Paris Accords to Carbon Neutrality

By Dr. Palitha Kohona | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2021

By Dr. Palitha Kohona

During an unusually mild Paris December, in 2015, over 195 countries, led by the US and China, agreed on a set of broad measures to address the fast gathering threat to human existence of global warming and climate change. The outcome, the Paris Accords, was hailed by the beaming former UN SecretaryGeneral, for whom climate change had become ‘one of the defining priorities of his tenure’. He described the Paris Accords as heralding a generation with climate hope and a ‘monumental triumph for people and the planet’. 

The global web movement Avaaz, described the Paris Accords as a “brilliant and massive turning point in human history”. The 79 member Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Countries group (ACP), consisting mostly of relatively small economies, enthusiastically welcomed the accord. Today, six years later, ravaged by the COVID-19 Pandemic, the world looks hopelessly at those glossy expressions of hope. The global summit of world leaders held a few weeks previously in 2015, had adopted the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The 17 new universal goals, and 169 targets agreed upon are designed to provide the framework for economic and political policy making by UN Member States over 15 years to make the world a better place for humanity. The indicators, against which their performance will be measured, was finalised in March 2016.

 Some, including the UK and Japan, wanted fewer goals. Now we are almost at the Glasgow COP in a few weeks’ time. While the media generally tended to treat these two events as independent from each other, the SDGs which interface across the spectrum are also linked to efforts to address climate change. This link must be kept in mind, especially in the cases of adaptation and mitigation. 

Ending poverty and hunger, ensuring food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture, managing water resources and sanitation, achieving sustainable economic growth and employment and sustainable industrialisation, and transiting to renewable energy, among them. The oceans, inter alia, are the major influence on weather patterns, the biggest sink for GHGs, the predominant source of protein for humanity and a major employment generator. The sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources must be kept in mind when addressing climate change.

 In Paris, the international community committed itself, by consensus, to curtail GHG emissions and limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, with an aspirational target of 1.5 Celsius. 188 countries pledged to implement measures unilaterally to realise this goal. Eventual Carbon neutrality was their goal. They submitted the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the Climate Change Secretariat, to be reviewed every five years. 

Recognising the need of developing countries for additional funds to comply with their voluntary commitments and to deal with the multiplying consequences of climate change, developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion to developing countries by 2020 for adaptation and mitigation and at least that amount afterwards. The most vulnerable countries will receive over US$ 250 million. These figures refer only to funds made available through public sources. 

Approximately 800 million go to bed hungry

 The trillion Dollar question, despite the familiar UN hype, was whether the promised resources, vastly inadequate for the need but so necessary for the realization of the SDGs and the Paris Accords, would be generated, while the world was simultaneously struggling to wean itself from fossil fuel dependency. Now, we are confronted by the added burden of the economically and socially devastating COVID-19 pandemic. The SDGs will apply to every country. Even their partial attainment in fifteen years poses a gigantic challenge to all of humanity. 

The pandemic has dragged almost all economies backward and unemployment is widespread. In a world where, embarrassingly, over 1 billion people still live on less than US$ 1.25 a day, approximately 800 million go to bed hungry, 795 million or one in nine humans remain malnourished, 57 million children have no access to education, 2.4 billion live without proper toilet facilities, 663 million lack access to safe water, one third of all schools lack safe water and toilet facilities, millions of women still die in childbirth and many more children do not live to reach their fifth birthday, while 62 individuals own more wealth than the poorest 3.2 billion people on earth, realising the SDGs may turn out to be simply too daunting. One silver lining against the background of this suffocating gloom is China’s success in eliminating absolute poverty through its own efforts. 

Mind Boggling Costs 

Even if the world will eventually pat itself on the back for achieving some of the SDGs, the cost will be mind boggling. Rough calculations made by the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing have put the cost of providing a social safety net to eradicate extreme poverty at US$ 66 Bn (£43 Bn) a year, while annual investments to improve infrastructure (water, agriculture, transport, power) could be up to US$ 7 Tn globally. 

The Addis Ababa conference on Funding for Development which preceded the SDG summit formulated strategies for identifying funding sources for realising the SDGs. The UN ritually hailed the Addis Ababa action agenda (AAAA for short) as containing “bold measures to overhaul global finance practices and generate investment” for tackling the challenges of sustainable development. 

On closer analysis, the commitments made by the multilateral financial institutions, the UN agencies, the private sector charities and the bilateral donor community, though impressive, do not appear to come even close to the sums required to achieve the SDGs. The funding up to date has been grossly inadequate. With regard to climate change, past experience does not engender too much confidence either. The Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, concluded by consensus in 1997, was also welcomed with joyous acclaim. 

But the US, the biggest emitter of GHGs at the time, having actively participated in the negotiations, signed, but never became party to the Protocol. A new administration in Washington ensured that the US would not only, not become party but would stridently oppose the Kyoto Protocol. 

Similarly the Trump administration pulled the US out of the Paris accord. But happily, the Biden administration has returned to the fold and Special Presidential Envoy, John Kerry, has been talking to world leaders, including his Chinese counterparts on addressing the threat of climate change. 

China has announced that its carbon emissions will peak in 2030 and it will become carbon neutral by 2060. The proactive measures it is taking to decommission coal mines, wean its industry away from fossil fuel, speed up the electrification of its transport, including switching rapidly to electric cars, engenders considerable confidence in its commitment. 

Chinese banks will also cease funding coal mining and coal based projects. The US has committed to become carbon neutral by 2050. So has the EU. China has set up the world’s biggest carbon trading mechanism, Sri Lanka will rely on renewables for 70% of its energy needs by 2030. It also plans to increase its forest cover to 30% of its land mass. 

Green financing in China exceeds one trillion RMB 

The World Bank estimates the funding requirement to facilitate transition to low carbon and climate resilient economies by developing countries to be in the trillions of Dollars. For its part, it will increase the proportion of funds available to 28% of its portfolio. The Bank estimates that once financing from partners and associated private sector funders are included, the grand total available would be a potential $ 29 billion per year. 

The World Bank will use the INDCs to develop country specific programmes for its client countries. The US has pledged US$ 800 million. However, what has been offered still falls far short of the US$ 100 billion, which was agreed to be made available by 2020. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the China International Development Cooperation Agency have a clear focus on assisting renewable energy development. Green financing in China has exceeded one trillion RMB. 

Climate Refugees – an unmanageable reality on the horizon 

An insurance mechanism for loss and damage and population displacement, relocation, etc., is recognised in the Paris Accord but may not be adequate to deal with the emerging crisis. Vast population displacements and climate refugees swelling the already existing numbers, could be a real consequence of global warming. Some commentators have alluded to the possibility of Europe’s refugee crisis, at least partly, having its roots in climate change. Even with the commitments made in Paris, global temperatures will continue to rise till at least 2030 and will require difficult modifications to economic activity and life styles to achieve 2 Co goal by 2050. 

Already record heat waves, devastating forest fires, super energised hurricanes and typhoons are heralding what is likely to come. With rising temperatures, effects on agriculture and food security would have devastating consequences, more humans will recede into poverty, and climate refugees would become an unmanageable reality. Some countries will simply go under water. The Paris Accord did not refer to ‘new and additional funding’, leaving room for official development assistance to be mixed up with climate assistance. 

Already commercial lending is being counted by some donor countries as development assistance. The SDGs, especially sustainable production and consumption patterns, among others, were not confronted with honesty in Paris. Efforts to hold historic polluters responsible for the current crisis has been effectively quashed. Sweeping the past under the carpet can be seen in more than one area of concern. One recalls the abortive effort by Palau and Trinidad and Tobago to seek an advisory opinion from the ICJ on responsibility for global warming. 60% of GHGs emanate from just five countries, the USA, China, India, Russia and Japan. The EU is responsible for 12% of global emissions. 

The above countries and the EU can on their own make a significant contribution to decarbonising the world economy. 70% of electricity is generated using fossil fuels. Furthermore, the Paris Accord contains no legal commitment to curtail emissions in accordance with the INDCs. It requires parties only to meet every five years to review progress. This process could be subject to different pressures, including from domestic political and industry groups. The international community may have reached a point where it is necessary to acknowledge the elements and approaches that failed in previous development exercises. Likewise it needs to recognize the approaches that succeeded and are sustainable. Little Singapore at one end of the spectrum and large China at the other end offer examples of success. But what succeeded in one place may not necessarily work elsewhere. While it is expected that developing countries themselves will raise some of the necessary funding, including through the building of strong institutions, better taxation, reduction of corruption, and stemming the illicit outflow of funds, these measures will not necessarily produce significant results in the short term. 

Holistic proactive approach could be a catalyst for innovation

A widely hawked policy approach to development encourages public-private partnerships. Since the financial crisis of 2008, State involvement in the economy is no longer dismissed even by the conservatives. While some developing countries will follow this path with success, it is difficult to imagine that many, especially the smaller ones, with their limited economic opportunities, would or could. The lack of personnel trained in modern economic management, costly and usually imported energy sources, and economic limitations that do not encourage the ready flow of foreign investments are critical constraints. Nobel laureate, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, has cast serious doubts on the public private partnership approach. In the circumstances, bilateral development assistance will continue to play a role, especially for the large number of such small developing countries. A holistic and proactive approach to the SDGs could also be a catalyst for innovation, development of new technologies and establishment of new industries. One bright spot might be the encouragement that the renewable energy industry will receive from the Paris outcomes. China, which is today’s leading emitter of GHGs, is investing heavily on renewable energy in an apparently targeted manner, resulting in specific industrial sectors, such as the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines, booming and the environment benefitting. Given the complexity of the problem of climate change, the enormous estimated cost of addressing it comprehensively and the inevitable resistance from vested interests, consideration should be given by governments to approaching the challenge through key economic sectors. e.g. Power generation, motor transport, railways, etc. 

(This article is based on a recent lecture by Dr. Palitha Kohona, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Beijing, China, at Renmin University, China.)

By Dr. Palitha Kohona | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2021

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