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Shyam Saran: Climate change - An unequivocal report

The latest IPCC report leaves no room for doubt. India should take the lead in renewing international negotiations

Shyam Saran 

Shyam Saran

On September 27, 2013, the Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in Stockholm its "Approved Summary for Policy Makers", providing the latest assessment of the science underlying the phenomenon of climate change. This is the most significant document on climate change since the fourth IPCC report. The fourth report, which was released in 2007, generated the momentum for the ongoing multilateral negotiations on climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). While the full report of the fifth IPCC session is awaited, the present document is important because its agreed conclusions, scientifically determined, will influence the course of the negotiations on the Durban Platform - which, by the year 2015, "must develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties".

The "Approved Summary" states categorically, without the usual qualifications scientists are so fond of, that the "warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased".

No ambiguity here.

The report is also categorical in ascribing this warming trend to anthropogenic, or man-made, factors - in particular, the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago, land use changes due to an increase in population, extension of agricultural acreage and habitat, thereby shrinking the natural forest sinks that absorb carbon dioxide. The world's oceans are becoming steadily saturated by the carbon that they absorb, warming in the process, though more slowly. Sea levels could rise by a metre above current levels by the end of this century. Were Greenland ice cover to melt entirely, sea levels could rise by as much as seven metres. These changes are impacting weather patterns throughout the world. Of particular interest to India is the observation:"While monsoon winds are likely to weaken, monsoon precipitation is likely to intensify due to the increase in atmospheric moisture. Monsoon onset dates are likely to become earlier or not to change much. Monsoon retreat dates are likely to be delayed, resulting in lengthening of the monsoon season in many regions."

Is this what is happening in Delhi right now with unusually late monsoon rains?

There is another observation of relevance to India: "It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales as global mean temperatures increase. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and duration."

This confirms what we have been experiencing anecdotally in most recent years.

The most important part of the report concerns the density of carbon and non-carbon greenhouse gases accumulated in the earth's atmosphere. In order to limit the global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with a more than 66 per cent probability, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere must stay within 800 gigatonnes of carbon equivalent (GtC). But by 2011, we had already used up approximately 530 GtC. Therefore, the balance available is only 270 GtC. On a business-as-usual basis, this balance will also be used up in the next 20 to 25 years.

It may be noted that even if, by some miracle, greenhouse gas emissions became zero, the climatic effects would continue for a considerable period, since these emissions stay in the atmosphere for long periods of time. As the summary says, "Depending upon the scenario, about 15 to 40 per cent of emitted CO2 will remain in the atmosphere longer than 1,000 years."

For the first time we have an authoritative document with a much-needed focus on the stock aspect of emissions rather than the current flow. What the summary is demonstrating scientifically is that climate change is integrally linked to the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions in the earth's atmosphere, to which current emissions are only an incremental addition. The stock is mainly the responsibility of advanced industrial countries, although developing countries such as India and China may be responsible for most incremental additions. Historical responsibility and equity demand that the former shoulder most of the burden of making the strategic shift required through transforming existing energy systems and support developing countries in taking similar action.

The summary has spelt out the climate emergency starkly and unambiguously for policy makers; but is there political will to collaborate in confronting what is indisputably an elemental threat to humanity? It has been clear for some time that unless there is a global and strategic shift from production and consumption processes based on fossil fuels, which are a hallmark of our industrial age, to those progressively based on renewable and clean sources of energy, there is little or no prospect of averting an ecological emergency of global proportions. Yet, in 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that the world's top 200 listed oil, gas and mining companies had spent $674 billion on finding and developing new sources of oil and gas. The same year even the modest investment in renewables had declined. In addition, the world spends nearly $1.9 trillion annually on energy subsidies, according to the International Monetary Fund. It is difficult to see how such entrenched energy systems and the powerful vested interests behind them can be transformed speedily to avoid a climate-induced disaster.

India has declared that the earth's atmospheric space is a global commons to which all citizens of the world have equal entitlement. The carbon space, as long as it exists, must also be shared equitably. In fact, a global and collaborative response to the climate challenge can only be built - and sustained - on the basis of equity. India should use the latest analysis to reinforce its constant emphasis on the principle of equity, which is sought to be set aside by the developed countries in the current negotiations. This should be our brief for the forthcoming UNFCCC meeting in Poland later this year.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, National Security Advisory Board and Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research (New Delhi)

First Published: Tue, October 15 2013. 21:50 IST