Tinkering climate deals won’t work

Hundreds of environmentalists arrange their bodies to form a message of hope and peace in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, December 6, 2015, as the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) continues at Le Bourget near the French capital. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1XF6V

A global treaty on climate warming should generally be welcomed. So when the 197 countries that are party to the Montreal Protocol reached a compromise agreement in Kigali, Rwanda, last week to phase down climate-impacting refrigerant gases, it seemed like a forward step.

The Montreal Protocol was proposed in 1987 and its final resolution after nearly three decades of tortuous negotiations indicates just how fraught with competing vested interests international treaties, specially on climate control, have now become. The first thing to note is the really small gains in tackling greenhouse gases which the treaty represents. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other gases that damage the ozone layer over the Earth’s atmosphere are used for airconditioning and refrigeration, and their waste being released into the atmosphere is a matter of real concern.

However, they represent only a small portion of the greenhouse gases represented by industrialised societies, and the far more vital negotiations necessary to prevent global warming getting out of control have been blocked for decades. Ever since there has been a growing scientific consensus on climate change and the effects of global warming, the world’s governments have been unsuccessfully trying to negotiate binding treaties. The main factor that separates the positions of India, China and the rest of the developing world from industrialised countries has been the responsibility of the West, which had industrialised before the rest of the world, to take into account its historical emissions.

The latest attempt to forge a consensus was at the Paris climate conference of December 2015, which aimed to restrict the rise of global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius (current indications show that global warming is likely to be much higher) compared to the pre-industrial era. The Paris Agreement comes into force in a few weeks, in early November, with 55 countries, representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions, having ratified it, including India, the United States and China. In 1992, the governments had met in Rio de Janeiro and agreed to take action to avoid dangerous climate change, but did not specify what action to take. What followed was years of argument, that led in 1997 to the Kyoto Protocol, which required emission cuts with each country being given a target.

Then came the Bali conference of 2007, and an action plan that set the world on the course to a new agreement. This was followed by the Copenhagen conference of 2009 and Paris in 2015. What happens at each conference is that the advanced economies try and bully the rest into accepting an equal share of emission cuts. This ploy is to ensure that the economies in Europe and North America do not face energy emission targets that would constrain their growth. Even though the move to reduce these gases used in refrigeration are seen as “low hanging fruit” as their elimination is relatively easy, fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which make up over four-fifths of greenhouse gases, are more difficult on which an agreement can be reached.   There are other sides to the deal on CFCs. The new gases to replace them will cost up to twenty times as much, the advanced countries would have a monopoly on their manufacture, and their use would involve a considerable transfer of income to these companies as the processes would be patented.

Another aspect is that the use of CFC gases contributes much less to global warming than does the manufacture of metals, especially aluminium, that go into the making and running of the machines which use them. Home ACs, for instance, emit around 800 kg of carbon dioxide a year if they are used for a few hours every day. The energy that is needed to make aluminium is around 25 MW hours per ton of the metal, emitting around 20 tons of carbon dioxide per ton of aluminium. There is the further question of the path of development that we take. We have to concentrate our resources to take electricity to every village home and not concentrate its use in airconditioning for malls and offices as is being done now. A path that encourages the concentration of electricity by people using airconditioners rather than by diversifying its use into villages will focus on HFCs rather than changing the patterns of energy use.

Global warming is already upon us and is visibly felt in the storms that rip through the planet, the warmer temperatures recorded and felt by many of us, and the changing climate experienced by us all. We are already near the threshold of the 2-degrees-Celsius rise in temperature, which is the limit beyond which the world can only go at its peril. The mountain glaciers are retreating in the Indian subcontinent. Low-lying areas like the Sunderbans are already feeling the risk of rising seas, and rainfall is becoming more intense even as the number of rainy days declines. Another effect on global warming is the “bleaching” of corals that could lead to their death. The first recorded event happened in 1998 when 16 per cent of all corals worldwide were affected.

This year’s bleaching event is the longest and most widespread in history, and has left coral reefs in 38 countries and island groups “ghost white”. These include the Laskhadweep and Andaman Islands in India and the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. A large portion of the corals may be permanently lost as they are sensitive to climate change. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) calculates the total global asset of reefs at $800 billion, with around 850 million people dependent on reef-based ecosystems for food security and livelihood. This will be the first ecosystem which will face destruction, with many others to follow soon. It calls for a serious effort, and not the kind of tinkering with treaties that the CFCs’ accord indicates.

(This article was first published at Deccan Chronicle and South Asia Monitor)