Global climate summits have not given us much to cheer about in recent years. The UN Conference of Parties (COP) is the annual session under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) where governments and non-governmental actors meet to take stock of progress, and agree on goals and actions to tackle climate change.
The Copenhagen COP in 2009 set the target that by 2020, the industrialised countries would raise $100 billion in climate finance annually to support developing countries. Paris 2015 was promising, where members agreed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”, and countries signed up to make commitments towards that goal. In more recent years, progress has been slow, and those tracking climate finance report that financial flows have fallen well short of the promised $100 billion a year.
Rich countries are thus not pulling their weight, as the data on climate finance tells us. Many activists have sharpened their attacks on industrialised countries, demanding that measures be adopted to sanction countries that do not live upto their climate finance contribution commitments. This is unlikely to happen. ‘Climate justice’, though, is an agenda that’s found growing currency across the globe. The calls for climate justice encompass a broad agenda that goes well beyond financing mitigation activities (primarily a responsive measure), including bringing about structural changes to global governance practices and supply chains that have, at its heart, equity and dignity.
Globally, climate change and environmental protection policies remain mired in politics. The ‘west’ has accused China and Russia of not playing ball. Until last year, the United States was pulling out of the Paris agreement, a position that fortunately has now been reversed. Last month, BBC reported that several influential countries were lobbying the United Nations to water down the urgency for a move away from fossil fuels, as well as questioning the call made to rich countries to financial transfer of green technologies to poor countries. This kind of lobbying, where countries put their self-interest first, is indeed to be expected. The consequences of this inaction are indeed tragic. As the President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado Quesada remarked, “if the world was a private company…and the leaders of the world were to be different CEOs of the corporations - today we would all be fired.”
The failure to act has resulted in consequences that are staring us in the face. Different Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have highlighted that several parts of the world are now climate vulnerable and face impending disasters in the form of erratic weather patterns, desertification, cyclones, heavy floods, salinity, and sea level rise. As the Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson evocatively described it this week, the world is facing a disaster akin to James Bond strapped to a doomsday device; although it remains unclear if he is referring to the latest instalment of the Bond franchise where in fact Bond doesn’t, in the end, make it.
If all this sounds like cause for pure despair, it would be instructive to remember Prof. Elinor Ostrom, who was recognised for her seminal work on management of common property resources. She had in particular, pointed out the futility of relying on a single overarching global policy to mitigate against the challenges climate change and environmental degradation posed. Through decades of untiring field work, Prof. Ostrom illustrated that collective action by communities was critical, if not absolutely necessary to make a dent in favour of the restorative work our eco-system requires. She argued against the notion that “tragedy of commons” was an inevitable consequence of common property resources.
Prof. Ostrom urged policy-makers to realise that big problems do not necessarily call for big solutions -- that a multiplicity of small solutions has the potential to overpower the big problems we face today. While it is valid to wonder if the effects of climate change have gone beyond the point where localized action might make a difference, one certainly should resolve to do what one can, through domestic economic policy, to take action. For climate vulnerable countries, while global action and climate finance remains critical, they can no longer afford to continue with domestic economic policies that disregard their already-fragile environment. Inaction by industrialised countries may be unjust, but is no excuse for developing countries to continue to degrade their own natural resources. This is also at the heart of the Paris 2015 commitments and the more recently, the Net Zero commitments being announced by countries at Glasgow.
Citizens’ action holds the key. Constituents of both developing countries and developed ones have a role to play. Resent research in the UK involving 22,000 people showed that ordinary people expressed a preference for taking greater measures than current government policy. The effects of climate change are increasingly visible to ordinary people, regardless of where they live. As the lengthening summers and the recent floods in Western Europe show, very few of us are now immune to the effects of climate change. This is now longer just the problem of people living in coastal Bangladesh or in the arid parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. As cynical as that may sound, this may just be what we need to spur concrete action on climate change.
Cooperation between developing countries have long been talked about with reference to trade and poverty alleviation efforts. It is critical to implement this principle in the area of climate action. If climate finance and technology transfer begin to sound implausible due to a lack of global consensus, regional blocks need to come together to make progress.
For example, in climate vulnerable regions such as South Asia, water management agreements are held hostage to geopolitical rivalries, with no consideration to the fact that in our common future, our chances of survival are bleak if we don’t act together. Similarly, technology transfer for the adoption of “green” modes of production, energy use, and water conservation, and knowledge sharing should be an immediate priority. Further, agreements are urgently required on extraction and use of natural resources in shared natural environments such as coastal zones, oceans and river basins.
National initiatives on green energy can easily be shared across borders. Regional multilateral financing instruments such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) must lead these transition efforts, and must support and lobby for newer players such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to align their lending portfolios with global climate action priorities.
We will keep our eyes peeled on the negotiations in Glasgow and the commitments being made by countries, both developed and developing. Pledges are expected to add up to trillions of dollars. Needless to say, what matters is the action that follows once the curtains are drawn on COP 26. Following up on these commitments will require a gradual move away from fossil fuels, possibly the trickiest issue at hand today. For instance, India’s net zero pledge is impressive, but coal remains a vexing issue. Amidst these inescapable realities, we will continue to draw inspiration from thousands of local initiatives as well as the strident activism and leadership demonstrated by scores of non-governmental participants (including artists and students).
The challenge is to ensure that they add up to more than the sum of their parts. This is not news, but it certainly is more urgent now than ever before.
Re-posted with permission from the author - see the original.
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