UN’s lesson from history ahead of climate change talks

To break the impasse, world leaders should look to the successful Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances

Image used for illustrative purpose.

Image used for illustrative purpose.

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As heads of states from around the world gather in New York for a “real” UN General Assembly high-level debate, which was mainly held virtually last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will perhaps not need any reminders on one topic they need to not only discuss, but actually come up with an agreement in time for the next climate change conference in the UK in November.

Over the past few months, there have been several alarming reports published by different groups of scientists, all portending a global catastrophe induced by climate change, with some going to the extent of predicting that it may already be too late to keep the entire world safe, but not too late to avert the worst-case scenarios of global doom.

Barely a week ago, 220 reputed national medical journals published editorials written by scientists and medical experts saying preoccupation with the pandemic cannot delay climate solutions.

The editorial pieces warned that, like the pandemic, the ongoing climate crisis has a severe impact on human health worldwide and that it can no longer be ignored, even if most governments remain focused on tackling COVID-19. The articles said that human health has already undergone changes due to the nonstop rise in global temperatures, as well as the destruction of nature and loss of biodiversity.

Climate change is also propelling the problem of malnutrition, as crop failures become routine and food price inflation reaches record heights in many countries. This double whammy affects not only poor countries, but also the poor within rich nations.

Thus, the UNGA gathering is likely to be a somber affair, as leaders need to come up with a concrete and substantial proposal that can be used as the framework for the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.

So far, all agreements on climate change have been full of fluff and very iffy, with no clear commitments, except vague mentions of “nationally determined contributions” that each country has said it will achieve, but without any checks or verifications by the UN or anyone else. Even the much-touted net-zero commitments add up to a big fat zero as they are neither adequately rapid nor enforceable.

US President Joe Biden’s Climate Envoy John Kerry has recently visited India and China in order to press both countries for faster and greater action to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. While China has already set a 2060 net-zero deadline, India has refused to do so, claiming — with a fair degree of justification — that the developing and developed worlds cannot be put on par in terms of the reduction of emissions for two basic reasons. One is that the current situation is entirely due to the pillaging of natural resources by a handful of developed nations since industrialization began, and the other is that, on a per-capita basis, all developed countries pollute far more than the developing nations.

A bigger challenge with the net-zero approach is that it does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but rather “offsets” them with several actions of highly debatable value, such as carbon trading or afforestation in some remote poor country in exchange for the pollution produced in rich parts of the world.

The rich world is also holding back funding to pay for the damages caused by its own actions, even though it long ago committed to paying $100 billion each year to developing nations so that they can adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Of late, they have resorted to smart accounting by passing off everything as climate finance, but the truth remains they are far short of their commitments.

In the face of these seemingly intractable challenges, the UNGA is an ideal occasion for leaders to look for solutions that are concrete and enforceable; and to get there they just need to look inwards, within the UN, not outside and definitely not to some hare-brained “outside of the box” scheme. There is a resoundingly successful example for them to look to: The complete phasing out of the chemicals that damaged the ozone layer.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol, as the pact to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals is called, is perhaps the first and only example of a global environmental agreement that had all the checks and balances needed to ensure success, as well as adequate funding put forth by the rich countries to help the poor nations. But the most notable facts about this deal are that the negotiations were concluded within just nine months and that it has not just held firm since it came into effect, but it has even been expanded as new evidence about other ozone-depleting substances was discovered.

Compare this with the climate change talks. These discussions began under the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change in the mid-1980s, at about the same time as the talks on protecting the ozone layer. The Kyoto Protocol, the first climate change agreement, had very limited ambitions and no checks or controls. It was only signed in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. Since then, the world has struggled in dealing with climate change negotiations.

Climate change talks are certainly more complex than those involving ozone-depleting substances and so should take more time than it took to conclude the Montreal Protocol. However, there are other reasons why the climate change talks have dragged on for decades without any decisive outcome. These include the all-pervasive nature of climate change and how tackling it calls for a reversal of the “modern” lifestyles and attitudes adopted by societies around the world.

But the other and perhaps more important issue is that governments have become weaker in the face of big business. Of course, the global chemical industry tried to do all it could to abort the Montreal Protocol, or at least to gain more time and money from governments. Fortunately, however, world leaders stood firm, even though they were generous in terms of the fiscal assistance offered to companies for their compliance. And, significantly, a few rich countries also committed to paying billions of dollars to help poor countries phase out the ozone-depleting substances.

Today, governments are beholden to big business, which exerts great power over policymakers. And nations, especially the rich ones, have become stingier, as well as more insecure about helping out poor countries. Just look at the COVID-19 vaccine rollout disparity for anyone who doubts this.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. When political leaders gather in New York, they ought to realize that, while businesses can and will try to get away with paying lip service to environmental concerns for many more decades to come, the real price is paid by the people and the politicians, as the damage caused by climate change affects them first. To break the impasse, as there is no more time left, world leaders should look back through the pages of UN history and see how their predecessors dealt with an equally unique issue and found a solution that has held firm ever since.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.
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