Climate change—or the threat of global temperatures rising to levels at which it will be hard to sustain life on earth—is arguably the greatest challenge facing humankind. That temperatures and sea levels are rising cannot be disputed. They have been rising since records began in 1861. And the overwhelming majority opinion in science is that although climate change is caused by many factors, the most important of these is human activity—polluting industries of the kind that have supported modern-day living since the industrial revolution.
Majority opinion in politics is that the political response to this challenge must be supreme but also graded. Those who caused it, the rich industrial world, must take prime responsibility and do more. The rest—the poorest countries as well as polluting middle-income industrial nations such as India—will do less because we did not cause climate change. We are contributing to the problem but our equal responsibility also lies in the uplift of our populations—and therein lies the fundamental difference between the rich and the poor and the middling world.
Enter Donald Trump and the bizarre attempt at striking equivalence—to portray the US as a nation facing challenges similar to those confronting the developing world. He must save America not only from joblessness caused, we are told, by Indian software engineers and Chinese factory workers but also its coal industry from international commitments.
Every international meeting on climate change is being held under the looming threat of the Trump administration pulling the US out of the UN climate agreement hammered out in Paris in 2015. Negotiators have been meeting in Bonn and Berlin, Germany, to agree the rules by which the Paris agreement will be implemented. This weekend will see the Group of Seven (G7) leaders gather in Italy amid expectations that Trump will make his position clear there.
Both the formal UN meeting in Bonn and the informal so-called Petersburg Climate Dialogue in Berlin have the common goal of helping nations deliver on the historic Paris deal, which owes much to China and India. These two nations were once again the subject of praise in the run-up to the two meetings in a study conducted by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis produced by three international research organizations—Climate Analytics, EcoFys and the NewClimate Institute.
According to this report, positive developments on coal use in China and India are likely to reduce projected global carbon emissions growth by roughly two-to-three billion tonnes by 2030, compared with forecasts made a year ago.
Trump’s sweeping policy roll-backs of regulations imposed by Barack Obama—including the White House predecessor’s clean power plan, vehicle emission standards, clean water regulation and curbs on emissions from power plants—are unlikely to have a major impact on global emissions by 2030, according to the CAT analysis.
“The highly adverse roll-backs of US climate policies by the Trump administration, if fully implemented and not compensated by other actors, are projected to flatten US emissions instead of continuing on a downward trend," said professor Niklas Höhne, founding partner of NewClimate Institute.
Both China and India are set to overachieve their Paris Agreement climate pledges—China’s coal consumption has declined over three consecutive years (2013 to 2016), and a continued slow decline is expected. India has stated that its planned coal-fired power plants may not be needed. “If the country fully implements recently announced policies, India would see a significant slowing in the growth of CO2 emissions over the next decade."
The news is good from India and China. Yet, the rich industrialized world is yet to deliver on the $100 billion it promised way back in 2009 to help developing countries in their efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of global warming.
India’s former environment and climate change minister Prakash Javadekar said just over a year ago, before a UN meeting, “Mobilizing $100 billion is still only under discussions. There is no concrete action plan laid out. We will ask that as in Paris you (developed countries) have agreed to mobilize $100 billion to the developing world, the road map must be now clear.
“We have levied $6 (Rs400) on coal production which is the highest in the world. We are taking mitigation action. If they follow India and levy a tax of $5-6 a tonne on coal production, $100 billion can easily be mobilized. Today, only $10 billion is available on the table. Even a country like America is promising only $3 billion," he told Reuters.
Where is that road map, a year-and-a-half from Paris as Trump turns his back on renewable energy? The world cannot afford the luxury of US vacillations on the landmark agreements on climate change—remember, it’s not Trump alone. Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol (the predecessor of Paris) but did not submit it to the Senate for ratification. His successor, George W. Bush, then ensured that Kyoto remained buried, blaming India and China.
Trump is wrong to think that he can save jobs by tearing up the climate agreement. There is protectionism of the rich world, which is wrong and immoral, and then there is plain delusion. Rather than sending Americans back to the coal mines, he should learn from Europe about how to build a green economy and skill a nation with green jobs.
And India and China should stop behaving like supplicants. These two nations are in the lead in the fightback. They cannot let their efforts—and the efforts of some of the poorest people on this planet—be thrown off course by the tantrums of the rich. “Flattening out" of US emissions is not good enough. They must come down, as India and China must insist.
The alternative is the abyss. For this is what the science says, according to Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London:
—During the past 80 years, the Earth has been hotter than at any other time in the last 1,000 years.
—Of the 14 hottest years ever recorded, 12 occurred during 2001-12.
—The decade 2000-09 is the hottest on record, followed by the 1990s and 1980s.
—The earth is now warmer than it has been for over 90% of its 4.6 billion year history, and by the end of the 21st century, the planet may see higher temperatures than at any time for the past 150,000 years.
“There is no sign of any slowdown," says McGuire.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1