Global Cooperation on Climate Change
We live in what many scientists call the Anthropocene Epoch, an era of geological time characterized by human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. As the earth’s temperature rises and natural disasters occur with alarming frequency, the environment is quickly careening toward a breaking point from which we can never turn back. No matter where you live or how high your socioeconomic status, climate change can endanger your health, both physical and mental, now and in the future.
In 1769, James Watt’s version of the steam engine was patented. This innovation led to the widespread use of coal—a major fossil fuel both then and now—to power industry, agriculture and textile production. As a result, the productivity of these industries dramatically increased in the period known as the Industrial Revolution.
Studies reveal the beginnings of a sharp increase in CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere, corresponding to this period. Since then, engines powered by carbon-based fuels have proliferated in cars, planes and ships. These fuels are used to generate power and manufacture goods, too.
Activities beyond fossil fuel use also generate greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation is one example, since trees absorb carbon dioxide. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher today than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years.
The effects are significant and include melting polar ice, rising sea levels, severe storms, droughts and flooding. The consequences include widespread destruction, particularly for those living in coastal areas and on islands the extinction of plants and animals, water scarcity, and changing crop and fishery yields. Climate change can contribute to hunger, refugee flows and more. These consequences will occur unevenly across time and place, but will affect everyone. There is wide scientific agreement on the urgent need to address climate change, but less political consensus about how.
Scientists have warned for years of catastrophic environmental consequences if global temperature continues to rise at the current pace. The Earth’s average temperature has already increased approximately 1°C above preindustrial levels. In a 2018 special report, the IPCC predicted that without dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, the world will hit 1.5°C of warming between 2030 and 2052.
The report summarizes many of the effects expected to occur when global temperature reaches that point:
Heat waves. Many regions would suffer more hot days, with about 14 percent of people worldwide being exposed to periods of severe heat at least once every five years.
Droughts and floods. Regions would be more susceptible to droughts and floods, making farming more difficult, lowering crop yields, and causing food shortages.
Rising seas. Tens of millions of people live in coastal regions that would be submerged in the coming decades. Small island nations are particularly vulnerable.
Ocean changes. Up to 90 percent of coral reefs would be wiped out, and oceans would become more acidic. The world’s fisheries would become far less productive.
Arctic ice thaws. At least once a century, the Arctic would experience a summer with no sea ice, which has not happened in at least two thousand years. Forty percent of the Arctic’s permafrost would thaw by the end of the century.
Species loss. More insects, plants and vertebrates would be at risk of extinction.
The consequences will be far worse if the 2°C threshold is reached, scientists say. “We’re headed toward disaster if we can’t get our warming in check and that we need to do this very quickly,” says Alice C. Hill, CFR senior fellow for energy and the environment.
Our planet is an integrated physical and biological system. When it comes to the global climate, the nations and people of the world are fully integrated. So, when climate change is affecting the lives of all people in all countries of the world, it means all countries will have to put in concerted efforts to combat this menace. Recently, the biggest-ever opinion poll on climate change, conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has found that two-thirds of its 1.2 million respondents think that it is a “global emergency”.
The UNDP ran the “Peoples’ Climate Vote” in 50 high-, middle- and low-income countries, representing more than half the world’s people. Experts at Oxford University weighted the replies to reflect the population of each nation. The survey shows people across the world support climate action and gives politicians a clear mandate to take the major action needed.
“The voice of the people is clear – they want action on climate change,” said Cassie Flynn, the UNDP’s strategic adviser on climate change, adding that “If 64% of the world’s people are believing in a climate emergency then it helps governments to respond to the climate crisis as an emergency. … The key message is that, as governments are making these high-stakes decisions, the people are with them.”
Global Climate Agreements
1. Montreal Protocol, 1987
Though not intended to tackle climate change, the Montreal Protocol was a historic environmental accord that became a model for future diplomacy on the issue. Every country in the world eventually ratified the treaty, which required them to stop producing substances that damage the ozone layer, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The protocol succeeded in eliminating nearly 99 percent of these ozone-depleting substances. With the parties to the Protocol having phased out 98 percent of their ozone-depleting substances, they saved an estimated two million people from skin cancer every year. In 2016, parties agreed via the Kigali Amendment, which came into force January 2019, to also reduce their production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in refrigerators and air-conditioners by more than 80 percent.
The Montreal Protocol has been successful in reducing ozone-depleting substances and reactive chlorine and bromine in the stratosphere. As a result, the ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. It is expected that the ozone layer will return to pre-1980s levels by the middle of the century and the Antarctic ozone hole by around 2060s. This is because once released, ozone-depleting substances stay in the atmosphere for many years and continue to cause damage.
2. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992
At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first negotiated, committing parties to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Ratified by 197 countries, including the United States, the landmark accord was the first global treaty to explicitly address climate change. It established an annual forum, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, for international discussions aimed at stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Three years later, in Berlin, at the first annual Conference of the Parties, it was agreed that the wealthier countries (listed in UNFCCC Annex I) would commit to targets and timetables for emission- reductions, but not the other 129 (largely developing) countries. This was an attempt to provide for distributional equity among nations — recognizing that the industrialized countries were responsible for the lion’s share of accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and by virtue of their wealth, were more capable of taking action. Two years after that, in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was enacted, codifying these objectives with quantitative targets for Annex I countries only.
UNFCCC was adopted with an objective to “stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere…”. Over the past 27 years, GHG concentrations, far from stabilising, have reached record levels. The concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 358 parts per million (ppm) in 1994 to 412 ppm in 2018.
Global temperature too has increased from 0.25°C above the pre-industrial era in the early 1990s to 1.10°C in 2018. All this while the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events have significantly increased. Between 1997 and 2016, extreme weather events claimed more than 0.5 million lives and resulted in economic losses worth US $3.16 trillion worldwide. And, if we take note of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) “Special Report on 1.5°C”, these numbers would seem minuscule 10 years from now.
Despite brokering a protocol (Kyoto), two agreements (Cancun and Paris) and hundreds of decisions on myriad climate change issues, UNFCCC has little to show as results. GHGs are today 60 percent above 1994 levels. Emissions are increasing even in developed countries that had pledged to reduce those. The fact is that UNFCCC has failed to catalyse change in global energy system over the last 25 years. In 1994, about 80 percent of the global primary energy supply came from fossil fuels. This figure has remained unchanged even in 2018. The number of energy-poor people too has remained the same in 1994 and 2018—2.8 billion people continue to use polluting solid fuels to cook food.
3. Kyoto Protocol, 2005
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, was the first legally binding climate treaty. It required developed countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels, and established a system to monitor countries’ progress. But, it has had limited effects on global emissions because some countries did not ratify the Protocol, some Parties did not meet their commitments, and its commitments applied to only a portion of the global economy. The Treaty split the world into developed (“Annex B”) and developing (“non–Annex B”) countries, and did not compel developing countries, including major carbon-emitters China and India, to take action. In subsequent years, those poorer “non–Annex B” countries like China and India grew so fast and burned so much coal that global emissions soared, swamping the meager cuts rich countries made. The United States signed the agreement in 1998 but never ratified it as the US Senate, from the outset, refused to ratify the treaty, with senators complaining that China didn’t have to restrain its pollution at all and that US factories would just move overseas. George W. Bush formally withdrew from Kyoto in 2001.
The Parties collectively surpassed their collective emission reduction target in the first commitment period, but the Protocol credited emission-reductions that would have occurred even in its absence. The Kyoto Protocol does not directly influence the emissions of non-Annex I countries, which have grown rapidly over the past decade.
4. Cancun Agreements
The Cancun Agreements were adopted in 2010 and run in parallel with the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period. Countries put forward nationally determined 2020 emission-reduction targets, or pledges, in the form of nationally appropriate mitigation actions.
5. Paris Agreement, 2015
The most significant global climate agreement to date, the Paris Agreement requires all countries to set emission-reduction pledges. Governments set targets, known as nationally determined contributions, with the goals of preventing the global average temperature from rising 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to keep it below 1.5°C (2.7°F). It also aims to reach global net-zero emissions, where the amount of greenhouse gases emitted equals the amount removed from the atmosphere, in the second half of the century. (This is also known as being climate neutral or carbon neutral.)
Every five years, countries are supposed to assess their progress toward implementing the agreement through a process known as the global stocktake; the first is planned for 2023. Countries set their own targets, and there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure they meet them.
The United States, the world’s second-largest emitter, was the only country to withdraw from the accord, a move by former President Donald J. Trump that took effect in November 2020. However, President Joe Biden re-committed to the agreement on his first day in office, and the United States has rejoined it in February 2021. A few countries have not formally approved the agreement: Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen.
Climate change is often discussed by environmental campaigners or renewable energy investors as a future threat or long-term business opportunity. The reality is that climate change is costing lives right now, and is a humanitarian crisis as well as an environmental one. It’s time we all started treating it as such, to increase the speed of policy changes in this crucial area.
Whether the Earth becomes one degree hotter means very little to the average person. But what an extra degree actually means is environmental chaos, lives in danger and families uprooted. The reality is that people are dying at the hands of climate change right now and yet we hear very little about the climate body count — which is currently 150,000 annually and may double in a decade. Climate change is, therefore, clearly a humanitarian issue, and we must present it as such so that it has the required impact, and influences policy shifts based on popular concern.
The writer is a member of staff.