COP-ping out: An exasperated sigh on the climate negotiations
Global climate negotiations tend to evoke the imagery of a group of sculptors painstakingly chiselling the meaninglessness to carve out a masterpiece that is the ‘declaration’, a befitting ode to these dystopian times, a document powerful enough to turn the staunchest of optimists senile.
They seem almost biblical at times, some of the overarching narratives — there’s pain and suffering, fear and loss, repentance and retribution, empathy and compassion, atonement and righteousness. Millennia of human evolution, lamenting and contemplating at the precipice of extinction. Last supper, anyone?
Yet for all the disillusionment, it would be naïve to say that everything is hogwash. There are people, and policymakers, who do care. Stories of individual and collective action come from places near and far to restore faith and inspire. There’s still enough left to salvage, if only we could let go of the hubris and reconcile with our position as just another cog in the wheel in the grand scheme of things. Science demands humility.
The industrial revolution that led to a boom just three centuries ago now threatens to be our doom. While the reluctance of the political-industrial nexus to look beyond short-term gains and turning a blind eye is definitely the prime reason for the mess we are in today, the modern-day consumer needs to introspect too. After all, how much can you blame the drug dealer for your own addictions?
It’s been fortnight of speaking truth to power, painting doomsday scenarios, bashing the pilgrims of unbridled capitalism, massive protests rushing the polity into bold and noncommittal proclamations — one of those forums where bare minimum responsibilities become ‘ambition’ — and gloating over it. Musical concerts and art installations, indigenous peoples and oil barons — a congregation of contradictions. A moveable feast is what it is, one may say. Let’s take a look at the menu.
Wish you weren’t here — fossil fuels will stay awhile
So we know that we will be ‘phasing down’ and not ‘phasing out’, the sculptors in full form with their chisels. It is rather dismaying to see that many negotiators and commentators are celebrating the mention of the word ‘coal’ in the declaration.
There is no doubt that renewable energy (RE) is the future, but when is comes to scaling up, it is clear that this is a marathon and not a sprint. To reach net zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around US$ 4 trillion.
And let us also take a step back to acknowledge that this may not be the silver bullet that it is touted to be. There are environmental costs associated with RE, including exacerbated threats to biodiversity and natural resources while mining for raw materials. What we save in emissions might end up polluting the soil and water.
Can the push towards cleaner energy also imbibe austerity when it comes to energy consumption? Our hunger for energy is gluttonous to say the least, and if that is not rationalized, no amount of ‘clean’ energy can wash away the centuries of soot. Increasing efficiency is as important as enhancing power generation capacities. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has shown that globalization does not necessarily have to translate into globetrotting.
Sure, let us work towards doing away with fossil fuel subsidies, stop new oil and gas exploration projects, ensure access to energy for the poor and marginalized. But, in the meanwhile, let us also take a long hard look at extravagance of concrete jungles getting drunk on all that neon, and do something about changing the habits of the power-hungry consumer. Can we think thermal resilience instead of thermal comfort, since there’s a slim chance that the quest for the former will ever be sustainable?
Show me the money — the annals of Climate Finance
Developing and underdeveloped countries have not historically caused emissions but are the first ones bearing the consequences, so they need to be helped financially to cope. The rationale, from one viewpoint, is quite logical. But when you consider that a substantial part of these financial packages would eventually find themselves back into the folds of fossil fuels and associated industries, the scenario seems rather contorted, pushing developing countries into the same vicious circle of unsustainable development that their developed counterparts are trying to break out of.
Developed countries had committed to mobilize US$ 100 billion annually by 2020, with the assumption that this will prove to be the catalyst to raise US$ 6 trillion by 2030 actually needed by developing nations to achieve the targets under their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). It is clear that we’ve fallen short of the former target, but this simply cannot be the excuse for failing to meet the latter.
Another issue is the credibility of the existing data, plagued by lack of clarity as well as uniformity in monitoring and accounting mechanisms, and greenwashing existing financial allocations. This has led to an unceasing cycle of finger pointing and mistrust between the parties.
Putting all these specificities aside, let’s be candid — the shortfall will remain. Can we put away the begging bowl and look at our own strengths? Most developing nations have strong traditional knowledge systems and capacities for innovation to solve their adaptation and mitigation issues. All it needs is a change in mindset.
Welcome to the jungle — Carbon Markets are a caricature of a solution
It’s a sham, frankly speaking, the concept. The irrationality is akin to giving out capital punishment in installments. Forget about the credibility and transparency problems, there is no way, even if in the interim, to equate polluting one part of the planet with restoring another. If there’s anything that nature has taught us, it’s that every ecosystem has its own idiosyncrasies to be respected. The offsets are not an alternative to reduction in emissions, but in our haste to make carbon markets work, this fact is often overlooked.
Article 6 of the Paris agreement, which pertains to mechanisms for carbon trading, has been once of the most contentious and inaccessible concepts to comprehend, let alone implement. It was hoped that the tug-of-war that began in Kyoto might conclude in Paris, but it just changes forms, much like some alien in a sci-fi movie.
This concept as it is now, neither will it raise enough finance nor lead to sustainable restoration of ecosystems. It is built on the foundations of an ethical compromise, and that makes it inherently weak. All it will do is allow polluters to pull a Houdini, another reason why it is being pushed aggressively by developed nations and corporate actors. Glasgow has seen some agreements related to taxation, carrying forward credits from previously used mechanisms, and double counting. None of this however, addresses concretely how to prevent this from becoming a loophole that can be utilized to keep polluting.
Putting the pessimism away for a while, can we make carbon markets work? Maybe yes, but the approach will need a lot more nous then currently exercised. For instance, calculating sequestering potentials needs a localized, or even a hyperlocalized, approach. We simply cannot extrapolate figures or devise simple algorithms knowing about the complex interrelationships in nature and natural processes. Scalability here must be more nuanced than simple mathematics.
Carbon markets should also be viewed from a more philanthropic perspective rather than a part of the core business process, else it will (and to some extent, already has) spurn another industry that will create barriers for smaller and vulnerable nations to participate. Carbon trading is a drastic measure, not business-as-usual, and must be treated like that.
A jamboree of jargons — The name’s Bond, Green Bond
Prima facie, green bonds is a much more practical and impactful concept than carbon markets. But like the markets and mitigation financing, it is prone to greenwashing scams. There’s ‘clean’ coal and large hydropower projects in the catalogue, for instance.
When we look at the scale, social and sustainable bond market, which would include green bonds, hadn’t reached the US$ 1 trillion mark in 2020 out of the total bond market on US$ 128 trillion. In a race against time to save ourselves, this pace may not be enough.
Green bonds can be impactful only when the supporting ecosystem is conducive, including more widespread use of carbon pricing that substantially degrades the value of dirty assets.
On another note, though, why can’t all bonds be green? For anything less that greening the entire bonds market wouldn’t be enough anyway.
Losing the moon while counting the stars — what about biodiversity
Economies crippled, citizens petrified, all in a couple of months and because of a pathogen not more than 200 nanometres in diameter. COVID-19 was a much-needed reminder that the climate action is more than just controlling emissions. Nature nurtures and protects us, and not the other way around.
Forests are the most efficient and cost-effective way of sequestering carbon, and there are no better of managers of forests than wildlife. But forests give us so much more, at their own peril one might say.
What goes unappreciated is the fact that biodiversity is just more than healthy forests holding carbon. It is evolution, livelihoods, health, education and culture. Heidegger’s concept of umwelt encapsulates our relationship with living organisms and environment as a whole very succinctly — something beyond numbers, intangible yet inextricably intertwined with our genetic memory and social tapestry.
This is so clearly a case of ‘one for the other’ rather than ‘either/ or’ that it is always galling to see the ‘carbon tunnel vision’ afflict both policy and public perception so widely. Hopefully, the upcoming CBD COP in Kunming will do better at establishing a more tangible and actionable correlation.
And coming back to the consumer again — meat, palm oil, cotton — it is our buying choices that spur demand for products decimating one forest after the other to fuel the ever-growing global value chains. Like the most of it, we need to demonstrate before demanding action.
Serving Climate Justice
That’s the spiel at COP26, to keep polluting till some arbitrary threshold of socio-economic development is achieved. Again, fair enough from one viewpoint, but then if the argument does not spur action, how long can we use that as the pretext for inaction.
True, the poor and marginalized are suffering more, but is that because of lack of development, or the fact that we’ve taken all efforts to disregard and ridicule the wisdom behind traditional knowledge systems of these communities, forced them to conform to the modern paradigms of ‘growth’ and ‘welfare’, and when failing to provide the necessary resources to do so, left them in the lurch?
These people aren’t vulnerable because they don’t have the tools to cope, it’s because we’ve taken away the resources required to make those tools. And then this whole condescendence about helping them, isn’t it the pot calling the kettle black?
Why can’t we right this wrong rather than emphasizing upon enabling more people to make the same mistakes that have led us here? This is not about them ‘adapting’, it’s about us ‘recognizing’ and ‘respecting’. It’s more about ‘stopping to take away’ then ‘giving’, be it the global north or south.
Only then, shall (climate) justice be served.
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay
We weren’t expecting the glass ceiling to be broken in Glasgow, and it wasn’t. It was supposed to be a let-down for small and affected nations, and so it was. The declaration is a step forward, even if incremental, because anything else would be nothing short of a political suicide. But it won’t be an exaggeration to say it has been all downhill since Rio.
The hoards of new alliances (and their acronyms) announced at the summit reminds me of the kayfabe in professional wrestling, an elaborate superficial construct, where make believe relationships and coalitions are scripted to keep the viewer engaged and the coffers of the enterprise. Another memory it evokes is of unabashed Milo Minderbender from Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Catch-22 — fictional representation of a capitalist free world spiralling out of control that manifests itself into reality everyday.
COP26 has given a poignant aftertaste. One resigns to the hypothesis that more than 99% of the species that have evolved on Earth are now gone anyway.
Hope remains though, on the basis of the fact that even the unlikeliest of upsets eventually happen in sports one day.
Till then, reverent we remain towards nature, comforted by the fact that it would rebound once we’re obliterated.