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20 March, 2019 10:37:59 AM

Climate action: A long way to go

Countries can voluntarily choose to report the grant equivalent value of these financial instruments. Such reporting will be crucial for understanding the scale of climate finance mobilised
Mohammed Abul Kalam, PhD
Climate action: A long way to go

Three years after the Paris Agreement was struck, we now finally know the rules – or most of them, at least – for its implementation.The Paris Rulebook, agreed at the UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, gives countries a common framework for reporting and reviewing progress towards their climate targets.
Yet the new rules fall short in one crucial area. While the world will now be able to see how much we are lagging behind on the necessary climate action, the rulebook offers little to compel countries to up their game to the level required.
New leaders have emerged over the past few years who have changed the highest levels of political and diplomatic discourse. After divisive elections, both the US and Brazil are among the countries to have succumbed to the “strongman”.The modern strongman is a leader who rules by force and bluster, and who shuns cooperation in favour of an isolationist and protectionist foreign policy. This attitude is usually reflected in a very dim view of climate action.
Why COP24 means there’s still hope:Yet despite Trump, Bolsonaro and a few other awkward parties, delegates at COP24 have reached agreement on most of the “rulebook” for implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change. It is important to remember that Paris had 197 signatories with 184 countries ratifying it. This agreement is about more than just a couple of nations.

Countries, it seems, are still working together. A significant reason for this is money – and, as the old adage goes: “money makes the world go round”. Many nations are still feeling the effects of the 2007-2009 financial crises, and money remains in short supply. Any chance to create jobs and new investment will be welcomed by governments across the world, and investing in clean energy is one solution. Political leaders everywhere, including strongmen, are still motivated by money.

For example, in many countries, public health has become a key climate change issue. If we look at China, where leader Xi Jinping shares some characteristics with classic strongmen yet his government has realized that fossil fuel use comes at a growing cost to public health, tourism and labour productivity. The Lancet estimates the welfare costs from pollution to be equivalent to 6.2% of global GDP – and these costs are rising. One way of negating the effects is to adopt a more climate change-friendly economic policy as China has been developing – for example, improving regulation, introducing environmental taxes and developing sustainable development zones.

Climate justice?One key issue to emerge from the Paris Agreement was the idea of a “just transition”, which seeks to ensure that moving from a society based around fossil fuels to a new low-carbon economy is done fairly and with adequate support for workers. The Paris Agreement refers to: taking into account the imperatives of a Just Transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.This issue of a just transition remained relatively dormant but has risen to prominence over the past year. It was highlighted in the communiqué produced from the recent G7 talks in June last year. And notably, at the start of COP24, in a country dominated by coal, the Polish prime minister even announced a declaration on support for workers in rapidly-changing industries.

There is no doubt that strongmen can distract from the global movement on climate change. But ultimately the movement has already gathered sufficient pace for continued cooperation by other countries, as evidenced by the numbers signed up to Paris.

It is unfortunate that certain leaders will slow progress on climate action, perhaps particularly in their own countries, but nevertheless investment data shows that more and more low-carbon energy projects are receiving financial support globally.

In following data trends, it is also clear that the cost to public health systems, the loss of worker productivity and the loss of tourism all from pollution is becoming more costly to societies than to reorient themselves to a low-carbon economy. In particular countries are acting on energy infrastructure issues and are developing strategies to deliver new low-carbon infrastructure.

Finally, there is recognition through the just transition movement that the labour force of our current fossil fuel-dominated economies needs to be transitioned to a labour force that builds a low-carbon economy – currently Scotland, Ireland, Germany and several states in the US and Australia are establishing commissions to deliver this policy.Money talks and, with finance now being geared towards low-carbon investments, it will supersede even the interests of media-savvy strongmen.

The national pledges adopted in Paris are still woefully inadequate to meet the 1.5℃ or 2℃ global warming goals of the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to the Katowice talks, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report detailing the urgent need to accelerate climate policy. Yet the summit ran into trouble in its efforts to formally welcome the report, with delegates eventually agreeing to welcome its “timely completion”.

Rather than directly asking for national climate targets to be increased, the Katowice text simply reiterates the existing request in the Paris Agreement for countries to communicate and update their contributions by 2020. Much now hinges on the UN General Assembly summit in September 2019, to bring the much-needed political momentum towards a new raft of pledges in 2020 that are actually in line with the scientific reality.

Ratcheting up ambition:A key element of the Paris Agreement is the Global Stocktake - a five-yearly assessment of whether countries are collectively on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global warming.

The new rulebook affirms that this process will consider “equity and best available science”. But it does not elaborate specifically on how these inputs will be used, and how the outcomes of the stocktake will increase ambition.

This raises concerns that the rulebook will ensure we know if we are falling behind on climate action, but will offer no prescription for fixing things. These risks failing to address one of the biggest issues with the Paris Agreement so far: Those countries are under no obligation to ensure their climate pledges are in line with the overall goals. A successful, ambitious and prescriptive five-yearly review process will be essential to get the world on track.

Transparency and accounting:One of the aims of the Katowice talks was to develop a common set of formats and schedules for countries to report their climate policy progress.

The new rules allow a degree of flexibility for the most vulnerable countries, who are not compelled to submit quantified climate pledges or regular transparency reports. All other countries will be bound to report on their climate action every two years, starting in 2024.

However, given the “bottom-up” nature of the Paris Agreement, countries are largely able to determine their own accounting rules, with guidelines agreed on what information they should provide. But a future international carbon trading market will obviously require a standardized set of rules. The newly agreed rulebook carries a substantial risk of double-counting where countries could potentially count overseas emissions reductions towards their own target, even if another country has also claimed this reduction for itself.

This issue became a major stumbling block in the negotiations, with Brazil and others refusing to agree to rules that would close this loophole, and so discussions will continue next year. In the meantime, the UN has no official agreement on how to implement international carbon trading.

Finance:The new rulebook defines what will constitute “climate finance”, and how it will be reported and reviewed. Developed countries are now obliged to report every two years on what climate finance they plan to provide, while other countries in a position to provide climate finance are encouraged to follow the same schedule.

But with a plethora of eligible financial instruments – concessional and non-concessional loans, guarantees, equity, and investments from public and private sources – the situation is very complex. In some cases, vulnerable countries could be left worse off, such as if loans have to be repaid with interest, or if financial risk instruments fail.

Countries can voluntarily choose to report the grant equivalent value of these financial instruments. Such reporting will be crucial for understanding the scale of climate finance mobilised.

The impossibility of knowing the social cost of carbon:Calculating this magical economic balancing point is the holy grail of climate economics, and sadly it also seems to be an impossible task, because the question is so complex as to be unanswerable.

Why so? Normally, we gain knowledge via three main methods. The first option is to design an experiment. If that’s impossible, we can look for a similar case to observe and compare. And if that too is impossible, we can design a model that might hopefully answer our questions.

Generally, the laws of physics fall into the first category. It’s pretty straightforward to design an experiment to demonstrate the heat-trapping properties of CO₂ in a lab, for instance.

But we can’t do a simple experiment to assess the global effects of CO₂ emissions, so instead climatologists have to fall back on the second or third options. They can compare today’s conditions with previous fluctuations in atmospheric CO₂ to gauge the likely effects.

They also design models to forecast future conditions on the basis of known physical principles.

By contrast, economists trying to put a dollar value on future climate damage face an impossible task. Like scientists, they cannot usefully test or make comparisons, but the economic effects of future climate change on an unprecedented 10 billion people are too fiendishly complex to model with confidence.

Unlike the immutable laws of physics, the laws of economics depend on markets, which in turn rely on trust.

This trust could break down in some catastrophic future drought or deluge. So economists’ various rival calculations for the social costs of carbon are all based on unavoidable guesswork about the value of damage from unprecedented future warming.

This view is understandably unpopular with most climate economists. Many new studies claim that recent statistical techniques are steadily improving our estimates of the value of climate damage, based mainly on the local economic effects of short-run temperature and other weather changes in recent decades.

But so far, the world has experienced only about 1℃ of global warming, with at most 0.3℃ from one year to the next. That gives us almost no way of knowing the damage from warming of 3℃ or so; it may turn out to be many times worse than projected from past damage, as various tipping points are breached.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR),

Dhaka, Bangladesh E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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