DisFact #13: Are we doing enough to combat climate change?

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In today’s issue: Climate change.

  • Are countries meeting the targets set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement? What about India? We have new data.

  • Climate finance: The ongoing tension between the developed and the developing world as officials across the world meet in Poland for climate talks.

  • What do the ongoing protests in France tell us about the political challenge of combating climate change?


Background

In 2015, world leaders from nearly 200 countries signed the landmark Paris climate agreement with a goal to restrict the rise of global temperature by two-degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels and agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Right now, diplomats from these countries have gathered in Katowice, Poland for the latest round of climate talks to discuss the next steps on the Paris agreement and draft a global action plan (“rulebook”) to combat climate change.

I know it can be difficult to wrap your head around all this because the devastating impact of climate change will happen over a very period a long time. But climate change is real and global warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities, as the scientific consensus goes.

(Yes, there are sceptics and deniers, and those who believe that the dangers are exaggerated. I don’t agree with this group.)

Why rising temperature is a problem: It can lead to food shortages, famines, droughts, rise in the number of extreme weather events, more heat waves, coastal flooding—the list goes on. Low lying island nations are most vulnerable as rising sea levels can submerge the entire land under water. For example, millions of people in coastal Bangladesh are expected to be displaced (“climate refugees”).

Note that we are already halfway through: the global temperature has already risen by one degree since the year 1850. It is estimated that at the current pace, we will touch the two-degree mark—the target leaders had settled for in the Paris agreement—in the second half of this century.

Read more:

  1. Why Half a Degree of Global Warming Is a Big Deal (New York Times)

  2. Climate Change Is Complex. We’ve Got Answers to Your Questions (New York Times)


1. What’s the current status?

What: New research released this week by Global Carbon Project (GCP) shows that carbon emissions are expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2018. This is concerning: it is the second annual increase in a row after three years (2014-16) of almost no growth in emissions.

What it means: This accelerating pace of emissions growth means that the world will face some of the worst consequences of climate change sooner than expected.

Numbers in context:

  1. Our target is for 2 degrees. But 1.5 degrees rise is as bad.

    An IPCC report—an international collaboration that reviewed over 6,000 reports on climate change—released in October said that effects of 1.5 degrees rise is as devastating as of a 2 degrees rise in temperature.

  2. It doesn’t look like we will achieve the 2 degree target—even if everything goes according to the the plan

    If we add up all the pledges that countries made in the Paris agreement, the world would still be on track for around 3 degrees Celsius warming this century—an extra one degree from what we aim to achieve.

  3. What the new data shows: we are not even on track to achieve stated targets.

(I know this sounds apocalyptic. I really don’t know how to frame this otherwise.)

Why is this happening:

Even as coal has fallen out of favor in some markets, the rise in emissions has been driven by stronger demand for natural gas and oil, scientists said. And even as the use of renewable energy like solar and wind power has expanded exponentially, it has not been enough to offset the increased use of fossil fuels. (NYT)


2. Who are the biggest climate polluters?

China contributes to around 27% of global emissions, the United States (15%), India (7%), the European Union (10%).

India’s growth in emissions was the maximum among major emitters: In 2018, according to GCP, China, United States, and India saw the middle-range estimate of emissions rise by 4.7%, 2.5%, and 6.3%, respectively. The European Union managed a 0.7% decline.

Why:

In the United States, increased heating and cooling needs fueled higher emissions brought on by a relatively cold winter and hot summer. A tick up in light truck and gasoline purchases spurred by low oil prices also contributed, despite growing interest and hopes around electric vehicles.

China’s increase reflects a boom in heavy manufacturing—including iron, steel, and cement production—driven by global economic growth.

India, meanwhile, continues to increase its use of coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources, amid surging demands in a developing nation “where hundreds of millions of people still lack access to reliable electricity,” the paper notes. (MIT Technology Review)


3. India’s climate goals on track

Under the Paris climate agreement, each country was required to submit a national ‘pledge’ to limit emissions growth. The progress on these self-determined targets would be reviewed internationally, and updated every five years.

Good news: India is on track to achieve two of its three commitments under the Paris agreement ahead of the 2030 deadline, as per the Second Biennial Update Report prepared by the Union environment, forests and climate change ministry.

India’s commitments:

  1. Goal #1: “India’s greenhouse gas emission intensity of its GDP will be reduced by 33-35 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.” (On track)

  2. Goal #2: “40 per cent of India’s power capacity would be based on non-fossil fuel sources.” (On track)

  3. Goal #3: “India will create an additional ‘carbon sink’ of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.” (Lagging)

From Business Standard:

The report indicates that India is well on way to achieve the target for emission intensity of the economy [Goal #1] and share of non-fossil fuel-based power capacity [Goal #2]. In fact, at current rates of improvement on both fronts, India could achieve these targets ahead of the 2030 deadline.

But the country has so far not been able to make a smooth start towards the target for increasing India’s forest cover in order to create an additional carbon sink [Goal #3]. (Business Standard)

Wait: How is it possible that India is one of the biggest polluters, its rate of growth in emissions was the highest in 2018, and we are still on track for the emission reduction goal? Isn’t it contradictory?

No. I asked Nitin Sethi from Business Standard to explain:

The target for reduction in emission intensity of GDP is a ratio that denotes that the rate of growth of emissions will slow down with time. India is not expected to reduce its emissions at absolute levels but only slow down the rate of growth for now. So India can very well be meeting its targets while its emissions grow—but they should grow at a slower rate till they plateau at some point in future and then begin to go down. 

In other news, the Delhi government is planning to push electric vehicles

The Delhi government’s draft policy on e-vehicles (EVs) deserves credit for displaying a serious intent to combat vehicular pollution, one critical component in the smog that envelops the city for most part of the year. The broad thrust of the policy is to target that 25 per cent of all new vehicle registrations be electric by 2023. Given the relatively low adoption of CNG vehicles to date, this target looks challenging. But the Delhi government has anticipated this issue by putting some skin in the game, so to speak. Thus, it is offering subsidies for auto, two-wheelers and e-buses that would be over and above the central government’s Faster Adoption for Manufacture of (Hybrid and) Electrical Vehicles, better known as FAME. The FAME programme incentivises manufacturers. The Delhi government’s scheme incentivises consumers. Among other things, it proposes to offer a subsidy of Rs 22,000 on the purchase of an e-two-wheeler to ensure that its cost is equal or less than the petrol variants. (Business Standard Editorial)

Other things:

  • Assam and Mizoram are the most vulnerable to climate change among the Himalayan states (Hindustan Times)

  • Extreme weather events killed over 70,000 in India in 20 years (Indian Express)

  • In charts: Rising temperatures to gas emissions, here is India's climate change story (Business Standard)

Big picture:

India and other developing countries saw emission increases in 2018, due to economic growth that is “not yet decoupled” from greenhouse gas emissions, the GCP says. (Carbon Brief)

That’s where economics and geopolitics steps in: climate finance.


4. Developed vs the developing world: who pays?

Climate finance is among the most hotly debated issues at the ongoing meeting in Poland.

From Indian Express:

The fight against climate change needs huge flows of money, and who produces the cash — and how and when — has long been at the heart of the disagreement between the developed and the developing world.

The argument goes like this:

  1. Rich world’s emissions over the last 150 years led to the climate problem. As we set global targets for the impending crisis, the responsibility of developed countries should be based on their historically-accumulated emissions—not just current figures.

  2. Experts say that it is unrealistic to expect that developing countries would prioritise climate change at the cost of economic growth. What can be done, instead, is have more climate-friendly growth—and that requires money. To ensure fairness, developing countries should pay part of that cost.

This is why “the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the mother agreement of 1992 under which climate talks have been taking place, requires a group of rich and developed countries to, apart from other things, provide financial assistance to developing nations to deal with climate change.” (Indian Express)

Have rich countries committed?

For many years, the fight was to get the developed countries to commit themselves, in writing, to providing this money. That happened, after a lot of struggle, at the 2015 climate meeting in Paris — even though the $100 billion figure, which the developed countries agreed to “mobilise” for the developing nations every year from 2020, was not mentioned in the Paris Agreement itself, but was part of other decisions taken at the meeting. (Indian Express)

What’s the status?

But the written commitment has not ended the fight, and has not assured developing countries a steady supply of at least $100 billion from 2020. The fight is playing out in various ways — and it is among the most contentious issues at the ongoing meeting in Katowice, where countries are trying to agree on the rules that will govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement. (Indian Express)

The rulebook has not been finalised yet. We will know more when the ongoing negotiations in Poland end.


5. Paris is burning: what it means for climate policy

What happened: France introduced a gas tax in 2014 to regularly raise the tax on fossil fuels in its effort to fight climate change. In mid-November, thousands of protestors took to streets to call for abandoning this tax. It would make fuel expensive.

Many protesters say their purchasing power has dwindled so much over the years that today they have trouble making ends meet — let alone coming up with money for simple outings, vacations or even just to go out to dinner once in a while. Many are earning close to the median income, but costs have risen and pay has not. (New York Times)

Protests turned violent this week: Four died. More than 250 people injured. Millions of dollars lost in damage.

Government response: French President Emmanuel Macron initially said the government won’t budge. But then they did: France has cancelled the tax—well, at least for the next six months. Édouard Philippe, France’s prime minister, was forced to skip the climate policy meeting in Poland because of the unrest at home.

Latest: The protests continue—and now it’s not just about the fuel tax. Anger is directed towards Macron’s “pro-business agenda”. For instance, tax cuts for the rich are unpopular among the masses.

More than a hundred thousand people took to the streets in a fourth consecutive weekend of protests in France, some waging pitched battles with police, as the unrest paralyzed the French capital and piled pressure on President Emmanuel Macron to roll back his economic overhauls. (WSJ)

Carbon tax matters: The gas tax in France is essentially a carbon tax, which both scientists and economists consider to be one of the most effective strategies to curb greenhouse emissions. The concept of carbon pricing was introduced by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus, who was awarded a share of the 2018 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science.

A carbon tax, however, is hard to sell politically.

From the Atlantic:

The reaction in France offers a case study of the perils of efforts to combat climate change. Historically, economists have pushed for governments to use tax policy, the idea being that only a tax can “internalize” the costs of climate change: By charging polluters for every ton of heat-trapping gas they emit into the atmosphere, a carbon tax lets the market account for climate change by itself.

“Many experts agree that taxing carbon to regulate emissions is the most economically efficient approach,” Resources for the Future, a nonprofit climate think tank based in Washington, says on its website.

Are French protests against climate policy?

There are two competing arguments doing the rounds:

1. YES: Voters won’t accept carbon taxes.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said that even though “France’s violent Yellow Vest protests are now about many domestic concerns,” it’s “no accident that the trigger was a fuel-tax hike.”

“A carbon tax is in theory a more efficient way than regulation to reduce carbon emissions,” but “ voters don’t believe that climate change justifies policies that would raise their cost of living and hurt the economy.” (WSJ)

The carbon tax revolt is global, the editorial noted.

Voters in Washington state last month rejected a carbon tax that would have started at $15 per ton of emissions and climbed $2 a year indefinitely.

Ontario province in Canada is suing to block a federal carbon tax, and the issue could topple the Alberta government and perhaps Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Energiewende—a transition to renewables that has increased dirty coal emissions and caused household energy costs to soar—has become a political liability. (WSJ)

In another editorial, WSJ argued that the strategy should be focussed on mitigating the consequences of climate change rather than preventing it. Which basically means: Let the economy grow (even if at comes at the cost of climate), we will have more money, and then we will use that money to save the planet.

The point is that the public seems to understand better than progressive elites that the consequences of climate change, whatever they turn out to be, will be easier to confront the more prosperous the world is.

2. NO: it’s a revolt against Macron’s policies. The tax was badly designed.

The other argument is that the protests are rooted in public discontent with Macron’s presidency—dubbed as the “president of the rich” (he had earlier lowered taxes for the rich).

Many analysts say the French tax was not politically deft, falling hardest on people outside French cities who were already feeling the pain of stagnating incomes and who do not have the same mass transportation options as urban residents.

From the Atlantic:

The fact is, the yellow-vest demonstrations have never been against Macron’s climate-change policies in general; they have been against the fuel tax in particular, which they see as unfairly targeting lower-income households.

“This is not the yellow vests against climate-change policies. It’s the yellow vests against the cost of living, the way politics are done, and how decision makers are doing policy,” says Pierre Cannet, the head of climate and energy at the French offices of the WWF, an environmental nonprofit organization.

In other words, in a context of social unrest and economic instability, the Macron government didn’t sell its policy well enough to its citizens.

Read more: ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Shake France. Here’s the Lesson for Climate Change. (New York Times)


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