Cows, cars and climate

Oxfam activists dressed as a Scottish pipe band and representing (L-R) Russian president Vladimir Putin, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, French president Emmanuel Macron, US president Joe Biden, British prime minister Boris Johnson, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, India's prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping pose during their "Big Heads" protest stunt at the Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow on 1 November 2021 on the sidelines of the COP26 UN Climate Summit.AFP

Which are worse, cows or cars? This seemingly inane question is not quite pointless in the context of climate change. And the answer is, cows. The methane emitted in a cow's belching and flatulence annually contributes more to global warming than the carbon generated by a car. A molecule of methane can warm the climate 23 times more than the same amount of carbon.

Even then, carbon is more responsible for global warming than greenhouse gases because methane stays in the atmosphere for around 10 years while carbon remains for centuries. That is why carbon comes more into discussions. But that does not mean it is any less important to reduce methane emissions. The two major pledges made at the global climate conference in Glasgow this time were related to carbon and methane. One, by the year 2030 deforestation must be stopped and carbon emissions reduced. Two, by the same year, methane emissions must be reduced by 30 per cent. However, debate continues as to whether this will be possible and whether this is even enough.

There will be many more pledges made at the climate conference, many more debates and even many messages of hope. But the problem is that there is a surfeit of rhetoric and conceptual tangles. There is no one in countries like ours who understand the need to untangle these tangles. In the developed world, the media uses graphics, simple guides, comparative charts and power point presentations to make these matters easier for the layperson to understand. Simple lessons in environmental matters begin from the primary level of education there.

There is nothing like that in countries like ours. That is why the issue of the climate conference is incomprehensible to the common people here. I have even noticed a lack of understanding of these issues among many 'experts'. Yet people's awareness is a vital part of many agreements signed regarding climate and other environmental matters. And this is all the more important in countries like ours which are at higher risk of climate change.

There will be no new agreement this time at the conference being held at Glasgow. The aim of this conference is to implement the agreement reached in 1992 by the Conference of the Party or COP, that is the states for UNFCC, based on which the Paris Agreement was made. The Paris Agreement was the last universal and perhaps permanent agreement for the prevention of climate change. Global temperatures have presently risen to at least one degree Celsius higher than during the pre-industrial times (1850-1900). This has led to a sudden increase in natural calamities, melting of glaciers and rise in sea levels, salinity entering low lying areas from the sea, and extensive harm to biodiversity and animal habitats.

If temperatures continue to rise at this rate, within the next 50 years most areas of the world will be increasingly unfit for habitation. That is why the decision in the Paris Agreement was to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and it was also pledged to try and keep this within 1.5 degrees Celsius. For this, the target was set to reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere as soon as possible and to bring it down to net zero by 2050.

Implementing this is extremely complex, costly and difficult. That is because to do this, the use of fossil fuel (on which our industries, vehicles and consumerist lifestyles are dependent) as well as the destruction of forestlands and wetlands, must be halted. The sources of methane (such a livestock farms and croplands) must be controlled. The use of environment-friendly energy (like solar and wind energy) must be increased and there must be extensive afforestation. An example here will indicate just how difficult this will be. Till now in the world around 30 billion (3000 crore) trees have been chopped down to make way for cities and settlements, for the expansion of agricultural cultivation and farms, for various development projects, and also for unlawful businesses.

Many of these least developed countries are dependent on developed countries for funds, technology and capacity building assistance to carry out this task, but a significant amount of this has not been provided.

Even now every year around 2 billion (200 crore) trees are felled annually for these reasons. If the Paris Agreement is to be implemented, all this must not only be stopped, but there must be efforts for damage control by means of new afforestation.

The Paris Agreement has outlined a preliminary strategy of how to carry out this massive task. All concerned states were asked to give an account of how much carbon emission they will be able to reduce and how they will do so. The document to contain these details is the Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC. But even if the NDCs of around 200 countries received so far are actually implemented, global temperatures will still rise by 3 degrees Celsius. This can spell disaster for nature, biodiversity and humankind. That is why there is a clause for the concerned states every five years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their respective NDCs. There is also a commitment to submit a long-term plan of action for 2021 to 2050.

NDC and the plan of action are basically pledges made on paper and rife with loopholes. For example, in the NDCs of many least development countries, the accounts given of decreasing carbon emissions are like the discounts marked up on saris in New Market. These shops would double the price of their saris and then declare a 30 per cent sale. In the same manner, in the NDCs of many least developed countries, the business-as-usual rate of carbon emissions was projected to increase 30 per cent in 5 years and the target set to reduce this by 10 per cent. Then again, many of these least developed countries are dependent on developed countries for funds, technology and capacity building assistance to carry out this task, but a significant amount of this has not been provided.

The industrially developed countries had pledged to provide the least developed countries like Bangladesh 100 billion dollars annually, but very little of that pledge has been implemented

In the case of the long term strategies too, there is a lack of clarity in the documents of many countries (for example, more in China than America) and there are differences in targets too. For example, most of the countries which have submitted their plans, pledge to bring down carbon emissions to zero by 2050, but some countries (like Russia and China) state they will do this by 2060. And many countries haven't even submitted this document. In South Asia, only Nepal has submitted their papers. And India has declared it will reach net zero emissions by the year 2070!

The provision regarding adaptation is another unresolved area in the climate agreement. Adaptation refers to adapting to the damages brought about by climate change. For example, climate change has led to the incidence and intensity of cyclones and tidal surges in the coastal regions of Bangladesh. Now improved and high-tech embankments, shelters, pre-warning systems and rehabilitation will be required to live in these areas. This will require huge funds, advanced technology and management capacity. The industrially developed countries had pledged to provide the least developed countries like Bangladesh 100 billion dollars annually, but very little of that pledge has been implemented. And the industrially developed countries have made no response whatsoever to the loss and damage provision made in the Paris Agreement, regarding instances where the damages are so much that it is hardly feasible to adapt to these losses.

The Glasgow conference is evaluating the progress made so far. Various agenda, policies, programmes and plans of action, are being prepared to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. Ways and means are being determined to prepare the NDCs and increase the transparency in the implementation and audit of these. Policy frameworks are being drawn up for the meaningful participation of multinational companies, financial institutions and various private sector entities in preventing climate change. It is not that everything will be achieved here and now. Every COP aims at achieving at least some targets and to create a basis of hope for the next COP. That is probably what will happen this time.

We should have extensive discussions on these conferences and also create public awareness. These issues should be discussed and debated in schools and colleges and introduced in the curriculum. The media can make these issues easily understandable with illustrations and appealing presentations. Political parties and activist forums must take steps to mobilise public awareness in this regard.

Extensive public awareness and incentives play a part in making people environment-friendly. Unless the people themselves are climate and environment-friendly, no government or conference can play an effective role in this regard.

* Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir