What COP-26 means for us
The much postponed United Nations global climate change convention finally takes place in Glasgow, attended by several world leaders, businesses, activists and academics. While many have written about the issues at the climate meeting, each country and region views the convention from its own perspective.
India – the world’s third-largest emitter (although per capita carbon emissions are less than half the global average) – will be a key player. So what does India expect from the convention? Here, you have to ask yourself a question: which India? There are two Indies. One is made up of the urban rich and middle class, policymakers and businesses. The other is made up of over 800 million poor and rural communities, which are directly exposed and affected by climate change; farmers, fishermen, forest dwellers, coastal settlements and people living in areas prone to flooding, drought and cyclones. In mass media and government circles, the focus is entirely on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, net zero emissions, financing rich countries, technology transfer, strengthening capacities, etc. But the priorities of 800 million people living in rural, coastal and mountain areas are different.
Let’s focus on the 70% of India’s population, who directly depend on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fishing, forestry and animal husbandry. Here, the issues of reducing GHG emissions are irrelevant since their per capita emissions represent a fraction of the urban and wealthy population of the country. Their concern is also not about financing mitigation since the poor will not be involved in mitigation efforts. Their concern will not be technology transfer or capacity building, as these only concern large industries, power generation, electric vehicles, urban transport, etc.
The middle class or the wealthy may not care too much about the success of the United Nations climate convention, or COP-26. Its failure may even allow them to continue their resource-intensive and energy-hungry lifestyle. They don’t need to pay carbon taxes or switch to public transport like the metro or buses or reduce the use of air conditioners; they don’t have to worry about installing solar PV systems or energy efficient household appliances.
So what is really at stake for the 70% of Indians and what does a successful COP-26 mean for the poor in India? Simply put, COP-26 should aim to stabilize global warming between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius in order to minimize the adverse effects of climate change. This requires immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, even before 2030. The earth has warmed by almost 1.2 degrees Celsius and we have already seen extreme events around the world, including in India – waves heat, floods, cyclones, forest fires, droughts, etc. in all likelihood, the earth is on track to warm by around 3 degrees Celsius, even though all commitments made under voluntary nationally determined contributions on greenhouse gas reduction at the UN are met , which is initially very unlikely.
Thus, the expectation for the poor would be that the world community increases its ambition to quickly reduce its emissions to slow or stop global warming. This does not necessarily mean sacrificing quality of life for the rich, but will involve doing all the right things such as using energy efficient systems and switching to renewable energy sources or growing forests. Today, photovoltaic solar electricity is cheaper than coal-fired thermal electricity on a per unit basis, even excluding the cost of environmental and health damage caused by coal mining, transportation and combustion. In addition, renewable energy production creates more jobs and clean jobs per MW of installed capacity. Conserving existing forests, planting more trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing in trees and soil are good for biodiversity conservation, watershed protection, job creation, etc. .
Rural and poorest communities await dedicated research and dissemination to build resilience to climate risks, especially extreme events such as floods, heat waves, forest fires, droughts and cyclones. This requires significant investments in adaptation programs. India has implemented extensive development programs, which can also help reduce vulnerability to climate change risks and build resilience of communities and ecosystems. These include MGNREGA, integrated watershed management programs, national reforestation programs. How can we improve the adaptation or resilience benefits of these programs? How to integrate adaptation or resilience into development and infrastructure programs? What dedicated programs do we need? How can we improve early warning systems not only for cyclones, but also for droughts, floods, heat waves, and improve weather forecasting for farmers and fishermen?
There is only superficial coverage of the climate change concerns of poorer sections of India in relation to energy use or consumption lifestyles. Agreed that richer countries have a greater responsibility in mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions earlier. But it should also include the upper middle class or wealthy Indian families, whose carbon footprints may be closer to richer countries in Europe. The failure of COP-26, which does not signify serious agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next ten to twenty years, will spell the end of the poor, with heat waves, increased and intensive floods, droughts and cyclones. Global mitigation efforts can take decades to impact the rural community in the form of reduced extremes and climate impacts. Rural and poorest communities cannot wait decades for mitigation efforts to take effect, although this is very critical from a long-term perspective. They must be protected now, their vulnerability to climate risks must be reduced now, and their adaptive capacity must be enhanced to cope with the adverse effects of climate change over the next five to ten years. They cannot wait until 2050 for net emission and mitigation measures.
To conclude, we must remember what Mahatma Gandhi said: âRemember the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you are considering is going to be for him? of any use âor protect it from climate change risks.
(The writer is a former professor at the Indian Institute of Science and an expert on climate change)