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Home / Opinion / Columns /  COP26 offers a chance to revise zero-emission targets

The United Kingdom will be hosting the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in early November, 2021.

This annual meeting of the UNFCC skips a year because of the pandemic and is the most important meeting since the Paris Agreement, which was the outcome of COP21 in 2015. The Paris Agreement codified a pledge among member states to limit global warming to between 1.5° and 2° Celcius above pre-industrial temperatures. This goal is to be achieved through nationally determined contributions (NDCs). COP26 is important because it will feature the first quinquennial ‘global stock take’. It will also feature opportunities for countries to strengthen commitments to new NDC plans and ‘ratchet’ their contributions, since it is likely that there will be a global shortfall.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the organization that provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts, future risks and options for adaptation and mitigation. Like the UNFCC, the IPCC has nearly 200 countries as members, representing almost all of mankind. The IPCC has been at the vanguard of the evolution of climate science over the last three decades. While it does not conduct its own scientific research, it assesses and synthesizes scientific output from around the world.

The IPCC is divided into three working groups and a task force. Working Group 1 deals with the physical-science basis of climate change, Working Group II with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and Working Group III with mitigation. The main objective of the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories is to develop and refine a methodology for the calculation and reporting of national greenhouse gas emissions and removals. In a landmark report released in 2018, the IPCC evaluated the potential impact of a 1.5°C temperature rise compared to 2°C. The Special Report concludes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is projected to reduce increases in ocean temperatures, associated increases in ocean acidity and decreases in ocean oxygen levels; it also reduces risks to marine biodiversity, fisheries and ecosystems. However, climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C, and increase further with 2°C. Limiting the rise to 1.5°C could prevent small islands from sinking into the ocean, help millions of poor people avert the adverse impacts of extreme weather, and reduce the chances of an ice-free Arctic summer.

Working in tandem, the UNFCC and the IPCC have moved the ball along on mitigating the impacts of global warming. COP26 is important also because the US returns to the table after a gap of several years. Under President Joe Biden, the US rejoined the legally-binding Paris Agreement this February. President Biden has climate change at the top of his agenda and the US will likely play a large role in COP26. Washington had announced earlier that it planned to cut emissions at the end of this decade by 50% from 2005 levels. Under its special climate envoy John Kerry, it is likely to set a more ambitious target at COP26. The UK government recently said it wanted to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, advancing its target by 15 years. Reaching these ambitious goals in developed countries will require greater electricity generation from renewable sources, wider adoption of electric cars, and the use of low-carbon heating. It will also require citizens to reduce meat and dairy consumption. China recently announced a pledge to attain net zero emissions by 2060, following a peak in emissions before 2030. China’s announcement was followed soon after by 2050 carbon neutrality goals declared by South Korea and Japan.

The covid pandemic has distorted the planet’s progress towards the mitigation of carbon emissions. While wide-spread lockdowns dramatically reduced emissions, economic policy responses around the world have not been uniformly green. The unequal impact of the pandemic on poor countries and the indigent within each country is likely to exacerbate any future impact of extreme weather events and climate change. COP26 will have to devote a significant amount of time to assessing the impact of pandemic responses and taking these into account for future climate action. One major consequence of the pandemic is that health and environmental policy will have to go hand in hand. Bio-diversity, zoonotic disease and climate change are inter-related topics and will need a sharp inter-disciplinary focus.

As the third largest emitter of carbon and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India will have to do its part and step up its NDC ambitions. India has taken strong steps, including the setting of an ambitious goal renewable electricity generation goal. Indian corporates, however, have been late to the party and very few have specific net-zero goals right now. India’s NDC ambitions include a reduction of 33-35% in emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels, the creation of an additional carbon sink of 3 billion tonnes C02 equivalent through forest cover, and the use of transferred technology for mitigation and adaptation in the years ahead.

P.S: “We really need to kick the carbon habit," said natural historian Sir David Attenborough.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

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