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Tough choices

Mar 16 2020 | 12:09:04
A RAPIDLY changing climate is a burning subject being discussed by policymakers, activists, industry, academia, researchers and the media. At international climate meets negotiators painstakingly try to reach agreements on major issues and at the country level nations struggle to achieve voluntary targets for reducing emissions, but so far results have not been encouraging.The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million. During the past 800,000 years, carbon dioxide fluctuated between 180ppm during the ice ages and 280ppm during the interglacial warm periods. When scientists first started measuring atmospheric CO2 in 1958 at the Mauna Loa mountaintop observatory in Hawaii, the CO2 level was 316ppm, not very much higher than the pre-industrial level of 280.In May 2013, the level jumped to 400ppm and in September 2016 crossed the symbolic red line of 400ppm. Today, it stands at 413ppm, and at the current rate of CO2 emissions, growth levels will hit 500ppm within 50 years putting us on track to reach temperature increase of more than three degrees Celsius, a level that will be catastrophic for all life on the planet. This is the scenario that we face and yet there is reluctance to revisit the model of development that has brought us to this state.The problem lies with our financial model and our endless quest for growth that is predicated on the assumption that a successful economy must keep growing by at least 3pc annually. In other words, the economy must double itself every 20 years to remain afloat. The logic of this economic model based on exponential growth does not take into account the finite resources of the planet and builds on a pattern of production and consumption that is challenging the limits of the natural habitat and proving to be incompatible with life on Earth.Should climate change be viewed as a moral mandate?Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has been calling for a shift from GDP to ecological and social impact of economic activity as a measure of economic progress, but corporate interests, big banks, reliance on a debt-based currency and rampant consumerism come in the way of breaking the mould and reinventing our money systems to make it more ecologically sound and ­economically even.The present trajectory of growth also poses a moral dilemma. At the international level the question we need to ask is whether high-emitting countries have the right to continue releasing CO2 into the atmosphere just because they have the financial resources, access to technology and human capital to make the necessary adaptive change, albeit at the cost of inflicting extreme hardship on millions who lack coping capacities. At the national level countries will have to choose between exclusive and inclusive policy options for coping with climate change. Should approaches preserve the vested interests of the privileged or adopt measures that protect the rights of the poor? These are some of the tough choices that governments around the world will have to make in this decade.Politics and politicians will play an important role in setting the stage for actions that will unfold over the next two decades, based on the choices made by the present leadership. The old model of development has outlived its utility and technology will be helpful in providing some alternative choices, but it will not provide solutions for maintaining our present lifestyles. The politics of money and morality will define the future socioeconomic landscape and the fate of the voiceless millions. In the end, addressing one key question will provide the answer to the climate conundrum. Should climate change be viewed as a moral mandate by nations? ‘Yes’ will lead to fair and ‘No’ to unfair outcomes.As we approach COP26 to be held in November 2020, it is time to look back on the journey from Paris to Glasgow and take a more holistic view of national commitments and the possibility of achieving emission-reduction targets within the present system. Just as the Paris Agreement was a triumph of French diplomacy, the COP26 offers the UK an opportunity to inject new life and hope into an agreement that is ­losing its lustre after five years of fatiguing negotiations and no greenhouse gas reductions.For Pakistan, it is important to review its commitment submitted in 2015 and make it more realistic and achievable. It also needs to finalise work on its National Adaptation Plan and share it with stakeholders. The steps taken by the government to make Pakistan clean and green are praiseworthy but follow-up will be needed to ensure that there is no disconnect between intent and action. The key operative word in climate action is ‘urgency’.The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2020