POST TIME: 14 October, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Highly touted UN climate summit ends with modest commitments
Climate change is a complex and truly global challenge. The economic, social, political and moral implications don’t stop at any border
Mohammed Abul Kalam, Ph.D.

Highly touted UN climate summit ends with modest commitments

The longawaited United Nations Climate Summit produced no dramatic surprises, but a long list of modest commitments offered a glimmer of a way forward. Government leaders, CEOs, and heads of major philanthropies announced a string of new initiatives to clean up the air, restore oceans, advance more sustainable food systems, phase out coal, plant forests, protect small island states, and better align trade rules with climate goals.

Leaders of the planet’s two most polluting nations, China and the United States, were absent from the summit stage – although US President Donald Trump, who has said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, made a brief, unannounced appearance in the audience during the morning’s remarks by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before heading to a meeting on religious freedom. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a representative who recited an impressive litany of Chinese innovations in areas such as renewable energy and e-transport but stepped gingerly around the debate over controversial new projects such as China’s massive Belt and Road project through Asia, which critics say could stimulate new sources of climate emissions.

A cluster of new initiatives by businesses, philanthropies, and governments, however, offered at least some new directions and fresh models for stepping up action on climate drivers that are undermining the fundamental requirements of life on earth – as well as damaging health more visibly than ever before.

Desperate Cry by Swedish Youth Activist Greta Thunberg sets the Tone: Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg had an angry message for world leaders at the United Nations climate summit in New York overnight.“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?”

The summit was touted as a chance for the world to finally get its climate action on the track. But by almost any standard, the event was a disappointment. It is almost five years since the landmark Paris deal was struck. Nearly 200 countries agreed to work towards limiting global warming to 1.5℃, beyond which the planet is expected to slide irreversibly towards devastating climate change impacts.

But few nations are on track to reaching this goal. Right now, we’re heading to a warming above 3ºC by 2100 - and this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a major climate summit in New York on September 23, where countries are expected to announce more ambitious climate targets than they set in Paris, and solid plans to achieve them.Ahead of the summit, let’s take stock of the world’s best and worst performers when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.

The surprising success stories:Ethiopia, Morocco, and India top the list of countries doing the most to tackle climate change. In total, eight international jurisdictions have made good progress since 2015, including the European Union, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, and Argentina (although they still have a lot of work ahead to meet the 1.5℃ goal).

While India still relies on coal, its renewable energy is making huge leaps forward, with investments in renewable energy topping fossil fuel investments. The country is expected to over-achieve its Paris Agreement target.

The EU is set to overachieve its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and is in the process of considering an increase in this to at least 50%. It has recently increased its renewable energy and energy efficiency goals and is sorting out its emissions trading scheme, with prices of emission units increasing.

This, together with past investments in renewable energy, has helped to achieve a 15% reduction in German electricity sector emissions in the first half of 2019. Whilst Germany has missed its2020 targets, it has begun a process to phase out coal no later than 2038 – still a number of years too late for a Paris-compatible pathway.

Quitting coal is key: An increasing number of countries are adopting net zero emissions targets, many of them in the European Union, and some outside. Some, like the UK, have dumped the coal and are well on the way to achieving those targets.

A global phase-out of coal for electricity is the single most important step toward achieving the 1.5℃ warming limit. At the latest, this should be achieved by 2050 globally, by 2030 in the OECD and 2040 in China and other Asian countries.

Don’t forget about trees: Nowhere is the alarming rate of global deforestation more obvious than in Brazil, now in the middle of a record fire season. It adds to the damage wrought by President Jair Bolsonaro who has weakened his country’s institutional framework preventing forest loss.

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on world leaders to take swift, dramatic climate action.“Nature is angry. And we fool ourselves if we think we can fool nature, because nature always strikes back and around the world, nature is striking back with a fury,” Guterres said.

As a medical sociologist, I would like to mention that everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible. And therefore propose several steps.

The first is caring about a problem. Second is taking care by assuming responsibility to act. Third is caregiving where intention becomes action? And fourth is care to receive where the career ensures that the other’s needs are actually met. If not, then the cycle of care begins again, by acknowledging that the original problem is not adequately solved, or that new problems have sprung up.

This last step is especially critical for the legitimacy and longevity of low-emission transitions. As a public issue, climate change is famously complicated – a super-wicked problem – that cuts across multiple systems and timescales. Careful policy-making is needed because unintended consequences are inevitable.

But intended consequences also produce pushbacks. The Gilets Jaunes protests in France are a spectacular example, where a rising carbon tax was the catalyst for a serious political crisis. This wasn’t a matter of negligence. On the contrary, the carbon tax worked precisely as it was supposed to, making fuel more onerous to pay for. The real misjudgment was the French government’s carelessness about how the price hike would be received, especially alongside wealth tax reforms that reinforced economic inequality.

In short, it isn’t enough to care about climate change. Caring too much for the ends of policy – which is what urgency tends to encourage – can lead to carelessness for the means.

Rather, care must be well balanced. It must place responsibility upon the right actors for the right reasons and with the right expectations. It must act competently to deliver the outcomes it promises. And it must be responsive to human needs, not only in the future but those of people living today.

A more careful way: Just transitions are the best-known example of careful climate policy-making. This approach recognizes that major disruptions are sometimes required, particularly in high-carbon sectors like the fossil fuel industry. Long-standing jobs will be lost or radically transformed. Long-term investments will be forfeited and infrastructure decommissioned. Where scientific reality cannot budge, human plans must give way instead.

Yet as inevitable as this disruption is, the manner in which it is rolled out is not. A transition can be done callously, with only a concern for emissions reductions. Or it can put justice, equity, and inclusivity at its heart, for both the ends and means.

Just transitions involve industrial strategies such as retraining, pension bridging, relocation assistance and other forms of social support, as well as investment strategies that create viable pathways to the low-emissions economy.

But this isn’t only needed for industrial workers. It is for urban dwellerswho must live through the restructuring of transport and energy systems, and renewal of built environments. It is for people in rural landscapes who must adapt to changing food systems and growing expectations for ecosystem restoration. It is for everyone who depends on the high-emissions status quo yet who lack the means for transitioning from this economy to the next, whorisk being stung without being moved by carbon taxes and regulations.

A matter of judgment: Care isn’t all we need. It can tip into timidity, preaching caution and delay when actually haste is required. After all, if protecting people from disruption becomes the prerequisite of change, then change may not happen at all. Care is one facet of good political judgments, but not the only one.Still, if the transition is rushed or negligent, if it favors ambition over solidarity, if it treats relationship building as an impediment to progress, if it cares too much for the ends of policy and not enough for the means, then it will create unnecessary resistance. From the perspective of the climate system, this too is a failure. It is emissions reductions, not merely good intentions that matter.

Guterres convened the summit to ensure countries are developing concrete, realistic pathways to enhance their pledges under the Paris climate treaty. He wanted world leaders to outline plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050, tackle subsidies for fossil fuels, implement taxes on carbon, and end new coal power beyond 2020.

Few predicted the summit would deliver the global change required. For the most part, world leaders lived up to these low expectations.Under President Donald Trump, the United States had already pulled out of the Paris agreement - and its emissions continue to rise. China arguably disincentivized to act without American participation, also failed to announce new targets and insisted developed nations should lead climate action efforts. India outlined new plans for reaching emissions targets but remains committed to coal projects well beyond 2020. And even the European Union, a traditional international leader on climate change ambition and action, did not announce a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.In a few bright spots, Slovakia confirmed that its subsidies to coal mines will end in 2023. Finland says it will be carbon-neutral, and Greece will reportedly close its brown coal plants by 2028.But the disappointing showing by the world’s largest emitters means the summit was effectively a failure.

Where to now?The World Meteorological Organization said the five years to 2019 will likely be the hottest on record. We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and urgent action is clearly required. Internationally, the challenge will be to create momentum in the face of US obstructionism and Chinese ambivalence. Guterres indicated he will continue to host these summits and will expect nations to pledge more specific and ambitious targets. Global protest action and mounting scientific reports of accelerating climate change may ramp up pressure for international action.

Teen activist Greta Thunberg makes an emotional plea to world leaders to act on climate change. High hopes but low expectations for the summit. Days out from the summit, millions of protesters marched at global climate strikes to call for strong climate action. The summit was supposed to get global climate action back on track. But despite a few bright spots, the urgent action needed to avoid a climate catastrophe looks a long way off.

In conclusion, I would like to say that climate change is a complex and truly global challenge. The economic, social, political and moral implications don’t stop at any border. Our response must be coordinated at all levels—from international laws and policies to agreements between countries, to action at the city level, to individual behavioral change. What happens next is up to us, and the time to start is now.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), Dhaka, Bangladesh