered.

The pressing issue of financing also remained largely unresolved at the conference. Adequate level of finance is essential for vulnerable countries to enable them to invest in mitigation and adapt to the impact of climate change.  One of the mechanisms set up for channelling the financial support was the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, with expectations of mobilising $100 billion per year. However, not enough funds were pledged and the Fund is yet to make significant progress towards its first formal replenishment. 

Transfer of green technology is another sticking point. The press release issued after COP24 states that the package includes guidelines on how to assess progress on the development and transfer of technology.  Other issues yet to be resolved concern the rules for the monitoring of carbon credits or so-called carbon trade. 

India remains highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, not only because of the geographic and climatic conditions and the large number of poor people, but also due to the weak and already overstretched healthcare system. The floods in Kerala in August 2018, heavy rain and cloudbursts leading to flash floods in Kedarnath in 2013, and perennial drought conditions in parts of the country leading to crop failure and farmer suicides underline the devastating impact of climate change. 

Ironically, while developed countries have been responsible primarily and historically for causing climate change through unabated greenhouse emissions, the impact will disproportionately be felt by developing countries of Africa and South Asia who least contributed to the same. Developed countries seem to neither acknowledge their historical responsibility nor come forward to assist developing nations financially or through technology transfer.

The Government of India has taken initiatives, including shifting from coal to renewable energy sources, on its own and in partnership with the International Solar Alliance. It has been raising the issues of equity and differential responsibility on various fora. But lack of emphasis on these issues at the Katowice conference is a cause for concern. 

Given the scale and urgency of the risks we face, it is imperative that all countries take climate action at the speed and level required and reverse the rise in emissions as well as achieve carbon-neutral status by 2050. This is the only way to stave off the dangerous effects of climate change.

The author is former Director, World Health Organisation, Regional Office for South-East Asia, New Delhi

Global impact of adverse weather 

  • The Global Climate Risk Index analyses to what extent countries and regions have been affected by impact of weather-related incidents (storms, floods, heat waves etc.). The most recent data available — for 2017 and from 1998 to 2017 — was taken into account. The countries and territories affected most in 2017 were Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka and Dominica (in that order). For the period from 1998 to 2017, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Myanmar ranked highest.
  • The 14th edition of the analysis reconfirms earlier results of the Climate Risk Index (CRI): less developed countries are generally more affected than industrialised nations. Regarding future climate change, the CRI may serve as a red flag for already existing vulnerability that may further increase in regions where extreme events will become more frequent or more severe due to climate change. Effective climate change mitigation is therefore in the interest of all countries worldwide.
  • The CRI indicates a level of exposure and vulnerability, which countries should understand as warnings in order to be prepared for more frequent and/or more severe events in the future.
  • The Climate Risk Index, developed by NGO Germanwatch, analyses quantified impacts of extreme weather events — both in terms of fatalities as well as economic losses that occurred — based on data from the Munich Re NatCatSERVICE, which is regarded as one of the most reliable and complete databases on this subject. Source: Germanwatch