Dr C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and a director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development, Connecticut, U.S
Science is making clear that human destruction of nature is forcing the planet to cross the Rubicon of climate stability – toward a point of no return. The global temperature has already increased 1 degree above the pre-industrial level. Global warming has accentuated land and ocean temperatures, sea-level rise, melting ice and glacier retreat, causing extreme weather conditions in many parts of the world. The fires, floods, droughts, heat waves and storms of seemingly apocalyptic proportions have become a new normal. The disproportionate impact of climate change threatens to exacerbate economic and gender-based inequality, food security, water availability, and health challenges. The poor and marginalized will have to bear the major brunt of the impact. Humanity is facing up to an existential crisis of apocalyptic proportions in its evolutionary history.
The question is whether the just concluded COP28 meeting in Dubai was able to make any substantial progress with a sense of urgency, as compared to the earlier such events. Amid all the celebratory self-pats by the COP28 leadership, it appears to be business as usual. In the last Climate Summit COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, the governments were locked in disagreement over whether to phase out, or phase down, fossil fuels. That fight over the wording, phase-out, and phase-down, continued unabated also in the COP28 meeting in Dubai. Rather than seeking a phase-out, the current COP ended with a final declaration that calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade”. Although developed countries in the European Union, the UK and the US supported phase-out, the oil producers including Saudi Arabia and Russia and fossil-fuel-dependent countries such as India and China opposed the call for a ‘phase-out’ of fossil fuel, preferring ‘phase-down’ as an alternative. What is so disappointing is the fact that the text does not even stipulate a timeline for phasing out of fossil fuels.
The crude oil and natural gas production continues to be at its peak, thanks to the U.S., Russia, and the oil cartel of OPEC+ countries. The OPEC Secretary General is reported to have sent a letter to the group’s 13 members and 10 Russian-led allies to “proactively reject any text or formula that targets energy i.e. fossil fuels rather than emissions''. The ongoing wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Hamas have also become destabilising factors playing out in war-induced shortages and energy insecurity and reignited the demand for fresh fossil fuel sources, thus running the risk of locking in new fossil fuel exploitation for years to come. If this trend continues, achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2050 will remain a pipe dream.
Although the countries including India and China have not explicitly endorsed a fossil fuel phase-out at COP28, they have backed a popular call for boosting renewable energy. Both India and China rely heavily on coal to power their economic engines and are averse to committing to phasing out coal. Far from declining, global coal consumption has been at a record high for the past decade. What is ironic is the fact that much of the global coal consumption takes place in countries including India have also pledged to achieve net zero emissions.
For all its high soundness, the language used in the final declaration appears to have offered many escape routes for the fossil fuel industry that is now thriving despite the previous declarations calling for drastic cuts in its production. The COP28 agreement also repeats the calls on countries to “contribute” to global efforts to reduce carbon pollution in ways they see fit, offering several options, one of which is “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems … accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”. The transitional fuel in energy transition could be interpreted to mean ‘natural gas’, a carbon emission fuel.
The call in the declaration for the adoption of carbon capture and storage is yet another let-out clause aiming at the fossil fuel corporations that are at the forefront of funding such controversial projects to use them as a fig leaf to conceal the continued extraction of fossil fuels. By now it should have been apparent to the organizers of the COP28 that carbon capture technology and storage cannot be a practical solution, nor will it be able to scale up to a global scale.
Another key topic of discussion was climate financing or loss and damage funding required for actions aiming to mitigate or adapt to the consequences of climate change. The mother agreement, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) under which COP summits have been taking place – required the rich countries to provide financial assistance to the poorer countries because the rich world’s emissions for the last 150 years caused the climate problem in the first place. Vulnerable countries of the Global South placed in harm’s way, if climate change continues to worsen, are asking for billions more through a newly formed disaster fund, although current pledges are only around $700 million. The sum pledged in the COP28 meeting does not come even closer to what is required. A 2021 analysis by the UNFCC standing committee indicates that the poorer countries need an investment of about $600 billion every year in mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change. Although much needs to be done to build the financial capacity, the operationalization of loss and damage funds may be considered as one silver lining - a long-standing demand of the Small Island States and the low-middle-income countries of the global south.
Even a phase-out of fossil fuels will not be a sufficient condition to attain carbon neutrality and thus stave off climate breakdown. Carbon neutrality is the process of offsetting the sources with sinks, through a process known as carbon sequestration. The main natural carbon sinks are soil, forests, wetlands and oceans, which together remove 9.5 to 11 billion metric tonnes per year. This has to be seen against the emissions from combusting fossil fuels – roughly 34.81 billion metric in 2020.
This fact has not been a topic of much attention in the COP meetings. It is equally important to retain the natural carbon sinks like forests, wetlands, and peatlands. Carbon neutrality is the balance between carbon emissions (sources) and absorption (sinks). The research has established that unregulated human activities can force natural systems to go irreversibly past the tipping points. For instance, what is the track record of countries including India in the protection of natural landscapes and habitats? The Forest Conservation Amendment Act introduced by the Indian Government which came into force on December 1, would facilitate the destruction of large tracts of forest land. The Climate Summit meetings also should be doing the stock-taking of each of the countries' performance in nature protection.
But the gap between the sources and the sinks remains wide and is only set to grow. The optimum utilisation of land by preserving its natural entities – like forests, wetlands, water bodies, etc. – is an important part of achieving carbon neutrality. This can be achieved only by recognising the quantum and sources of carbon sources and sinks and then creating a blueprint for developmental activities. Many countries are violating these fundamental principles by ravaging their ecosystems and becoming environmental basket cases.
The studies indicate that optimisation of land use can help cut down a third of the emissions needed to keep temperatures below 1.5 °C, the goal set out in the Paris Agreement. The Luxembourg-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis identified twenty-four land management priority actions including a reduction in deforestation, peatland drainage and burning; restoring forests and coastal mangroves; improving forest management and agroforestry; and enhancing soil carbon sequestration. The global community is urgently required to operate within the environmental limits to keep humanity safe. This demands new business models of circularity, regeneration and social justice. So, it is natural to ask if venues like COP would care about discussing the current economic models that have brought the world to what appears to be an irreversible degeneration of natural resources.
It was two years ago, back in September 2021, Greta Thunberg lambasted the world leaders for their empty rhetoric in their speeches at the Glasgow COP26 climate summit. “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders,” she said in her speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy. Have we done any better in the just concluded COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai? Have we been able to turn this summit around to produce the breakthrough required to fulfil the goals of carbon neutrality set in the Paris Agreement - to hold the global temperature increase to “well within” 2 degrees and make efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels? To answer that question, we may have to repeat what Greta Thunberg stated: “Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”