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The 2022 United Nations Conference on Climate Change—popularly known as CoP-27 (the UN’s 27th Conference of the Parties)—has commenced. While its focus will be on climate change broadly, European countries appear keen on controlling carbon emissions. However, this year, many of them returned to fossil fuels, including coal, as their energy security came under a cloud.

Global warming or climate change is a complex phenomenon. One of its causes is the concentration of greenhouse gases from human activity. The current atmospheric concentration of CO2 is mostly a result of past emissions from the development model that today’s developed countries followed. Hence, a proper balance has to be struck between actions taken to account for the existing stock of carbon and steps taken to rein in future emissions.

The counter-argument is that there was insufficient awareness or scientific knowledge about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels. Therefore, now that we know better, future actions are more important than accounting for the past. The problem with this is that it leaves many questions unanswered. The purpose of this piece is to highlight them.

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First, history or legacy is not just that, in this instance. It has both current and future implications. Accounting for and accountability for past emissions go along with actions on future emissions. That was the spirit behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the first president of independent South Africa launched. TRC was meant to provide a forum for perpetrators to acknowledge their wrongdoings and understand the harm they did to others so that they could rebuild South African society together. This was an essential precondition to moving forward as a society. In the context of climate change, creative, constructive and fair support from developed countries for emerging and developing economies in the latter’s transition would compensate for the former’s historical emissions.

Second, where does mitigation stand in the order of policy priority for today’s developing countries? Should it be at the top? Since many of them are likely to emit more in future, there must be a balance between adaptation and mitigation efforts. The immediate priorities for developing countries are preparing themselves to handle the current fallout of past emissions already captured in the atmosphere, while following a low-carbon development pathway. They need to build their resilience against the natural calamities that are more devastating and frequent now because of climate change. They need to adapt themselves. Ample financial resources, on affordable terms, must be made available to countries for resilience and adaptation as mitigation of future emissions is also enjoined upon them. This is a way for the developed world to compensate and take accountability for its past emissions.

Third, if mitigation has to be the overarching priority, and if that entails countries moving away from fossil fuels for transport and power generation, governments must have resources for switching to non-fossil fuels. Financial resources, critical minerals, including rare earths and technology, are part of the transition to renewable energy. Currently, South Africa and developed countries are locked in a debate over the nature of the financial resources (grants versus other forms) made available to the former, for it to make a ‘just’ energy transition. A transition is considered ‘just’ if it does not impact the economy. It could be done by supporting labour and other resources employed in fossil-fuel-based industries. But, the October 2021 edition of the World Economic Outlook reminded us that the jobs available in the ‘green economy’ require a different (higher) set of skills and qualifications. Securing these resources and arriving at a feasible roadmap for social-transition issues arising from an energy transition must precede emission mitigation.

As for critical minerals availability, the minister for resources in Australia said that ending reliance on China for rare earths and critical minerals was a pipe dream (bloom.bg/3WzrIoO). On the other hand, select buyer-nations have formed a partnership. As the partnership aims to ensure the availability of such minerals for themselves, the rest of the world, committed to net zero, may not have the minerals to transition to renewable energy. Writing for Bloomberg, Hal Brands warns that, historically, changing energy competition has always propelled international conflicts (bloom.bg/3NC98rW).

Lastly, as argued by Shankkar Aiyar in a recent article (bit.ly/3U80RhT), developed societies should embrace lifestyle changes, including curbing wasteful consumption, that can contribute to mitigation. Developing countries still have to climb the various rungs of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ before they dream of living in a carbon-free world. Given the historical facts, descending that hierarchy would be more appropriate for developed nations than pushing developing countries to stop aspiring to ascend it.

If CoP-27 can take firm steps towards finding answers to these questions in all sincerity and in the long-term interests of the globe, it would have taken a giant leap towards making the world safer, more peaceful and cleaner.

These are the authors’ personal views.

V. Anantha Nageswaran & Ritika Bansal are, respectively, the chief economic advisor to the Government of India and an Indian Economic Service officer.

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