27 Nov 2019 20:03 IST

What the COP25 in Madrid will be all about

Some 194 countries will meet at the climate conference; will it make a difference? Maybe not

Between December 2 and 13, some 194 countries of the world will meet in the Spanish capital of Madrid for the climate conference called “COP25”. The abbreviation ‘COP’ expands as ‘Conference of Parties’ and here the word ‘parties’ refers to the countries that were part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These ‘parties’ generally meet every year and next week’s meeting will be the Silver Jubilee conference.

The Paris Agreement that was signed by all countries (and since ratified by the required number of countries) was hammered out at the 21st COP, in 2015. In that agreement, all countries agreed upon a common target of “2 degrees Celsius” — they resolved not to allow the world to warm more than two degrees over the average temperatures that existed in the pre-industrialisation period of the mid 19th century.

To limit global warming to not more than two degrees, all countries brought in their own action plans — NDCs (nationally determined contributions) — and pledged to walk the talk. They also agreed that the developed countries should mobilise funds for the developing countries to undertake climate-action projects — but neither any quantum of funds nor their nature was specified. In general, it was agreed that the developed countries would provide technology and that all countries would sit for a review of the status once in five years — called ‘global stock-take’ — and would “raise ambition”.

The meetings that followed — COP 22 (Marrakesh, Morocco), COP23 (Bonn, Germany), and COP24 (Katowice, Poland) — involved discussions about framing rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. In Madrid, the effort will be to get the ‘Paris rulebook’ all done and dusted so that all rules are in place for the agreement to kick in.

Alarming situation

Just last week, another body of the United Nations — the UNEP — brought out its annual ‘Emissions Gap Report’. It has been doing so for the last ten years. ‘Emissions gap’ refers to the difference between ‘where we are likely to be and where we need to be’ — by any target year, which in the present case is 2030.

The tenth EGR, like all its predecessors, has a pretty grim message: there is no let up in the emissions of greenhouse gases. (As you know, these gases, mainly carbon dioxide, rise up to the edge of the atmosphere and form a shield, trapping the sun's heat in the earth's upper atmosphere, and preventing it from radiating out into space.) There is a crying need to bring down GHG emissions, or at least stop them from growing. But this is not happening.

If all countries do exactly what they promised under the Paris Agreement, the trajectory of emissions will end up 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) higher than what it ought to be, by 2030. This is, if the target for limiting warming is two degrees Celsius. If it is 1.5 degrees, than emissions will be 32 GtCO2e higher than what is acceptable.

What all this means is that the world has to work much, much harder in the coming years to avoid being buffeted by climate change consequences.

The consequences are dire. Global warming is impacting the world in multiple ways. Warm air is moving unpredictably and causing changes in climate systems, such as rainfall patterns. So, there are more droughts and floods. The ‘cryosphere’ — frozen lands and seas and ice-caps on mountains — is melting. This is causing floods and humanity is losing the ‘overhead tank’ effect of glaciers. As a result there are more floods and droughts. The oceans are sucking up heat, and hence expanding. Rising oceans are threatening to swallow many inhabited islands. The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide and becoming acidic; this is killing many micro and macro species and messing with food chains.

Bleak backdrop

Are we likely to be working harder to avoid all this? Not by a mile.

Just look at the world. The United States is quitting the Paris Agreement. While this does not mean that it will do nothing in terms of climate action, it’s clear that President Trump is pro-coal. So is Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Australia is a resource-intensive economy; it depends heavily on mining coal and other minerals. It is not too keen on keeping its coal under the ground.

China, at best, mouths platitudes. But it is also building coal power plants, both on its soil and in other countries. From January 2018 to June 2019, countries outside of China brought down their total coal power capacity by 8.1 GW; China increased its by 43 MW.

It is against this bleak backdrop that COP25 gets under way on December 2. Nothing much can be expected to come out of the meeting. However, these COP meetings help in a different way — they shine a light on climate change. The publicity they kick up galvanises some into action. If the Madrid COP energises a climate action, it will be a source of some satisfaction.

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