POINT OF VIEW: JAIRAM RAMESH ON PARIS ACCORD
Seven years ago, President George Bush junked the Kyoto Protocol, which set numerical targets for industrialised countries to cut emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Now President Donald Trump has abandoned the Paris Accord on climate change, under which all countries pledged voluntary actions to reduce their contributions to global warming. He was being pulled in three different directions—to not abandon the accord; to ‘repledge’ America’s commitments at a lower level; to jettison the agreement. Of course, it would have been best had he taken the first route. But if he wanted America to leave, better the third option than the second. The idea that the Paris agreement gives a country room to downscale its ambition is bizarre and ostensibly flows from the fact that there is no text in the accord explicitly prohibiting it. But if the US had taken this road, the Paris treaty would have been destroyed. At least now it survives, though seriously wounded.
The Kyoto architecture was ‘top down’ while the Paris accord was ‘bottom up’ in the sense that it allows each country to define its own objectives and pathway. Both approaches have been rejected by the Americans. But there are some countervailing forces at work in the US itself. Many influential business figures have openly supported the Paris agreement. A number of American states and cities have announced they will go ahead with their plans for decarbonisation. Fortunately, President Trump has also not said anything about the US rejecting the global agreement reached last year in Rwanda to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons whose global warming potential is more potent than that of carbon dioxide.
But there is no doubt that with President Trump’s decision, the political, intellectual and moral leadership will no longer be that of the US. It is a colossal misfortune that the country that has been historically the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is currently the world’s second largest emitter will no longer be subject to any ‘rules of the game’, however loose and legally non-binding they may be. The world’s largest emitter China may well step into the breach based on its aggressive domestic actions to curb pollution and emissions. It is a great opportunity for India as well, provided we get rid of the mindset that our actions should be predicated on global finance and easy access to technology. India also cannot give sermons globally while being ecologically insensitive at home.
India has multiple vulnerabilities to climate change—influence on the monsoon, increase in frequency of extreme weather-related events, the rise in mean sea levels along a 7,000 km coastline, the retreat of most Himalayan glaciers, the impact of deforestation for which compensatory afforestation is really no solution, etc. What we do has to be dictated primarily by domestic imperatives and concerns. By 2030, we may well be the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (especially if US action stalls even in a post-Trump era) though in per capita terms, thanks to our ever-growing population, we would still be at a far lower level compared to the US, China and the European Union. But that is small consolation.
India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change was first unveiled in June 2008. It has since been updated and taken forward. Rapidly falling costs of solar power are leading to impressive additions to capacity. But we must chase not just ‘gigawatts’ as we are doing now but also look at the enormous potential for ‘kilowatts’ that can bring about a social transformation through decentralised generation and distribution. Protection and regeneration of natural forests will be essential. We must also start thinking seriously of a possible plateauing of coal consumption sometime into the next decade even as ‘cleaner’ coal technologies are deployed in power generation. Nuclear expansion with indigenous heavy water reactors is now inevitable. Environmental regulations and laws must be enforced ruthlessly. And while President Obama kept us engaged for seven years, we must now reciprocate and engage the US at various levels because without its participation, global goals to control global warming cannot be achieved.