Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Climate change looking beyond the Paris Agreement

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Retd. Ajai Malhotra
    Venue: North Eastern Hill University, Shillong
    Date: May 02, 2019

Hon’ble Prof. Srivastava, Vice Chancellor, NEHU, Shillong,
Respected Prof. R. K. Satapathy,
Distinguished Professors and Heads of Department,
Dear Students.

Thank you for the invitation to address this distinguished gathering in beautiful Shillong. I deeply appreciate the warm welcome and generous hospitality extended to me by the North Eastern Hill University. My sincere gratitude also goes out to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, as it has made our interaction possible under its Distinguished Lecture Series.

The Earth’s environment first acquired international salience upon the convening of the UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972. It brought environmental issues into the ambit of international diplomacy and led to gradually enhanced global environmental co-operation. Addressing the Conference, India highlighted the link between environment and development, specifying that "the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty”.

The Stockholm Conference led to the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which in 1982 convened in Nairobi a ‘UNEP Session of a Special Character: Ten Years after Stockholm’. It recognized that most global environmental challenges were inadequately addressed and environmental threats had grown, including from acid rain, air, soil and water pollution, desertification and deforestation, depletion of the ozone layer. It also noted early signs of the disruptive potential of climate change.

The first major international environmental negotiation sought to tackle the problem of the hole in the ozone layer that let in harmful ultra violet rays from the sun, increasing the risk of developing several types of skin cancers. It led to the adoption of the Vienna Convention (1985) and later the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987), which presented countries with a hard choice: join the Protocol and bear huge costs for shifting to non-ozone depleting substances or don’t join it and be confronted by no trade with non-Parties. India presented amendments to the Montreal Protocol in August 1989, which were adopted in June 1990 as the London Amendments to the Montreal Protocol.

Meanwhile, largely parallel negotiations on three other multilateral documents commenced: Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Forestry - all topics of special interest to scenic Meghalaya, as your state will be impacted by climate change, is a global biodiversity hotspot, and has thick natural forests.

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), convened at Rio de Janeiro, adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21. It reinforced the importance of addressing the overriding priority of development for developing countries but doing so without hurting the environment. Additionally, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity were opened for signature at UNCED, which also agreed on a Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles on the Sustainable Management of Forests. Furthermore, Agenda 21 recommended negotiating a legal instrument on desertification, which led to the adoption of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1994.

The Disrupting Impact of Climate Change

Spotlighting our climate, it is not merely that it is changing, but it is human activities on Earth that are bringing about such change. Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, e.g. of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and several industrial gases, have been altering the Earth’s climate since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Current GHG emissions are the highest in human history. While climate deniers remain, there is overwhelming scientific certainty that increasing GHG concentration in the atmosphere due to human activities has been the dominant cause of the observed heating of our planet since 1950. The CO2 concentration in our atmosphere, at 408 part​s per million in end 2018, is the highest in three million years and continues to rise. Moreover, the rising temperature of recent years, rather than the relative stability of the past, has become routine. The year 2016 has been the warmest on record and 17 of the 18 hottest years in recent memory have occurred since 2000. It is now well over three decades that the world has not had a month when temperatures were below average.

As a result, our atmosphere and oceans have warmed; snow, ice, permafrost and glaciers have reduced at the poles and elsewhere; the sea level has risen and oceans have become more acidic by absorbing more carbon dioxide; and extreme weather events have acutely intensified.

Much of the scientific evidence of climate change derives from the 5th Assessment Synthesis Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reflecting the peer-reviewed international scientific consensus of 830 expert authors from 85 countries. That Report emphasized that risks arising from warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels would pose challenges to human security, affecting development, food and water supplies, health, infrastructure, and livelihoods across many parts of the world, including India.

Climate related risks will affect our world via sea level rise, more intense cyclones, storm surges, floods, droughts, temperature rise and change in precipitation patterns. It will increase the risks of death, injury and ill-health and disrupting livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones. Increased river, coastal and urban floods will cause considerable loss of life and damage infrastructure and settlements. As one of the more disaster-prone countries, almost 85% of India is susceptible to one or multiple hazards. The harsh consequences of climate change will deepen India’s developmental challenges, given the number of its poor and since many Indians depend on climate sensitive sectors for their livelihood.

The mean global sea level rise and its future growth rate will also very likely exceed that of the past few decades. Its impact on the Arctic and Antarctica ice would be particularly severe. Indeed, a respected scientist recently estimated that "… the chance that there will be any permanent ice left in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero.” Again, with 14.2% of its population residing in coastal districts, India is particularly vulnerable to accelerated sea level rise.

While the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones would vary by region, projections across models agree that more frequent and heavy rainfall days and an increase in extreme rainfall events related to monsoons are very likely in South Asia. The Indian monsoon pattern will alter, with the volume of rainfall during the monsoon season set to rise. Not only would there be more water, the way in which it is delivered would also change. While the number of monsoon days is expected to be less, the rainfall intensity would be more.

Disease causing pathogens and parasites will multiply faster at higher temperatures, escalating the incidence of many tropical diseases. Studies show an association between higher temperatures, heavy rainfall and diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks. Japanese encephalitis, dengue fever and malaria are associated in India with high temperature and rainfall patterns. Moreover, increased heat-related mortality and heat stroke due to rising extreme temperatures could undermine progress by developing countries in tackling disease, malnutrition and early deaths. A warmer atmosphere could worsen existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and spread tropical diseases and pests to new areas. Greater incidence of mental disorders and post-traumatic stress syndrome would be seen in disaster-struck areas. Contaminated urban flood waters will increase exposure to disease and toxic compounds. Extreme weather events will also often collapse health and emergency services, electricity and water supply.

Climate change will also seriously impact global food production as drought, increased unpredictability of precipitation, and rising temperatures would reduce global crops yields, while warming and acidification of the oceans would affect marine wildlife and fisheries. Most of the food-insecure are in South Asia, where over 400 million poor and undernourished people currently live and climate change will disproportionately harm them. Increased drought related water and food shortages linked to rising temperatures may increase malnutrition and worsen rural poverty. Heat stress would decrease labour productivity and could cause substantial food yield and production declines, affecting livelihoods and exports. The geographic range and migration patterns of several land, freshwater and marine species have already started shifting in response to climate change.

The unprecedented cyclones that just struck Mozambique are examples of climate-linked disasters. Irrespective of future GHG emissions, some further heating is inevitable and similar dramatic climatic disruptions will follow unless we urgently take corrective steps.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992)

It is against this backdrop that global environmental negotiations on climate change need to be viewed. They essentially boil down to agreeing upon how the world addresses such serious concerns and the basis on which countries share the costs and benefits of the enhanced environmental protection required. Since all countries desire a healthy environment and favour climate stability, such negotiations have generally focussed on working out an international consensus on (a) who is causing the problem and therefore who is responsible for climate change, both historically and currently; (b) what precisely needs to be done to tackle the problem; and (c) who should bear the main financial and technological burden for corrective action, between wealthy, technologically advanced, industrialized nations and not so well off developing countries.

As developed countries have historically been responsible for excessive GHG emissions and remain their main emitters on a per capita basis, the primary responsibility devolves on them to address the problem, especially since they also have the requisite financial and technological capacities to do so. As part of international cooperation, developed countries need to extend new and additional financial and technological cooperation on concessional and preferential terms to developing countries to enable them to more effectively respond to climate change. In turn, developing countries can consider binding mitigation commitments provided incremental costs are met by the developed world. Indeed, the 1992 UNFCCC recognizes that developing countries cannot be required to divert scarce resources from their overriding priorities of social and economic development and poverty eradication.

The UNFCCC is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR&RC) of its ratifying states. In negotiations leading to its adoption, India consistently highlighted equity, historical responsibility and per capita emissions as the basis for a differentiated approach to collective arrangements being considered. The notions of fairness, justice and equity underlying its differentiation between developed and developing countries in terms of responsibilities and capabilities, remain as relevant today.

The UNFCCC’s ultimate objective is to stabilise atmospheric GHGs "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." While it contains no enforcement mechanisms, GHG emission limits, or a global warming temperature cap to work towards, it visualizes follow-up protocols/agreements to reach its objective.

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

Negotiations on climate change that followed the adoption of the UNFCCC led to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It provided for a joint GHG emission reduction target for industrialised countries of at least 5% below 1990 levels to be achieved within a 5-year commitment period 2008-2012. Developing countries were exempted from a quantified emission reduction commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force following its ratification by Russia in November 2004. The EU and a few other countries kept the post Kyoto process alive, partly by allowing industrialised countries more room for counting sequestration of carbon in soils and trees and agreeing on more flexible compliance procedures. However, it was never ratified by the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. withdrew support to it in 2001 describing it as ‘fatally flawed’. Gradually a search for a new basis for international cost and benefit sharing of climate action got underway.

Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010)

The next important landmark was the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, which identified an aspirational goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C ; a process by which countries could enter their specific mitigation pledges by January 31, 2010; broad terms for reporting and verification of actions undertaken by countries; a commitment by developed countries to provide $30 billion in 2010-2012 to help developing countries; and a goal of mobilizing $100 billion annually in public and private finance by 2020 via a new Green Climate Fund.

Agreements reached at Cancun a year later gave a new direction to post-Copenhagen negotiations, by shifting from a top-down architecture to one in which national pledges are aggregated into a joint international effort subject to an international review procedure. The Cancun Agreements also established a Technology Mechanism to support the development and transfer of mitigation and adaptation technologies to developing countries.

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015)


Subsequent negotiations culminated on December 12, 2015, with the 21st Conference of Parties of UNFCCC (COP 21) adopting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which entered into force on November 4, 2016. Vide its Article 2.1.(a), it committed States Parties to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to keep it as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. While the Paris Agreement is contoured like a legally binding instrument, many of its most important provisions are voluntary and non-binding. In a preambular reference it notes ‘climate justice’ as being ‘important to some’. The significance of sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production in addressing climate change is acknowledged, but also only in the preambular portion of the Agreement. It retains passing references to the principle of CBDR&RC, while reinterpreting and largely paying lip service to it. It specifies that the Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the CBDR&RC principle, in ‘the light of different national circumstances’. Unlike the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement entirely avoids mentioning historical GHG emissions and side-steps the requirement that the developed countries take the lead in combating climate change and its adverse effects. Instead, the Paris Agreement replaces the Annex-based approach to differentiation in responsibilities that is incorporated in the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol, by a methodology that permits self-differentiation and takes into account changes in a country’s circumstance and capacity. It also substitutes the "top-down” approach of the Kyoto Protocol by a "bottoms-up” one based on voluntary, nationally determined pledges to be made by all States Parties. It has also inbuilt a process by which States Parties will take stock of their collective progress every five years and put forward progressively more ambitious GHG emission reduction plans for every subsequent five-year period. It uses a transparency and accountability framework to incentivize all States Parties to deliver on their respective non-legally binding Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), or else face public criticism and peer pressure.

Under the Paris Agreement, each State Party has pledged via its NDC to contribute what it can to tackle global warming. However, many developed country NDC’s could have been much more ambitious. The EU targeted a modest 40% GHG reduction by 2030, compared to 1990, besides increasing energy efficiency by 27% and the share of renewable energy by 27%. USA offered a 26-28% GHG reduction by 2025, but calculated from a more recent 2005 baseline. While admittedly these pledges constitute a first step, developed country partners must do more to curtail their GHG emissions and assist developing countries meet climate disruption challenges. Instead, with the Trump Presidency, we have a pull in the opposite direction with USA having formally notified its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

It is noteworthy that China’s NDC target identified 2030 as an approximate peaking date for its carbon emissions, by when China’s per capita emissions would be comparable to current EU emissions. This is an unambitious and conservative pledge, since even most Chinese experts believe its GHG emissions are in any case set to peak earlier, perhaps by 2025. It is also of concern that under its One Belt One Road initiative, China is financing over 100+ GW of coal power capacity abroad, representing 26% of total coal power based capacity under development worldwide.

India’s NDC envisages, inter alia, (a) reduction in the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from its 2005 level, (b) changing India’s share of non-fossil fuel in its total installed capacity from 30% in 2015 to about 40% by 2030, and (c) the ambitious target of creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of Carbon Dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. Preliminary estimates show that over US$ 2.5 trillion would be required between 2015 and 2030 to implement India’s climate-related plans and their scaling up would involve even greater financial resources.

Developing countries are resource constrained and implementing climate change mitigation/adaptation actions that would require both not only domestic funds but new & additional financial flows from developed countries to cover the resource gap. Enhanced action on development of technologies and their transfer will be central to implementation of NDCs by most developing countries. In this context, developed countries should help in providing climate finance, in the transfer of environmentally sound technologies, and in capacity building. In this context, India has projected in its NDCs an illustrative list of clean coal, nuclear power and renewable energy technologies that it would like to see shared.

India was not a major GHG emitter when the UNFCCC was agreed to in 1992, but is also now in the spotlight due to its rising GHG emissions. In gross volume terms, India now trails China and USA as the third-largest GHG emitter. Yet, India’s per capita GHG emissions remain a fraction of that of all major emitters. Even now, India’s historic and current levels of GHG emissions per capita make it the last amongst all twenty G20 countries. Moreover, India has one of the lowest rates of energy intensity of GDP growth and believes it can achieve similar well-being as the developed world without indulging in reckless and wasteful consumption. It has in the past indicated that its per capita emissions would never exceed those of the developed countries, including their historical emissions. India also does not want to follow China’s "peaking path” approach. Moreover, it is prepared to share its technologies with others, as seen from its readiness to develop a satellite specifically for South Asia and its offer of free-of-cost remote sensing satellite data to other SAARC countries.

The IPCC Special Report for 1.5°C (2018)

Political momentum for the IPCC Special Report for 1.5°C was generated by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the Least Developed Countries, to placate whom the 1.5°C target was incorporated in the Paris Agreement. Released on 8 October 2018, the Special Report for 1.5°C assesses the current state of scientific and technical knowledge on climate change, drawing on the research findings of 6,000+ freshly published scientific articles. It identifies possible pathways to cap global warming at 1.5°Cand outlines their environmental and socio-economic impact. Its outcome could be broadly summarised as follows:

· Climate Change from human-induced causes is already underway.
· It is accelerating, affecting economies and livelihoods everywhere.
· Average global temperatures have risen 1°C since the Industrial Revolution began.
· We are already seeing its consequences, including more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice.
· Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is possible, but will involve unprecedented transitions.
· There are clear benefits in keeping warming to 1.5°C.
· Every bit of warming matters; thus, if global warming is capped at 1.5°C, ten million fewer people would be exposed to the risk of sea level rise compared to warming of 2°C.
· Even warming of 1.5°C would negatively impact humanity, but the consequences of warming of 2°C would be far more damaging.
· Keeping warming to1.5°C would be in line with meeting other goals.

The Report places emphasis on limiting warming to 1.5°C without "overshoot". This is important because during the negotiations on the Paris Agreement the understanding was that even if there is a mid-Century overshoot beyond 1.5°C, due to countries like China continuing with their massive emissions, that overshoot would be brought under control by special measures so that the temperature anomaly is restricted to 1.5°C by the end of the Century. However, the Report accords particular attention to climate trajectories that keep global warming consistently below 1.5°C throughout the 21st Century and allow at most a limited "overshoot" of 0.1°C, hence limiting global warming to no more than 1.6°C throughout the 21st century. The adherence to non-overshoot and limited-overshoot pathways is an important victory for States that pressed for a strict interpretation of the 1.5°C target – above all, the SIDS and the vulnerable developing countries.

The Report indicates that further temperature rise, even upto 1.5°C, may have some catastrophic consequences and we have less than twelve years remain to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption. It presents a striking example of impending disaster, pointing out that 70-90% of coral reefs across the world would perish if there is temperature rise of 1.5°C; but with a 2°C rise, none would be left. The Report calls for action not only by countries, but also by state governments and cities, industry and business, etc, precisely because the pace required to limit warming to 1.5°C is unprecedented and the scale would be transformational.

COP 24 at Katowice (2018)

The 24th Conference of Parties (COP 24) was convened in Katowice in December 2018, soon after the warnings contained in the IPCC Special Report for 1.5°C about the growing severity of the climate crisis had caught the world’s attention. COP 24 adopted the Katowice Rulebook, which represents an important step forward in multilateral climate diplomacy, as it ensures that all countries would be on the same page as regards transparency in reporting obligations and blocks them from wriggling out of meeting their offered NDCs. States also reiterated at COP 24 that they would undertake a "global stocktake” in 2023 to assess progress and biannually report on their individual progress in cutting GHG emissions from 2024 onwards. However, in terms of boosting specific climate action, COP 24 came up with nothing new, beyond agreeing in general terms to enhance NDCs before 2020. The same is the case as regards securing enhanced funding support for climate action in the developing world.

The Road Ahead

As per ‘Climate Action Tracker’, an independent science-based assessment that tracks the emission commitments of countries, the aggregate impact of the full implementation by all countries of climate pledges contained in all NDCs put forward so far, will at best limit temperature increase to 2.7°C by the year 2100, compared to a heating of 3.6°C by 2100 projected to result from current policies without those pledges. Clearly, the pledges made so far are grossly inadequate and NDCs would need to be substantially enhanced in future stocktaking reviews if global warming is to be capped at 2°C, let alone 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Human GHG per capita emission excesses and human inaction when confronted by such excesses has brought us to the present state. Even at 1°C of warming we are staring at a climate emergency and henceforth it will only get worse in the absence of serious corrective action. We must urgently pick up the pace to decarbonize the global economy or face serious consequences.

Still, some positive developments have been there since the Paris Agreement. Thus, States have negotiated texts under IMO (to shift to use of cleaner bunker fuel by ships) and ICAO (for reducing GHG emissions from Aviation Turbine Fuel used by civilian aircraft), although GHG emissions emanating from the defence sector still remain outside consideration. However, there remains a growing impression that the world may be seriously falling behind in efforts to tackle climate change.

Noteworthy in this regard has been the aggressive activism of youth and NGOs supporting urgent and enhanced climate action. Greta Thunberg’s ‘Fridays for Future’ school strike initiative has sparked widespread protest action by youth outraged over false hopes generated about the impact of NDCs agreed upon under the Paris Agreement. The recent die-in protests organized in UK and elsewhere by the NGO "Extinction Rebellion” are another manifestation of ordinary people feeling betrayed by their leaders and exerting pressure to urgently generate more effective climate action. Indeed, UN Secretary-General António Guterres frankly acknowledged in a newspaper op-ed on 15 March 2019 that his generation "has failed to respond properly to the dramatic challenge of climate change”, adding that "… we are in a race for our lives, and we are losing. The window of opportunity is closing – we no longer have the luxury of time ….”

Following COP 24 at Katowice, the UN Secretary General has bluntly advised world leaders to "bring plans, not speeches” to a special UNGA Climate Action Summit that he would be hosting in New York on 23 September 2019 to boost ambition and accelerate actions. He has called on them to come to New York with "concrete and ambitious” plans to enhance their NDCs by 2020 in line with reducing GHG emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to net zero by 2050. The UNGA Climate Summit will bring together governments, private sector, civil society, local authorities and international organisations to develop ambitious solutions in six areas: renewable energy; emission reductions; sustainable infrastructure; sustainable agriculture & management of forests and oceans; withstanding climate impacts; and investing in the green economy. Serious preparations for the Summit are underway. However, climate action will come with huge costs and action plans must not result in winners and losers or worsen economic inequality; instead, there must be a fair, just and inclusive transition that benefits everyone.

Meanwhile, there are at least two additional approaches, beyond reducing GHG emissions, that are being seriously explored and that we need to take note off. The first can be classified broadly under the heading "Climate Geo-engineering”; the second that of more effectively "using Nature”.

By Climate Geo-engineering is meant a deliberate, large-scale intervention in the Earth’s ecosystem so as to counteract climate change. It broadly covers two sets of techniques. The first seeks to address climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and encompasses, in particular, Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) methods. CCUS uses technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and flue gas, followed by recycling the CO2 for utilisation and determining safe and permanent storage options. The second approach covers those that use solar radiation management (SRM) to cool the Earth. SRM does not affect the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere yet seeks to reduce global temperatures. As such, it is not really a "solution”, but provides breathing space to undertake the requisite decarbonization.

Most of the low-temperature pathways presented in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C rely on a huge expansion of bio-energy use, with subsequent carbon capture and storage, or a massive afforestation programme, to extract atmospheric CO2. However, broad, commercial adoption of safe, underground CO2 storage is still about a decade away. The Report’s reference in overshoot scenarios to stratospheric aerosol injection to cool global temperature as a way to ‘temporarily reduce the severity of near-term impacts’ reflects the possibility that climate geo-engineering through SRM may well, in some form, become part of a more mainstream climate science response to climate change. SRM is a cheaper and thus more attractive approach than further reducing GHG emissions or using CCUS methods, but it has huge and unclear potential risks associated with its impact on crops, weather conditions, drought, etc.

There are also many scientific proponents of the view that using nature itself to tackle climate change remains a largely untapped approach that should be more effectively pursued. It is argued that nature is itself the most effective tool to tackle climate change and protecting nature constitutes a ‘no regrets’ approach. Thus, tropical forests are extremely effective at storing carbon, yet nearly one million hectares are lost annually. Indeed, 11% of GHG emissions caused by humans are due to deforestation, which makes it comparable to emissions from all cars/trucks on Earth. Furthermore, while barely 0.7% of the world’s forests are coastal mangroves, they store up to ten times as much carbon per hectare as tropical forests. Yet, nature-based solutions only receive 2% of all climate funding. Moreover, conserving ecosystems can sometimes be cheaper than resorting to human interventions. It is estimated that natural solutions like restoring degraded forests and stopping deforestation could create 80 million jobs globally, pull one billion people out of poverty and add US$ 2.3 trillion in productive growth. This would require an estimated annual expenditure of US$ 140​ billion, which sounds like a lot, but is under 0.1% of global GDP.​​​

Finally, it is disturbing that contributions to the Green Climate Fund have so far been vastly below expectation. Unless the climate finance scenario radically improves and enhanced financial and technological cooperation is extended by the developed world, the prospects of our effectively tackling climate change at the global level will remain bleak. In such an eventuality we may need to also explore other ways of securing a minimum, assured financial flow into the GCF, e.g., vide a compulsory UN scale of assessment.

Climate change is perhaps the defining issue of our time is and we are at a pivotal moment to do something about it. Nonetheless, it is good to recall that even if concerted international action immediately restricts global temperature rise to well under 2°C, if not 1.5°C, the benefits of doing so will only trickle down during the second half of this century.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions and our discussion.