50 shades of climate change

At the 21st annual meeting of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP21, the governments of the world have managed to come together and salvage a deal to fight the evil of climate change. While the Paris agreement is being widely seen as a victory against the fossil fuel industry, others see this as a pyrrhic victory; too little, too late. After a number of defeats - most notable at Copenhagen (COP15) – the stakes were very high in Paris. Journalists, economists, governments and scientists were in agreement that we needed a legally binding agreement. Now that the deal has been agreed upon, there are at least three questions that need answering.

Firstly, is this deal a good deal? That is, will this deal stop climate change in its tracks? There is no unequivocal answer to this; therefore, one needs to see how many shades of victories and defeats are involved in the agreement. The answer to these questions is – it's a step in the right direction. Two years ago, when the parties met at the 19th meeting in Warsaw, they decided that all countries would submit pledges or as they were called - the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These pledges would be submitted by all parties and would give a plan of how global emissions would be cut. These INDCs, as submitted by the governments of most countries, when seen in totality, will lead to some acceleration in action but as things stand, are not enough to achieve the goal of keeping the average temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees from pre-industrial era (also referred to as the 2DC target). The Paris Agreement was expected to increase the ambition for all parties.

In that sense, there is no immediate commitment of emission reduction to reach this yet but the treaty sets mechanism to ratchet up the current level of commitments. It mandates all parties to increase their emission reductions every 5 years.

Secondly, is the deal ambitious? Maybe, as even though it explicitly acknowledges a more ambitious 1.5 degree target, it does not make it a goal. Limiting the global temperatures to 1.5 degrees is a more scientific goal, which ensures survival for a lot of countries, most of them small islands. It requires fewer adaptation efforts than a 2 degree scenario, because whether its 2 or 1.5, increase in temperature would necessitate adaptation.

Among many other things this would mean more frequent disasters. At a time when Chennai is being ravaged by one, no one needs a reminder of the potential consequences of this. On the one hand, coastal cities will need to add early warning systems, on the other, nations will need to cope with water scarcity. In all, there would be a need to cope with various uncertainties that our societies are woefully underprepared to. All this requires support, particularly monetary. We have already experienced an increase in temperature of about 1 degree Celsius.

This means there is some loss and damage that cannot be averted; this harms most developing and Least Developed Countries. These countries have been asking for some compensation and there is resistance from the developed world on this because being more culpable for climate change, they are expected to pay for the damage. Nothing significant was done in this agreement for them.

Finally, what is in it for us? Is it a fair agreement? Did it meet India's demands? Again, there is no straightforward answer to this: one dimension of fairness is differentiated actions by different countries, which means that the responsibility to mitigate climate change is common to all but differentiated by national circumstances, capabilities, and culpability.

Developing countries are not culpable and not capable of dealing with this problem alone and hence need support. There is very little support coming from the developed countries for this. India needs finance and access to technologies that will help it to mitigate this problem.

However, the developed world has come to see India and China as "ot poor" and benefitting from emissions. They ask that India should step up and do more. However, India is already doing more than its fair share and would find additional measures more expensive and, possibly decelerating development itself. The agreement does not ask India to do something extra neither does it provide extra support to India.

The Paris agreement does not answer every question but it is an important first step towards finding a common solution. All eyes are now on the next meeting in Marrakech (COP22), where the modalities of the agreement would be worked out.

Black and white assessment of good or bad has to wait for COP22, till then we all can appreciate some greys.