Raise your domestic ambition, Mr. Biden. Walk the Talk: CSE asks as the US president’s global climate summit begins

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President Joseph R. Biden and Prime Minister Modi
President Joseph R. Biden and Prime Minister Modi
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Raise your domestic ambition, Mr Biden. Walk the Talk: CSE asks as the US president’s global climate summit begins

CSE director general Dr. Sunita Narain rejects the net zero idea. Says Biden’s world leaders’ summit on climate change is a welcome move, but it must not lose itself by meaningless discussions on net zero targets – which is nothing but a “grand distraction”

“As the world gears up for the global leaders’ summit meeting on climate change, called for by US president Joe Biden, there is good news and bad news on the climate front. The good news is that climate change is back on the agenda. The bad news is that we are back to discussing all the wrong things; we are in danger of once again losing the opportunity to drive home the need for ambition and equity in climate change action,” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), at an online webinar and media briefing organised here.

CSE
CSE

‘What’s New in Climate Change’, the online event, was organised by CSE to demystify all the current, relevant and key concerns and issues of climate change, as well as to understand what would be on the table for discussions during Biden’s summit.

CSE released its latest publication – Climate Change: Science and Politics – on this occasion. The book is a comprehensive and state-of-art retelling of the Earth’s climate story as it stands till now – from the basic science, emissions, impacts, politics and negotiations to net zero, equity, sinks and carbon budgets .

Said Dr.Narain: “There is no question that climate change is real. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating, climate change and its impacts could not have happened at a worse time. Human actions and mismanagement is compounding the problem – floods and the recent dam-burst in the Himalaya was the result of mismanagement of fragile ecology, exacerbated by climate change. In all this, our poor are the most vulnerable and the most severely hit.” 

“Mr Biden’s global summit is a welcome step, no doubt. But will it yield any meaningful results, or will it simply degenerate into another meaningless discussion on net zero?” Narain asked.

CSE on net zero – nothing but a “grand distraction”

CSE has interpreted net zero as nothing but “zero zero”. Says Narain: “It is nothing but a grand distraction, a so-called badge of honor – an example of science misinterpreted by the biggest polluters.”

CSE’s interpretation bases itself on the argument that net zero is merely aspirational. Almost all the countries that have made declarations, have no plans on how they will achieve net zero status by 2050. 

Moreover, as an idea, it is intrinsically “flawed”, claims CSE. Says Samrat Sengupta, programme director of CSE’s climate change unit: “Net zero will allow countries to emit, with the presumption that the emissions will get mopped up, either by planting more trees in the hope that they will sequester the carbon that is emitted, or by using carbon capture and storage technologies. The problem is, none of this is proven yet. These technologies are not yet in existence, and the science of carbon sequestration by trees is still uncertain and unproven.”

Net zero is also a highly inequitable notion, says CSE. It argues that since emissions differ hugely between nations of the developed and developing worlds, the net zero targets for them should have been different. Says Narain: “It would be logical then to say that if the world needs to be net zero by 2050, the developed countries needed to have already turned net zero or do so by 2030. No later. Only then would it provide the space for countries like India — way below in the historical emissions and current emissions rankings — to declare a net zero goal by 2050.”

What CSE asks from our leaders, Mr Biden and Mr Modi

CSE points out that real action is possible — the US can walk the talk today if it wants. While its GHG emissions had dipped during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, they are on the upswing once again. Says Sengupta: “As per 2019 estimates, the US will not be able to meet its Paris commitments (a 25-26 per cent cut in emissions below the 2005 level by 2025).”

Dr.Narain, therefore, puts forth a set of ‘asks’ to Biden:

  • Walk the talk: She says, “Our first ‘ask’ to the US president is, walk that talk – raise domestic ambition. Set a domestic target for 2030 which is ambitious and equitable, proportional to the US’s contribution to the stock of emissions in the atmosphere. Post-lockdown, emit less.” According to Climate Action Tracker estimates, to be ambitious and fair, the US needs a humungous 57-63 per cent cut below the 2005 level by 2030.
  • Do not deny historical responsibility: CSE researchers say that the US must accept that countries need their right to development. “Climate justice is a pre-requisite for ambition and action,” says Narain.

Similarly, to Modi, Narain and CSE address another set of ‘asks’:

  • Call for real action by 2030 from the big and historical polluters, including China.
  • Base actions on climate justice: Ask for actions that will set the reduction targets – including net zero – to be based on climate justice.
  • Take action in India: The country needs to cut its GHG emissions for its own benefit. “We must be climate-smart and do development differently,” says Narain.

At the online event, CSE also presented a list of “must-do” and “must not do” actions for the Indian government. They included:

  • Must do: Make every effort to meet the 450 GW renewable energy target by 2030. Easier said than done, as the country may not meet even the 175 GW by 2022 target.
  • Must do: Use forests sustainably not for carbon sequestration, but to build people’s livelihoods.
  • Must not do: Do not derail the implementation of the coal thermal power emission standards. Do not stall the move towards cleaner coal – like a recent environment ministry notification is aiming to do by making it cheaper to not comply with clean-up regulations.

Says Dr.Narain: “It is a make or break time for our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic holds a lesson for us – in our interdependent and interconnected world, we are as strong as our strongest link, or as weak as the weakest. If the virus lives on in any part of the world, the contagion will spread, and no one will remain unaffected. Hence, there is a need to provide for all. This is true of climate change as well.”

Pratyusha Mukherjee
Pratyusha Mukherjee

Reported by Ms. Pratyusha Mukherjee, a Senior Journalist working for BBC and other media outlets, also a special contributor to IBG News. In her illustrated career she has covered many major events and achieved International Media Award for reporting. 

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