The exhaustion of the carbon budget
Seven countries and the EU have already used up 74% of the carbon budget available to keep temperatures below the 1.5 degree threshold. India is a victim but will have to be proactive
In the past three decades, the science of the climate crisis has progressed, but its politics has regressed. In 1992, in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, when the world met to initiate action on the climate crisis, the science behind the accuracy of how fossil fuels were warming the planet and its implications was still uncertain. But enough was known to sound a warning bell on this impending catastrophe. This is why the framework convention on climate change was agreed upon.
At the time, it was accepted that the world needed to come together as these emissions crossed national boundaries. It was accepted that countries had different responsibilities to the contribution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and, so, they needed to act together, but differently. Rich countries needed to drastically cut emissions and make space for the poorer, emerging countries to grow. But so that these countries could grow differently — with lower emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2 — the richer countries would provide funds and technology. The politics of climate justice would enable cooperation.
But since then, we have gone downhill. Now, the Climate Change 2021 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) bluntly says that the world has run out of time and excuses not to act. It is code red for the planet, these normally circumspect scientists have declared. They are now certain that it is human influence that has warmed the earth. That this warmer world is already beginning to see the impact — from extreme cold to extreme heat of extreme rainfall events. And that each of these events will trigger devastation such as the droughts, floods or fires that we are witnessing today. This is no longer about the future. It is the present, and it will only get worse.
This then is their next big certainty — the pace is accelerating and this will mean that we could see an increase of 1.5°C in global temperature measured since 1870 by 2040 or sooner. This is widely considered as a guardrail of what is relatively safe. But consider the fact that at an average increase of 1.09°C, we are seeing such horrific devastation.
For most of us, who have keenly observed the language of climate scientists, the 2021 IPCC report is remarkably different. Instead of being punctuated with the usual suffices of uncertainty, it now says, more often than ever, that it is “virtually certain” and can speak with a “high order of confidence” of the human-induced climate crisis impact. It can even attribute this to specific weather events. It indeed is the age of the Anthropocene and we will not go down well in history.
This is where politics kicks in. The IPCC report says there is a “near-linear” relationship between cumulative CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause. It says each 1,000 gigatonne CO2 (GtCO2) is likely to cause a 0.45°C increase in global surface temperature. The real twist comes in the next finding, which says that for a 67% chance to stay below 1.5°C, the remaining carbon budget — from January 2020 — is 400 GtCO2 and that at current rates of emissions, this will be exhausted in the next 10 years.
Think of the carbon budget like the cake that has already been eaten, and now there are crumbs available for the rest to munch on. This is the real inconvenient truth of the climate crisis. The fact is the carbon budget has been disproportionately appropriated in the past — the politics of action and inaction lies in this inequity. Between 1870 and 1989, the United States, the European Union (EU)-27, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Australia emitted 75%. In the next two decades, China, which was just 5% in the preceding period, jumped to contribute 13% of the carbon budget. In this way, the original seven and China have appropriated 74% of the budget from 1870 to 2019. And by 2030, they will take up 60% of what remains to keep the world below 1.5°C. So, it’s apartheid, the climate way.
The question is: What do we do in India? We are victims of the impact of the climate crisis. We know this and the IPCC reconfirms that we will see the worst of the devastation in this increasingly warming world. We are the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (fourth if we take EU-27 as a group) but the scale of our past, current and future emissions is not comparable to the original 7+1 — not in terms of the total amount or in terms of per capita. But now the world has run out of carbon space.
We can keep insisting that we are the victims, but it will not be to much avail. We need a strategy to ramp up our actions to combat the climate crisis — because we have the advantage of doing things differently. Also, we have the reason to do this for our own benefit — clean air and clean energy. We must be strident on the need for global action; stress on the inequity of inaction; and show leadership in not just walking, but running the talk. It is a tall order given the fact that emissions of CO2 are still directly linked to economic growth. But it is the order of the times we live in.
Sunita Narain is director-general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal