The year 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade. The world as we see today has risen from the ashes of Global Financial Crisis of late 2000s and the hegemony of a few developed countries. The global economic and political landscape has endured a number of changes over the past decade- Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the Arab Spring of 2011, the rise and fall of ISIS, Refugee crisis sparked by people fleeing war persecution and poverty, the Ebola pandemic, European Sovereign Debt Crisis of 2012, BREXIT, discovery and commercialization of Shale in the USA, trade rivalry between the two behemoths- USA and China, China’s debt diplomacy through One Belt One Road (OBOR), Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and the American fall out.
Of all the themes that gripped the world in the recent memory, none deserves more attention than the spectre of a world ravaged by excesses of human greed and neglect of environment. The burning of Amazon rainforests and vast swathes of forests turning to ashes in Australia once again reminded the world of the pertinent need to focus on the challenge of climate change. More recently, the threat of a giant locust storm from the Horn of Africa to the farmlands in India is gripping the Eastern hemisphere. Studies have linked higher temperatures and higher than usual rainfall with more damaging locust swarms. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation, a square km sized swarm contains about 40 million locusts which eat as much food in one day as about 35,000 people. This threat to food security due to climate effect should send the alarm bells ringing in the high and mighty corridors of world powers. This article is an attempt to trace out the contribution and preparedness of comity of nations to deal with the challenges of climate change in terms of policy and the economic cost of not acting while we still have a chance at saving the humanity from the ferocity of nature.
The Earth’s temperature is maintained by an envelope of gases that traps the heat from the sun. However, when the concentration of these greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere, the heat budget goes hay-wire and the temperature starts to rise. The heightened temperatures can lead to melting of ice caps, rise in sea levels, flooding of coastal cities (some of the world’s dense metropolitan areas are located on coasts), decline in soil productivity, fall in food production, increased pest attacks, increase in pathogen-related diseases, extreme weather events, desertification, famines, epidemics and the list goes on. As the world is under the biggest ever lockdown due to COVID-19, the global community is struggling with crippling economies, and the writing on the wall is clear- the world is not prepared for such pandemics. An apposite question to ask here is, are we ready for the forthcoming challenges posed by climate change? Do we really have a feasible action plan in place to address the current and future challenges awaiting us?
In the 20th century, climate was neither the priority of developed nor the developing nations. Focus was on turning the wheels of economic growth as fast as possible. Climate change first made its entry in the global parlance as late as the 1970s. The UN Conference on Human Environment 1972, popularly known as the First Earth Summit, laid out the principles concerning environment and development and raised the issue of climate change for the first time. The First Scientific World Climate Conference was held in 1979 which eventually led to the creation of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The Second Scientific World Climate Conference 1990 considered the IPCC first assessment report highlighting the risk of climate change which paved the way for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Second Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Enforcement of UNFCCC in 1994 formalised the climate change negotiations at the world level and from here began the string of Conference of Parties meetings with the latest being held in Madrid, Spain in 2019. Alongside the climate change negotiations, need for sustainable development has also caught the attention of the world leaders with the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002, Rio+20 summit in 2012. The Brundtland Commission’s conception of sustainable development in 1987 marked a comprehensive shift in viewing development and environment as complements to one another.
Though the scientific community highlighted the challenge of climate change late with the passage of more than a century since the industrial revolution, the world economies and leaders haven’t yet woken up from their slumber, notwithstanding an entire gamut of conferences and meetings mentioned above. The world has been pumping in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere ignoring the climate cost of growth.
The Kyoto Protocol was considered to be the ‘star’ agreement of the negotiations imposing binding emission reduction target of 5 percent below the 1990 levels over the 5-year period of 2008-12 on three-six industralised countries and the European Union. The Doha amendment of 2012 extended the commitment period to 2020. However, the year 2020 is here and only 137 parties have ratified against the requirement of 144 for the amendment to come into existence. This highlights the lax attitude of the world leaders to the challenge of climate change.
The climate scientists heaved a sigh of relief with the signing of Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, with both the North and the South coming together to contribute towards emissions reduction according to their ability laid out in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). However, the NDCs fall way short of achieving the target of limiting the global temperature rise to below 2 degree Celsius (preferably below 1.5 degree Celsius) above the pre-industrial levels by 2100. With the withdrawal of USA, the second largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world, the resolve of Paris Agreement has come under serious doubt.
The Earth is already 1.1 degree Celsius warmer compared to preindustrial times. As per the data of World Meteorological Organisation, 2019 was the second hottest year after 2016, and every decade since 1980s has become warmer than the previous one. Average temperatures for 2014-19 were the highest on record. According to WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas, we are well on our path to a 3-5 degree Celsius rise in temperatures by end of century with the current rate of emissions.
The economic cost of climate change has been hard to grasp for the world at large. According to a Working paper published by National Bureau of Economic Research in 2019, a continued increase in average global temperatures by 0.04 degree Celsius per year under “business as usual” approach can reduce global GDP per capita by as much as 7.22% by 2100. The hardest hit would be the least developed countries of tropics and no country would gain economically from global warming. As per World Bank, an additional 100 million people worldwide are at the risk of being pushed into poverty by 2030 due to climate change. Climate disasters also extract a cost in terms of damage to infrastructure such as road transportation and power generation to the tune of $18 billion annually in low and middle-income countries, with wider disruptions to households and firms costing atleast $390 billion a year. According to a WHO Report on Health in 2018, health complications due to air pollution in 15 countries that emit the most greenhouse gases are estimated to cost more than 4% of their GDP. Air pollution causes 7 million deaths globally annually, costing $5.1 trillion in welfare losses.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown at us first-of-many challenges of this century, wherein it has become pertinent for us to introspect the question “growth at the cost of what?”. As we continue to expand and encroach into fragile ecological regions of the planet in quest for growth, we are increasingly putting the health of our ecosystem in jeopardy. While Covid-19 has caught the world unawares and severely crippled its health infrastructure with more than 2 lakh deaths and counting, climate change is a hidden enemy lurking behind these ever often pandemics- earlier it was Ebola and now Covid-19. Failure to address climate change will threaten human lives, livelihood, and ecosystem in an unprecedented manner.
As countries plan to restart their economies post the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s time to channelize our resources to ‘building back better’. While rebuilding lives and creating livelihoods, the economic stimulus needs to focus on supporting sustainable business and personal practices. Air pollution levels have fallen across the major industrial cities of the world in the wake of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, there is a need to sustain this in the post-pandemic world. The nature is rebounding when the humans have retreated from the streets. Therefore, there is a need to devise sustainable strategies- be it work-from-home for the majority or giving up plastics or commuting on public transport. Every individual effort counts.