By Kumar David –
The speeches at the opening of the UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of Parties – COP26) had a resounding impact. The star was the great broadcaster and nature documentary maker David Attenborough, but there were other memorable one liners: The title of this column is from Boris Johnson, UN Secretary General António Guterres quipped “As we dig deeper for coal and metals we are digging our graves”, and Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottle warned “We may survive 1.5o C but 2o is a death sentence”. Barbados, Seychelles, the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and scores islands of the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos will disappear under rising seas. Coastal regions the world over will be devastated, no part of Lanka’s coast will be spared. In Bangladesh a country of 165 million, 20 million will be displaced and the country will be devastated by a rising seas and hurricanes. The countenance of great coastal metropolitan cities the world over will be disfigured, but worst is that drought and feminine will scourge the African Continent and water-riots will become common. This is what climate scientists warn in one rising crescendo.
Science says that it is already too late to limit temperature rise to 1.5o above pre Industrial Revolution levels and, horror of horrors, predicts that 2.7o by 2100 is more likely. This will be catastrophic and as Attenborough’s computer simulated slide reproduced via the BBC suggests, it is all man made; the effect of natural factors alone is negligible. The struggle now is to turn the rising threat back within a few fractions of a degree as it overshoots the 1.5 limit. It is possible to accurately estimate the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere for about the last 5000 years and it remained consistently below 280 parts per million (ppm) up till 1900. Since then it has risen to 414 ppm, exactly mapping Attenborough’s temperature rise graph.
A huge disappointment was that China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin copped out of COP26. The former obviously because he is too embarrassed to face the public and world leaders at an event like this, but Putin I don’t know why. China is by a long chalk the world’s worst polluter – not per capita but total. Its carbon emission is twice that of the US; 27% of global CO2 emissions are from China. But don’t forget that it is also by far the largest producer of green energy (wind, solar and hydro) in the world. China’s promise to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, a decade after the Paris Accord target of 2050 is therefore disappointing. Modi is an even bigger slouch, he says India will reach carbon neutrality only in 2070. Even though Russia is the world’s largest gas producer (the buyers do the damage) its own contribution to carbon dioxide emissions is only 17% of China’s and 32% of US emissions, so it’s a bit strange that Putin decided to miss the glamour and the show.
It is correct that the rich nations account for most of the world’s polluting emissions. The G20 countries (which include China) are guilty of over 75% of global pollutant emissions. Sub-Saharan Africa (population 1.14 billion, 14% of the world’s 7.9 billion) produces only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Nigeria which will have a population of 200 million by 2100 is also the continent’s largest oil producer but most of it is burnt in more prosperous countries. Sri Lanka’s share of global emissions is 0.05% while its population is 0.27% of the world’s total. The breakdown of emissions in Lanka is 47% transport, 29% power generation, and about 8% each in industry, buildings and farting cows – I am unable to estimate emissions from kerosene and firewood in urban and rural home-cooking. The switch out of fossil fuel for electricity generation and transport in the developing world will have to be managed carefully if the living standards of the poor are to be protected in this century. The rich world must live up to its promise $100 billion made in Paris ten years ago to help poorer nations tide over difficult choices, but so far only half has been delivered. This has undermined the rich world’s credibility. There is also been some muttering in the technical sessions about paying compensation for the massive amounts of pollution historically deposited in the atmosphere by the rich nations over many years the cost of which others now need to bear.
It is said that COP26 should mark the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. This is not the responsibility of people’s and governments alone, it is also the responsibility of capitalist businesses which sit atop mountains of finance. The location of COP26, Glasgow is the city of Adam Smith who expected much from the “invisible hand of the market”. Well actually by far the biggest contributor the climate apocalypse has been business and in the front row of the accused sit the fossil fuel (oil and coal) companies. The invisible hand is driven by profit; business has fought tooth and nail by fair means and foul, by lies and bribery to spew CO2 into the atmosphere. Oil and coal producers and political allies in Senates and Cabinets have done more harm than the tobacco industry did in its day when the latter condemned millions to their death with fake “research” and billion dollar lobbies.
Political leaders at COP26 and the UN Secretary General expressed the hope that bug business, multilateral agencies and big banks will at least now make substantial contributions to combating climate change. The record is dismal. It was as early as 1988 that a young NASA scientist James Hanson in a ground breaking presentation told the US Senate that he was ninety-nine percent certain the earth was warming due to the greenhouse effect of human activity. President Bush Sr. ridiculed him and spoke of the power of the “White House effect” to undo anything. Big business launched a cynical two decade campaign of conspiracy to undermine science via institutions that it organised – the CATO Institute, IFCAT etc.
Forests are major regulators because they absorb CO2, instead they are being burnt to cinders. Canada, Brazil and Russia cover 80% of the world’s forests. One-third of all CO2 emissions now come from the burning of trees. The Amazon rainforest is at the mercy of callous chain-saw wielding Bolsenaro financial patrons, organised in a multimillion dollar illegal logging mafia, which lines his pockets and bankrolls his elections. Nevertheless 100 leaders at COP26 signed up to an agreement to end all deforestation by 2050 and the signatories included Brazil, Indonesia, Russia and Canada. The signatures of the first were greeted with hoots of laughter by climate activists who recall previous greenwashes. Greenwash is woke neologism in the mould of whitewash.
About 10% of all species are likely to go extinct in the next few decades even if the 1.5o target is achieved. One shivers to imagine what would happen if global temperatures rise by 2.70 as distressed climate scientists foresee. Over 1000 bats died in Australia last year from heat exhaustion; I guess their souls await Morrison’s arrival in hell. Unhappy ecosystems will unbalance the entire lifecycle including that of the human species (serves them right I can hear you mutter). Most scientists are now sceptics; they believe that humanity has reached a tipping-point. A tipping-point when passed creates irrevocable, irreversible and catastrophic change. I am not a climatologist but that’s what most climate scientists say.
In addition to the agreement on deforestation over 90 countries signed up to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane is tens of times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas though it stays for a shorter period of time in the atmosphere. As expected China, Russia and India did not sign; I guess they did not wish to be seen such glaring examples of greenwash. Dozens of countries signed up to a pledge to ease out coal within a decade but the biggest coal-culprits China, India and the US did not join the pledge. Making false promises does more harm than opting out honestly; the fib that “70% renewable-electricity, zero chemical-fertilizer” deceivers in Sri Lanka prefer. The big powers and big business will practice greenwashing by continuing to pollute like crazy and planting a bunch of trees here and there. The mood of cynical activists and scientists after the three day opening was ‘lots of filibuster and hot air but little translated into concrete action targets’. Well the rest of the world must hope that it’s not so bad.