Biden building bridges: Climate finance must be at the centre

Modi should rule out net zero emissions with net zero finance


April 21, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Biden building bridges: Climate finance must be at the centre

While campaigning last year, Biden made a pledge to cut to zero greenhouse gas emissions from nation’s power sector by 2035

About 40 leaders of countries that account for 80 pc of global carbon emissions will participate in the 2-day ‘Leaders’ Summit on Climate’ that the United States President Joe Biden is hosting. Ironically, the US is the sole nation in the world to have never ratified the Kyoto Protocol as well as to have withdrawn from Paris Climate Agreement. The host is clearly struggling to be a leader among leaders. But Biden has to do more. He and other rich country leaders need to acknowledge that without action on climate- justice and honouring global financial commitments, the global solidarity to deal with Climate Change may remain as disparate as global efforts against Covid-19.

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Days after an unruly crowd of conservative Americans had taken control of the US Capitol, the landmark edifice of democracy, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. took control of the United States of America after he was sworn in as the 46th President on the very steps of the Capitol building.

Many compared Biden’s inauguration to Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, which began in 1933 amidst the Great Depression, except that there was no rowdy horde of Americans that thronged the Capitol complex two weeks before the oath-taking event.

Now three months later, the world around Biden, including the US, is still out of control. It remains unruly and wracked by a deadly pandemic. Add to that persistent racial discrimination along with high unemployment as well as a collapsing economy across the globe. There are formidable and frightening challenges around and gloom that is looming large. Above all, a daunting climate change challenge has now become life-threatening, just like the way coronavirus has darkened the globe for over a year.

However, true to his long career that included 36 years as Senator and eight years as vice president to Barack Obama, within hours of his oath-taking ceremony on January 20, 2021, Biden signed an executive order to have the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Thirty days later, as per the rules of the Agreement, on February 19, 2021, the USA officially re-entered the Agreement. Biden’s prompt action vis a vis the Paris Agreement was a strong reminder to the world about the revival of American leadership globally to counter China’s economic muscle power.

The reasons for Trump to withdraw from the Agreement have been jumbled and disparate throughout his presidentship and even during an election campaign. He called climate science a hoax made up by China. Then he stated that Paris Agreement is unfair to the USA’s workers and hence to the American economy. He despised that India and China benefited as a result of the Agreement. He then went on that he would renegotiate the Paris Climate Agreement though he knew that the Agreement had already entered into force on October 5, 2016.

The reasons why Biden decided to re-join were, not surprisingly, exactly the opposite. Biden, like a majority of Americans, strongly believes in the science of climate change. With the US being the second-largest carbon emitter in the world, just behind China, Biden is aware that the US has done much more than any other nation in harming the global environment and climate and hence the US ought to take a  leading role in global climate negotiations, just as it did in negotiating Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

John Kerry is a front line diplomat to wrinkle out differences among the countries as he did during negotiations on Paris Climate Agreement in 2015

John Kerry, Biden’s climate-man, is indeed a front line diplomat to wrinkle out the differences among the countries, particularly the developing countries as he did during the negotiations on the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 that has been hailed as an example of global participation and a ‘bottom-up’ approach of inviting voluntary emission reduction by each country, developed and developing. The provision in the Agreement allows each country to work-devise ways to raise the targets to match the goals of limiting the temperature rise. Though a number of provisions in the Agreement are yet to be activated, the intent is unique.

While campaigning last year, Biden had made a bold pledge to cut to zero greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power sector by 2035 and to make the entire country carbon-neutral by 2050. He proposed a ‘Green Deal’ similar to what the European Union had declared in COP- Conference of Parties – in Madrid in 2019. The EU, with its 28 member countries together, is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after China and the United States and its announcement of carbon neutrality was hailed as a major step forward.

Article 2 (a) of the Paris Agreement states the global goal of ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impact of climate change. The temperature target is based on a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that delineates climate science, impact and solutions.

IPCC has stated in their last report that by around 2050 the world has to be carbon neutral to meet the target of rising of temperature to 1.5° C and by around 2075 to limit the temperature rise to 2° C. The latest ‘Emission Gap’ report of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the present voluntary commitments by member countries, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are far from aligning with these targets and if further ambitious targets as stated by IPCC are not taken our planet will be heading towards an abyss.

Carbon neutrality is now on top of the agenda for global climate action, having failed to contain the emission-rise right from 1997 when Kyoto Protocol came into being. Carbon neutrality in simple terms means a balance between the emission of carbon dioxide and absorbing the same from the atmosphere in carbon sinks such as forests, oceans and soil.

Interestingly, the Paris Climate Agreement does not include carbon neutrality as a target though there is a language of strong encouragement to enhance the voluntary targets of emission reduction provided by the countries in the form of  NDCs submitted by the countries subsequent to the  Paris Climate Agreement.

The 5th Anniversary of the Paris Agreement in December 2020, was a major milestone in more sense than one. First, 2020 ranks as the second-hottest year on record for the planet, knocking 2019 down to third hottest. Second, it was in December that scientists recorded that Earth’s average temperature rise was close to 1.2° C, dangerously close to 1.5° C, one of the two stringent targets under the Paris Agreement. The year 2020 also signalled that now the world should aim for the target of 2° C, having made a target of 1.5° C near impossible.

Apart from the European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea, more than 110 other countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, while China vowed that it will do so before 2060. The US and India are the only two major emitters who are yet to declare the net-zero emission target. Many businesses and corporates are also in the process of taking the pledge of carbon neutrality. It is expected that President Biden would use the Earth Day Climate Summit to express his resolve for the US to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Yet, in the chorus of carbon neutrality and Covid-19, there is complete silence on key issues of climate justice, common but differentiated responsibilities and financial support to the developing countries. Biden’s climate summit could be the fulcrum and an opportunity that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with leaders of other developing countries, must use to bring these elements to the top of the agenda.

Message from Article  4 of the Paris Agreement outlines enhanced and ambitious targets and corresponding financial and technological support needed for developing countries. A study by the Stockholm Environment  Institute in December 2020, recalled that climate finance was enshrined way back when United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) signed in 1992. As the world moves towards more ambitious targets, including carbon neutrality, the 40 leaders at Biden’s Climate Summit, half of whom are from the developing nations, must ensure that the developed countries provide ambitious financial resources to the developing countries. In particular, developed countries must commit to two pathways, even in the times of Covid-19.

First, as reiterated by the world leaders from developed countries, it is time to reaffirm the prior commitment given earlier to provide USD 100 billion per year to developing countries by 2020 and extend that commitment for another five years, to 2025. The promises in COP15  held in Copenhagen in 2009 included the financial support starting with a more modest USD 10 billion per year rising to USD 100 billion per year from 2020 onwards. The second is to make finance flows consistent with the ambitious reductions in gas emissions as well as separate financing for climate-resilient development, also known as climate adaptation fund.

Five years after the Paris Agreement was signed, how far has the international community come on the climate finance agenda? Developing countries have expressed that there is a total lack of transparency in definition and in calculating ‘Climate Finance’. Developing countries were firm in stating that they needed dedicated fund. Official Development Aid,  private sector finance and bilateral aid should not be counted. Developed countries are harping on counting all these flows.

The performance of the ‘Green Climate Fund’, a dedicated fund is miserable. It has so far managed cumulatively about USD 11 billion, ridiculously low and far from the ambitious targets. China is now the largest emitter in the world. It has taken the pledge of carbon neutrality a month back without any condition of financing by the developed countries. It is doubtful if China will now fully and categorically support other developing countries to demand climate finance, the way did five years ago.

Fortunately, India has more credibility as, unlike China, it is well on track to meet its climate targets as provided in its NDCs. Its joint initiative with France of International Solar Alliance has also been considered a path-breaking mechanism that would practically add to the ambitious targets More than 20 top Indian private-sector corporations, including Infosys, Reliance and Tatas have declared that they would go climate neutral. More than 200 colleges and universities in India have also pledged to go climate neutral under the ‘Not Zero-Net Zero’ campaign of Terre Policy Centre’s Smart Campus Cloud Network. While these initiatives will be piloting and making youth and business ‘neutrality-ready’, such positivism should be leveraged by Modi to position India as the country that would walk the talk.

While carbon neutrality will be the pitch during the climate summit chaired by Biden, Modi should deploy climate diplomacy not only to remind the developed countries about the accepted principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and their past commitments but to institutionalise the mechanism and alliance jointly with the US, for tracking climate finance being provided to the developing countries and thus mainstream the demand for climate justice, without which our planet would lose the battle to save the climate.

(Rajendra Shende is an IIT Bombay alumni,  is a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of Terre Policy Centre and advisor to Media India Group. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Media India Group. )




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