The recent pledges of quite a good number of countries to embark on climate neutrality have created optimism regarding climate change mitigation. However, actions often fall behind ambition and all the good ideas which emerge are not deployed widely. People, be it doomsayers or hope-mongers, would perhaps admit that despite the renewed hope attributable to recent change in tide, challenges lie ahead of us. What matters now is doing the right things and avoiding the wrong ones that act as serious drags on progress towards addressing climate change.
The Paris Agreement
Five years have gone by since the climate goals were adopted in COP21, held in Paris, with hopes high and no lack of commitments from the policy makers and leaders, to limit temperature rise well below 2° C. Given the messy affairs international climate negotiations are, the Paris Agreement was garnered as inclusive by most people as a result of the participation of countries, covering 97% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Resting on the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the participating countries and having the provision of raising ambitions in subsequent NDCs to be submitted after 5 years, the Paris Agreement was opined to be a blueprint for success by many.
Where are we now?
Global GHG emissions, linked to the burning of fossil fuels, rose from 35.8 billion ton of CO2eq to 38 billion ton of CO2eq over the period from 2016 to 2019, as revealed in the emission gap reports of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). While global GHG emission has fallen by 7% in 2020 on year-on-year basis amidst the lock-down measures, halt in travels and behavioral changes of people, it also raises concern as to how onerous mitigating GHG emission is! Revisiting the past disasters at international scale, for instance the energy crises of 1970s or the global financial crisis of 2008, it can fairly be concluded that emissions would quickly rebound once Covid-19 is brought under full control.
Well, the imperative is to contain global warming by 2° C by 2100 and we need to ramp up ambitions to limit global mean temperature rise within 1.5° C to be on the safer side, but we are already in a 1.1° C warmer planet compared to pre-industrial levels. The frantic rate at which fossil fuels are still being combusted globally is alarming. There is, of course, a temporary dip in use of fossil fuels during the pandemic and the wave cascading down to the market has resulted in less extraction of fossil fuels as well. Nevertheless, enough fossil fuels-based power plants have already been built to eat up the global carbon budget for 1.5° C. To be Paris Climate goal compatible, the utilization of fossil fuels in the global energy system, therefore, should continue to fall even after the pandemic. Otherwise, the warming may overshoot 2.7 - 3° C.
As the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) reports, the impacts of global mean temperature rise of 1.1° C are being felt with the increased frequency of extreme weather events. 2020 has been a year of disasters, including prolonged floods and cyclones, with no respite during the pandemic. Besides, a recent study of the World Bank reveals that globally around 2.2 billion people are exposed to the risk of floods. And no matter how quickly we achieve carbon neutrality, the impacts of climate change will not immediately go away. As such, only mitigation would not be enough; rather we need to accelerate transformational adaptation.
Not all is doom and gloom!
Buffeted by challenges, often the question is being posed: are we really heading in the right direction in line with the Paris Agreement? Regrettably, the last 5 years after the Paris Agreement have been the five hottest years on record. However, judging the Paris Agreement solely based on the challenges/problems we are confronted with would lead us to ignore some of the significant developments that we have experienced, and some others are on the cards. In particular, the policy push from the large economies have provided market signals to the renewable energy technologies and enabled research as well as successful demonstrations, which have led the renewable energy technologies into achieving economies of scale. The trajectories at which the prices of different renewables have come down are much faster than the optimistic forecasts, making renewable energies more competitive than coal. In 2020, renewable energies, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), have approximately contributed to 90% of the newly installed global power capacity. On the other hand, the renewable energy sector accommodated 11.5 million jobs in 2019, compared to 11 million in 2018, reported by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Furthermore, IEA forecasts that renewable energies will be the biggest source of power by 2025, leapfrogging coal.
We also see the major economies vowing to coalesce around net zero emission in their attempts to scale up climate ambitions. While a few countries came forward at the outset, more countries are now joining hands. China, Japan and South Korea have pledged carbon neutrality. The US is expected to return to the Paris Agreement soon. President-elect Joe Biden has already declared his vision of pursuing efforts for net-zero emission goals by 2050. Elsewhere both the EU and UK have declared fresh targets for GHG mitigation to be in line with net zero goal by 2050. As the Climate Ambition Summit ended in December 2020, more than 70 countries world leaders made new commitments for climate actions and if the leaders of other countries do the same, it is likely to create the impression that we will be on course to meet the 1.5° C goal.
In another positive development, the UK has, of late, decided to not finance dirty fuels anymore under its Overseas Development Assistance programme. Other development nations should follow suit.
There are rising hopes and the conversation about climate change will dominate policy making as well as shape the energy landscape in the foreseeable future. But, in all sincerity, we need to start working on achieving goals. Otherwise, all the speeches full of pledges for net zero emission will turn out to have been mere paperwork. Ever since the Paris Agreement was ratified, we are still in a state of procrastination when it comes to actions we need on the ground. Not being able to mobilize 100 billion USD climate finance for the climate vulnerable countries is an example. And because of this dilly-dallying approach, or whatever we call it, the Paris Agreement is still crawling with its wings trimmed.
Now, we need to recapitulate all the revised NDCs of the countries, both submitted and to be submitted before COP26, to comprehend whether we are on track for net zero emission by 2050 and how the gaps, if there are any, could be addressed. Once it is done, all countries shall conform to their new NDCs and report the progress to UNFCCC on a yearly basis. All countries would also be able to ratchet up ambitions in their revised subsequent NDCs to be submitted in 2025.
Fortunately, the post-corona world has immense opportunities to invest consciously in sustainable energy to reboot economic systems and to trigger a green recovery compatible with the Paris Climate Goals. To complement the green recovery process, subsidies to dirty fuels and the associated market distortions require to be eliminated in phases. Policy response is needed to circumvent the short-termism around the recovery from Covid-19 which may, otherwise, lock us in carbon intensive investments.
While there is apprehension over the transition towards net zero, many technologies available today are just ready for rapid transformation within 2050. Renewable energies are already cheaper than fossil fuels and electricity storage, smart grids and electric vehicles are getting improved in terms of cost. We will build on the technologies that we already have, and the ones that are ready for large scale transformation. In addition, it is necessary to make sure that national energy efficiency policies pay off.
As we discuss time and time again that the poor and the least developed countries bear most of the brunt of climate change induced disasters, the developed nations will ensure that new and additional climate finance per annum is being channeled to these countries. On adaptation, the climate change vulnerable countries may draw lessons from Bangladesh's experience over the years in dealing with prolonged floods and other climate change induced disasters, which largely relies on locally led adaptation. Notably, the regional Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), located in Dhaka, Bangladesh, will provide a platform for an exchange of ideas on adaptation that the vulnerable countries may take forward for their domestic policy discussion on adaptation. Bangladesh may further steer the process under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, representing 48 countries.
The ambition of meeting the Paris Climate goals is gaining momentum. However, a lot of important work remains to be done, particularly in aligning ambitions with national energy and climate policies and in spearheading the necessary transformations at country levels. And leaving it too late in catching up might result in a terrible climate catastrophe for us and for the generations to come.
Shafiqul Alam is a Humboldt Scholar.