Latest IPCC report reeks of northern agenda

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Report III suggests historical emissions are a thing of the past; it endorses carbon removal options, allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue its polluting operations

By Chandra Bhushan
Published: Friday 18 April 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Report III suggests historical emissions are a thing of the past; it endorses carbon removal options, allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue its polluting operations

Two weeks after the Working Group 2 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released, IPCC released the Working Group 3 (WG3) “Summary for Policymakers” on April 13. While the report from WG2 gave a dire sense of impacts such as extreme weather events the world was set to face from climate change, the latest one focuses on how climate emissions can be reduced and it assesses mitigation options in different economic sectors. 

Yet another warning...

Without additional mitigation, the report says that the world may be headed to a 3.7-4.8°C temperature increase by the end of the century, and that in spite of growing number of climate change mitigation policies worldwide, the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew on average 1 Gigatonne CO2eq (or 1.0 billion tonne of GHG) per year from 2000 to 2010.

...but biased politics
The report stresses that about half of cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred in the past 40 years. This overemphasizes emissions from developing countries. It is during the last 40 years (in fact 25 years) that developing countries like China, India and South East Asian countries have started to grow and feed their population.  On the other hand, the report conveniently forgets to emphasise, let alone acknowledge, that between 1750 and 1970, most of the emissions happened in the developed countries to meet the consumption needs of just 20 per cent of the global population. It also fails to mention that during 1750-2010, 6.5 out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 has been emitted by rich countries.

The inequality in emissions and contributions to causing climate change is even more glaring if we consider the per capita emissions of the developed and the developing countries. The cumulative of per capita CO2 emissions from 1750-2010 amount to about 1,120 tonnes for the UK and the US, compared with about 100 tonnes for China and 35 tonnes for India. The report fails to mention per capita emissions and the high contributions of developed countries even once¸ opting to be evasive instead: “Countries’ past and future contributions to the accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere are different,” it says. Even while it alludes to different “circumstances” and “challenges” of countries, it makes no differentiation between developed and developing countries, bearing an uncanny resemblance to an oft-repeated demand of northern countries.

Furthermore, the emissions from the developed countries have been very high, even in the past 25 years. Between 1980 and 2005, the total emissions of the US were almost double that of China and more than seven times that of India. During this period, with just 15 per cent of the world population, rich developed countries accounted for 50 per cent of CO2 emissions.

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Climate-friendly mitigation options?

According to the report, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed to about 78 per cent of the total GHG emissions increase from 1970-2010. On mitigation pathways, the report charts out, among other things, substantial cuts through changes in energy systems and land use as the way forward. The world will need a mix of energy efficiency, renewable energy, fossil energy with carbon capture and storage (CCS) or bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) by 2050 as mitigation actions, it says. However, the emphasis on CCS and BECCS as part of what the IPCC calls “low-carbon energy” options is hard to miss.

Meanwhile, the report itself points to the limited experience and understanding that the world has when it comes to large-scale deployment of CO2 removal technologies. There are several reasons why this misplaced emphasis on an uncertain technology can cost us dearly in the long run. First, promoting CCS and BECCS alongside clean renewable energy as “low-carbon energy options” provides them with a green façade, a free ticket to the fossil fuel industry to continue to extract and pollute. CCS is very expensive and giving it serious consideration takes precious investments away from clean renewable energy, away from a real transition to low-carbon economies.

Yet another energy option that could arguably distract from clean energy investments is natural gas which includes shale gas, an option which is environmentally costly. Shale gas is now being promoted by the US in a big way to replace coal. Although the report does not explicitly mention shale gas, it, however, says “natural gas power generation without CCS acts as a bridge technology”.  Furthermore, it suggests that emissions can be reduced by replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas options in the immediate future, thus, giving the green signal for natural gas, and by extension, shale gas.

Blow to equity

The report identifies sustainable development and equity as concepts that should form the basis for mitigation policies. It also identifies climate change as a collective action problem because most greenhouse gases (GHGs) accumulate over time and mix globally, and emissions by any agent (for example, individual, community, company, country) affect other agents. Having said that, it fails to highlight the importance of historical emissions, especially in the context of impacts the world is facing today, directly as a consequence of historical emissions. Instead, it contrives to wash down its significance by placing equal emphasis on past as well as future emissions of countries.

The paragraph that follows the one on “equity, justice and fairness” is further evidence of an attempt to cushion the political contentions that underlie apportioning climate actions to different countries in an equitable manner, which refers to the need for “value judgments” in some areas of climate policy making.

These politically-laced statements do not bode well for building trust between developed and developing countries in order to clinch an effective and “equitable” global deal in 2015. It sounds a different kind of alarm—one that is placing northern concerns ahead of those of the global south.

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