The roads in Delhi are wet due to untimely rains followed by oven-hot temperatures. Undeterred by these climatic drama, a woman with a frail malnourished child on her hip begs by spreading her arm in front of a car waiting for a green signal, pleading “please help, give something, at least for my child”. We are likely to hear a similar language — albeit with a demanding tone — in Abu Dhabi today when developing countries, holding a paper in one hand and pointing another towards the developed countries say, “we need finances to adapt and mitigate climate change, at least for the future of our children and particularly those from poor developing countries”.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is making yet another appeal in Abu Dhabi to enthuse a transformational momentum in stalled climate negotiations. Titled as “Abu Dhabi Ascent” the meeting is prologue to the climate summit to be held in September in New York. Although the summit is not part of the negotiating process per se, it comes a year before countries are expected to conclude a new global climate agreement in 2015 through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Heads of state, CEOs of business, finance, civil society and local leaders are invited to the summit and challenged to “bring on the table” ambitious emission reduction targets, bold pledges and concrete action plans to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.
Abu Dhabi Ascent is a litmus test for the September summit which aims to make a difference in the way the UNFCCC negotiations are taking place for past more than two decades. It would also be heralding the real possibility of the ambitious commitments including substantial and scalable financial contributions from developed countries for the poor developing countries.
This meeting is the first global meeting after the recent release of fifth assessment reports (AR-5) of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The reports give the most blaring wake-up call ever on global warming.
Climate science is now more certain and unequivocal in pointing to the human interference as cause of the climate change. The climate impacts are described as “severe, pervasive and irreversible”. The report categorically states that adverse impacts of climate change are happening everywhere, in all continents, across the oceans, and even in our garden and they are there for all of us to see.
What’s more, worst impacts are yet to come and they will come with accelerated speed. There is also eminent risk of “feedback” loop that will result into climate-surprises, that is uncontrolled and sudden rise of green house gases due to melting of permafrost. And most shocking assessment is that the world is ill-prepared to handle such changes.
The world since 1992 is miserably failing in meeting the objectives of the global climate agreement of stabilising carbon dioxide concentration in atmosphere at the level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
The tropics, as per the report, is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. That’s where most of the developing countries and poor people are located. We are squarely faced with the issue of “climate ethics and environmental justice”. These poor people have done nothing to cause climate change.
Historically, the rich countries have belched out much more carbon dioxide due to their indiscriminate use of fossil fuel than poor countries. That “state of being apart” in consuming fossil fuel has created a “climate-apartheid”. The recent history has witnessed national laws that blatantly created a favoured status for rich nations in unashamed violation of human rights.
It took a long time and almost all of the life of Nelson Mandela to bring apartheid to end. And now we are seeing that under the blurb of “national sovereignty”, minority population continues the indiscriminate production and use of fossil fuel and build carbon-economy. Of the total of one trillion tonnes of CO2 emission that Earth’s atmosphere could allow to limit the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, more than half has already been emitted, mostly by the minority population (and now increasingly by the emerging economies). Rest of the emissions continues without any sign of abatement. Would we have to wait for yet another Mandela to emerge to limit the spread of climate-apartheid?
The model of unsustainable consumerism brings with it an addiction for the wealth that is measured by the production and consumption of fossil fuel. In 16th and 17th century, the slavery became addiction for certain societies in total violation of human rights and dignity. The number of slaves held by the rich then measured wealth. It was challenging task to take away that “wealth” earned by rich. It took years (and civil wars) to end slavery.
The industrial revolution and the mass production by machines helped to certain extent by providing “alternatives”. However, the world later became slave to the carbon-economy. This “carbon-slavery” is as obstinate to abolish now as the slavery of 17th century, even though the alternatives are readily available. And now we cannot even wait for another Abraham Lincoln to arrive, as there is no enough time left. The risk of sudden adverse climate impacts is looming large.
Fortunately, there is a real window of opportunity for countries to slow down the rate of global warming over the near term by cutting Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) to complement carbon dioxide reductions for long term. Black carbon from open burning of the biomass for cooking, methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) are such SLCPs.
A number of recent studies, including that by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organisation have concluded that cutting SLCPs can prevent a significant amount of additional warming in this century. Reducing SLCPs has the potential to avoid up to 0.6 degrees Celsius global average warming by 2050. By the end of the century, cutting SLCPs could avoid as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, comparable to an aggressive mitigation effort for carbon dioxide.
There are further important benefits to the developing countries for reducing black carbon, (reducing air pollution that is reported to cause 7 million deaths every year as per WHO), methane (production of energy from waste) and HFCs (improving energy efficiency in room ACs) that will drive the reductions of SLCPs.
To avail the window of opportunity to act against the apartheid and carbon-slavery would need the “abolitionists” that would initiate immediate and ambitious action at the level commanded by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Abu Dhabi Ascent should equip the abolitionist sherpas for the further climb to the summit. The world is facing a formidable (Edmund) Hillary Step — the last obstacle before the arriving at the top of Everest.
Rajendra Shende, is a chairman TERRE policy centre and former director, UNEP.