From Rio 1992 right through to Kyoto 1997 and Paris 2015 — climate conferences have been rich in setting goals, but poor on implementation and achievements
By Ramesh Beeharry
On 2 Dec 2018 the second COP 24 kicked off in the Polish coal mining town of Katowice. It was attended by 28,000 representatives from 200 countries. Katowice’s central objective was to determine how to implement the Paris Agreement 2015 which committed all countries to reduce greenhouse emissions and limit global temperature rise to below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (i.e. PIL+1.5). There is urgency because, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world has a mere 12 years to achieve this (by 2030)!
Irony. As it happens, the irony of the immediate fall-out from Katowice was not lost on a bemused world audience watching the proceedings from afar. For it is reckoned that, by the time the 28,000 delegates got back home after the Conference ended on 14 Dec 2018, they had left in their wake a carbon footprint totalling 55,.000 tons of CO2 gas.
So, in a heroic PR attempt to salvage this tragic-ironic situation and no doubt pacify its own green lobby, the Polish government has promised to plant 6-million trees which will take (gasps of horror!) 20 years to absorb the emissions resulting from the Conference. There is however no estimate on the adverse effects on the environment from this large volume of CO2 floating in the atmosphere whilst the saplings grow into mature trees!
Symbolism. To be fair, Katowice did try its best to achieve carbon neutrality locally. Among other things, in order to cut down on travel to venues, virtual participation was encouraged through live webcasts of main events. Which begs the question: why then bring 28,000 people to Katowice when perhaps a handful of leading scientists and key participants would probably have sufficed — with the rest of the delegates taking part through virtual technology from their home countries.
If TV channels can do this in real time connecting their reporters and participants from different parts of the globe several times a day, it should not be beyond COP 24 organizers to make similar arrangements. And drastically reduce the 55,000 tons of carbon emissions. But the lure of first-class air travel and stay in posh hotels coupled with appealing per diems to attend this jamboree is perhaps a sacrifice too far for some greedy politicians and their retinues!
Agreement. Miraculously, all 200 countries signed up to the rule book for putting the Paris 2015 agreement into practice, which includes how governments will measure, report and verify their efforts at cutting emissions. So far so good. But as we have seen in the past quarter century — from Rio 1992 right through to Kyoto 1997 and Paris 2015 — climate conferences have been rich in setting goals, but poor on implementation and achievements.
Hurdles. In 2015 the Paris COP 24 had commissioned a study on the impact of a world temperature rise of 1.5C. The ensuing IPCC report suggests that the world was in fact heading for a rise of nearer 3C by the end of this century. And if it wanted to keep it at 1.5C, then it would have to reduce gas emissions by 50% by the year 2030. But to achieve this, even a layman like me can see that the industrialized countries would have to decelerate their industrial growth and the developing nations would have to slam the brakes on their industrialization process!
However in a world where everyone wants more and yet more — no matter how much or how little they may have — I daresay governments will find it impossible to sell such policies back home. We have to remember that there are many countries where millions do not have enough to eat and aggressive farming practice, with all the resulting emissions and pollution, is seen as the only way to cope. In India 15pc (194m) of the1.3bn people suffer from hunger and 20pc (42m) of Pakistanis suffer the same heart-rending fate. Worldwide, 815m people go hungry to bed every night!
Consequently, I doubt if any number of conferences will ever achieve the stated aims of COP 24; until and unless the variable of world population size is included in the equation. After all it has been 26 years since the Rio Conference 1992 which begat the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and 21 years since the Kyoto Protocol 1997 which consolidated the UNFCCC into an international treaty. This Treaty had committed participating nations to reduce carbon emissions, the root cause of global warming through the greenhouse effect. But we have seen little progress and are still setting objectives and limits a quarter century later.
Whoever says people, also says wants! With every new-born comes needs that must be satisfied — need for food, clothes and shelter. Small, primitive Amazonian communities have minimal impact on the environment. But the activities of large metropolitan societies comprising tens of millions affect it adversely. These include slash and burn, industry, war, famine, disease, pollution, mass migration, resource depletion, energy crisis, water stress, economic development, ad infinitum.
In fact there is no human activity on Earth that does not impinge adversely on the environment. We can pick any one from the above list and we will find that they all cause damage — many that are irreversible — to the fragile environment.
Take economic progress. Every nation, including those with well-developed economies, wants their GDP to grow year on year. But this requires an innumerable number of inputs — organic and inorganic, natural and synthetic — that have direct and indirect impacts on the environment. They range from resource depletion to acid rain to carbon emissions — all causing degradation of the environment.
Whilst the situation may have stabilized to some extent in the advanced economies, such is not the case with the developing nations of the world. For example, the economic progress achieved by China is impressive, but it has come at great cost to the environment. In order to be competitive, the Chinese have had to rely on coal, probably the most polluting if also the cheapest source of energy available domestically. By now we are all too familiar with the debilitating Beijing smog. The same goes for India which relies on fossil fuels for 75% of her energy production. A major source of pollution there also comes from stubble burning by farmers; and millions of households use wood, coal, gas, even cow dung for cooking and heating. Consequently the air in several cities is noxious to health; and it is reckoned that 1 in 8 Indian deaths is due to pollution.
Time to Get Real
I am well aware that demographers everywhere are encouraging people to produce more babies in order to counteract the grey brigade, but their thesis ignores the effect of population growth on the environment. Notwithstanding, it is high time for the UN woke up and realize that, in the absence of population control, we might as well all stay at home with arms folded and spare the Earth another 55,000 tons of CO2 emissions generated by delegates attending a further conference on climate change.
For sure, participating countries have signed up to reducing their gas emissions at Katowice. But in the absence of an international police force that is adequately equipped to check whether targets are being met, there is no certainty that the agreement will lead too much. After all cutting gas emissions by 50% by 2030 is no mean — not to say impossible — task!
With the best will in the world, a country like India would find it difficult to explain to the hungry 194m that it is will not be increasing food production because, as well as polluting the soil and water tables, modern agricultural practices generate gas emissions. However with a reduced and reducing population, it should not find itself in this invidious position. With less people to feed, house and clothe, reduction of emissions should be easier to achieve — almost automatically.
The take-away lesson therefore is: less people=less consumption=less pollution! I leave it to the econometricians and other experts to calculate the population level at which equilibrium will be achieved.
* COP24 is the informal name for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is a “Rio Convention”, one of three adopted at the “Rio Earth Summit” in 1992. The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994. Today, it has near-universal membership. The countries that have ratified the Convention are called Parties to the Convention. Preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system is the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC.
* Published in print edition on 1 February 2019