The COP26 Summit began on 31st October in Glasgow, London this year, and is currently ongoing. The conference, to end on 12th November, is a meeting of the “supreme decision-making body” of the UNFCCC, in all matters of climate policy. This year’s summit has so far led to some important joint declarations and individual party commitments. But is it enough?
Why the Urgency?
Anthropogenic carbon emissions have been one of the biggest reasons for the current climate crisis that the world is facing. IPCC, or the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, has released reports indicating that the world is quickly running out of its carbon budget- or how much carbon emissions we can still afford to create before we go beyond the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. This rise in temperature indicates “a point of no return”, in climate change. Such a rise would set forward an irreversible chain reaction furthering global warming. At this point, many scientists and activists around the world have expressed grave concerns about a highly plausible climate catastrophe event in the coming decades.
Furthermore, there have been extreme weather events in recent years, like Germany’s intense floods, forest fires in Turkey and Siberia, etc. Regional weathers are also going through a seemingly permanent change with hotter summers, colder but shorter winters, extremely heavy rainfalls, or even intense droughts. According to the BBC, the past decade was recorded to be the warmest ever, and rising temperatures are also causing collective behavioural changes in people. According to the latest report, India might be facing its coldest winter ever this year, owing to the La Nina phenomenon. Last year, a similar unusual occurrence caused immense abnormal snowfall in US’s southern state Texas. According to scientists, these weather changes are precisely because of climate change.
Earlier last month, the BBC released a report on the promise of the COP26 summit, highlighting its capacity to bring about solid change. But frankly, the future of our world seems dim so far.
Rising Carbon Pollution Levels Post-Pandemic
The Hindu reported recently about a scientific study which found that there has been a sharp increase in carbon dioxide emissions in 2021. As the media house aptly worded, “the dramatic drop in carbon dioxide emissions from the pandemic lockdown has pretty much disappeared in a puff of coal-fired smoke”.
The new study has discovered that climate change inducing CO2 emission levels till September 2021 are have risen to near pre-pandemic levels. While in 2019 the world clocked in at 36.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions, this year, we are on track to 36.4 billion metric tons. The study further noted that China is primarily responsible in this spike in worldwide emission figures. However, this does not put other countries out of sight. Most nations have reportedly gone back to their pre-pandemic carbon pollution trends. Corinne LeQuere, study co-author and climate scientist, said this in reference to the minor pollution improvement in 2020. 2020’s reportedly clear cities from India to Italy had been some form of hope for most people concerned about the climate crisis. LeQuere spoke during an interview at the COP26 Summit itself while presenting the results of the study.
“It’s not the pandemic that will make us turn the corner. It’s the decisions that are being taken this week and next week. That’s what’s going to make us turn the corner. The pandemic is not changing the nature of our economy.”
Where do we stand in terms of curbing Carbon Pollution?
As noted above, it is paramount that we take collective steps to limit our emissions or halt them altogether. Otherwise, it is going to be near-impossible to keep world temperatures down 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times. Another climate scientist from the Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann, weighed in on the study’s results.
“What the carbon emissions numbers show is that emissions (correcting for the drop and recovery from COVID19) have basically flattened now. That’s good news. The bad news is that’s not enough. We need to start bringing (emissions) down.”
In layman terms, what we have accomplished so far is simply a stabilization in pre-pandemic and post-pandemic carbon pollution levels. However, this is not nearly enough. The only way to not exhaust our remaining carbon budget and mitigate the dangers of climate change is to stop the emissions.
Further, Miss LeQuere clarified that burning coal and natural gas was mainly to blame for China’s jump in pollution. The country also provided a massive economic stimulus package for lockdown recovery, which might have made things worse. Many countries have further spoken about a “green recovery” in their recovery stimulus packages. But as per Miss LeQuere, rebounding economies would use their existing conventional energy combination. The mix of renewable energy and other such green measures take a much longer time to show results in emission reduction.
India and its Net-Zero Goal of 2070
One of the monumental steps taken so far at the COP26 summit is India’s commitment to a carbon net-zero goal by 2070. Countries like China and US did not have anything constructive to add here. While a commitment like this looks good on paper, a simple reality check reveals the shortcomings. Fossil fuels, which make up the bulk of carbon emissions worldwide, are still the biggest energy source for India. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, India is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. Its report noted that there has been a rise in coal consumption from 2010-11 to 2018-19. Out of its total energy consumption in 2019-20, coal was the most at 43.86% of total energy consumed, followed by crude petroleum at 32.76%. Electricity produced from hydropower, nuclear and other renewable sources only accounted for 14.3% of consumption.
India’s commitment to a carbon net-zero state at the COP26 Summit seems unattainable at current fossil fuel consumption patterns. While the country has been slowly expanding its renewable energy capacity, it is not enough. Based on the urgency of the current crisis, without a significant structural step, small measures are not likely to help. Further, 2070 also seems too far. The 2018 IPCC report predicted alarming climate conditions by 2050 if our carbon emissions continued as they are. How far can a 2070 individual commitment go in averting the climate crisis?
Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use
Shortly after the Summit began, 110 member countries joined a declaration on the end and reversal of deforestation by 2030. According to the BBC, this promise stands as the climate summit’s first major deal.
The declaration comes at a good time. Other than indiscriminate carbon emissions, large-scale deforestation has been one of the major reasons for the worsening climate crisis. Forests are crucial to our climate fight since they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide and regulate the weather. They also have one of the biggest roles to play in preserving the Earth’s fragile ecological balance. Increasing deforestation levels since the Industrial Revolution has contributed significantly to climate change. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson lauded the declaration as a “landmark” commitment. He also spoke about a change in humanity’s role from “nature’s conqueror” to “nature’s custodian”.
However, the idea behind the declaration, though laudable, might be a little off-the-mark. For deforestation to end and further be reversed by 2030, we need global efforts. Over 100 countries have become part of the declaration, and they hold around 85% of the world’s forest cover. However, a similar effort was made in 2014 via an agreement on deforestation by 40 countries. However, it was a failure, since deforestation has only picked up since then. Furthermore, the 2014 and 2021 declarations share the same glaring problem. Both are legally non-binding, and thus, in essence, a voluntary effort. Further, it seems that the notion of protecting nature is dominating any deals being made at the COP26 summit. However, we are protecting ourselves. Humans cannot survive without nature. It is high time we acknowledge that.
This year’s declaration includes clauses on the empowering of local communities and policies to further sustainable development. However, it remains to be seen how these major powers achieve these promises.
India and Deforestation Mitigation
It is also important to note that India is not one of the signatories of this declaration, at least at the time of writing this editorial. The country has 4 biodiversity hotspots of the world and a remarkable variety of flora and fauna. Their survival depends on forests. At the same time, India has high figures for yearly deforestation. India’s tribes and local communities also have centuries-old forest conservation practices that have been slowly eroding. Where does India stand in this joint movement towards the end of deforestation?
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