Developing countries should focus on sustainable development targets, rather than legally binding committments to reduce emissions
In the lead up to the Paris Climate Summit — Conference of Parties (CoP) 21 — an important buzzword in international climate circles is INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) that each country needs to commit itself to as its climate policy. Much of this is tacitly expected to mean a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions rather than adaptation, which would be about transforming or changing systems and institutions to enable us live in a warmer world. While we eventually have to reduce emissions to zero in order not to completely destroy the earth’s ecosystems, we also need to learn how to live on a planet that is on average at least about 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times.
Countries in the tropics are expected to experience some of the most harmful effects of climate change with a sea level rise, more intense storms, variable precipitation, droughts, and floods. Developing countries, especially those with sizable populations, like India, Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria, face a dual challenge — they need to provide energy services and, at the same time, raise raisin the standard of living of the poor people — while adapting to global warming. Given the large population living in poverty, they have more people vulnerable to these effects. Adapting to climate change will mean that policymakers use sensible approaches to protecting land, soil, freshwater systems, coastal regions, and livelihoods.
We suggest that all developing countries (what the international community terms ‘non-Annexure-1’) should concentrate on sustainable development targets, rather than on INDCs. This means that they would have to, for example, focus on reducing air pollution, promote cleaner cooking fuels, plan cities to be more inclusive, allocate greater space for non-motorised transportation, and modify their agricultural practices, so that their goals of overall productivity, biodiversity, crop yields, health of farm workers and water use are balanced.
We argue that such a choice by poor countries — one that lets them develop a pathway away from their current growth-oriented trajectories toward a sustainable development course — would by itself reduce greenhouse gases. More importantly, it would also improve the quality of life of millions of people who may be left behind if governments only applied policies to lower emissions. The Center for Study of Science Technology and Policy (CSTEP) has found this to be true in the case of India in a study expected to be released by the end of the month.
We further believe that if poor countries were forced to accept legally-binding commitments to reduce their emissions, they may get dangerously close to irreversible and abrupt changes involving atmospheric aerosols, land systems, fresh water use and biogeochemical flows. Johan Rockström and his colleagues have described nine such planetary boundaries as being vital to human life and the biosphere. We are fearful that looking at it narrowly through a carbon lens for the entire international community will lock poor countries into unsustainable paths, causing serious breach to at least some planetary limits while also bypassing the needs of the poor.
With regard to rich countries, however, the world should insist on far more ambitious contributions. They need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030 over the 2010 levels, as agreed by most observers. This is quite close to targets set by the European Council for the EU, but well beyond the U.S. intention of a 26-28 per cent reduction.
In contrast, Ethiopia, where the World Bank estimates that three-quarters of people have no electricity connections, has promised in its INDC to reduce its greenhouse gases to a few per cent points below its 2010 levels by 2030. Most of its efforts are to involve planting more forests and having better soil management practices. While some of these changes will no doubt be good for its farmers, forest dwellers, land and soil, we must consider that some of the most cost-effective approaches to reduce greenhouse emissions could be harmful to water, soil, land and livelihoods. The question then becomes whether the implementation of a legally-binding greenhouse gas target is the best way for Ethiopia to meet its enormous challenges related to energy access, poverty and sustainability.
Finally, with regard to the level of ambition of these arrangements the strategy we describe could be consistent with a global carbon budget that is adequate for limiting temperature rise to within safe limits. Beyond 2030, once rich countries have developed the technologies and institutions to reduce their own emissions sharply and developing nations have met sustainable development goals, the entire international community could concentrate more fully on mitigation and adaptation to climate change.