It is not often that the word of the year arrives with perfect contextual resonance. Permacrisis, which Collins Dictionary defines as ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’, captures the spectre of climate change facing the world.
It has been nearly three decades since the adoption of the UN treaty on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro. The Conference of Parties aka COP has been largely reduced to a calendar event. From Berlin in 1995 to ‘together for the planet’ at Glasgow 2021, typically the tendency is to characterise every COP meet as a breakthrough. Till the next one appears on the horizon with a litany of flailing promises.
A new report from IMF chief reveals even if, and it’s a big if, the declared country targets are met, they would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by a mere 11 per cent. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report states that national pledges made since Glasgow "make a negligible difference to predicted 2030 emissions”.
Literature emanating from the developed world is frequently littered with troublesome definitions and contested interpretations. For instance, the EU presents India among the top five in CO2 emissions. On a per capita basis, India, at around 1.9 tonnes, is at the bottom half -- ranked 126 and its emission is less than a 15th of that emitted by the United States and a sixth of Scandinavian countries. Perception preferences depend on the parish of the persuaded.
Climate change is a global problem and mitigation is shackled by localised politics. The goal of “$100 billion/year of climate finance by 2020” is yet to be. The new mantra of ESG, if not steered clear of politics, could morph into a non-tariff barrier to be deployed by capital-rich economies and impact investments in the energy transition. The construct of carbon pricing is incomplete – and it sidesteps the damage imposed by developed while threatening the aspirations of developing nations. For sure, these constructs are on the agenda at COP27 and will be engineered and dismantled at Sharm El-Shaikh.
A crisis, or crises in the plural, is fuelled by both action and inaction. In the case of climate change, the aggravation is largely about inaction. One facet which is rarely discussed at the COP meets is the impact of wastage across rich nations on climate - and finds only passing mention in reports published recently by the World Bank, the IMF and the UNEP.
Agriculture accounts for over 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And 17 per cent of total global food production is wasted. Facts though have not provoked action. Europe, according to the European Bureau of Environment, wastes over 153 million tonnes of food a year – it wastes much more than what it imports – and causes nearly six per cent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The US Environment Protection Agency estimates that food waste and loss in the US “embodies 170 million tonnes CO2 equivalent GHG emissions, equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.
Electricity and heat production account for over 25 per cent or a fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is true that the need for and use of electricity and energy depends on the geography of usage. It is equally true that scant attention is paid to the magnitude of wastage, the gap between need and want, and conservation in the political economy of the richest nations.
Last week British newspapers reported that rooms in parliament “are said to be heated to 30C”. Now, this is a country which witnessed an extreme weather event this summer and an economy which has been battered by a cost of living crisis fuelled by energy prices. In France, the government is evangelising an energy conservation plan. A luxury goods giant announced it would lower heating and shut off lights three hours earlier. Ostensibly there is room for conservation, but wastage persisted and awaited an energy crisis.
There is also waste caused by what the UNEP’s Global Resources Outlook report of 2019 characterises as “consume and throwaway models of consumption”. This, it observes, has had a “devastating impact on our planet”, is responsible for “90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress” through resource extraction and processing and contributes “about half of global greenhouse gas emissions”. The factoid hasn’t changed outlooks. One representation of this, the so-called footsy index, is the annual sales of nearly 20 billion pairs of sneakers. An MIT-led lifecycle assessment estimates production of a typical pair generates 30 pounds of CO2 emissions.
There are lessons here for India as its economy evolves in scale. It is vulnerable to climate shocks – on the coastline and in the hinterland. To achieve its emission target it must enable policy to curb post-harvest agri waste of grains and perishables, repurpose its crop map to optimise use of water, reform power utilities to check leakage and loss, propel sustainability for efficiency and resilience. It must leverage rooftop solar to light homes, as also to reduce dependence on cooking gas, and expand use of renewable for transport.
Climate change transcends national boundaries. Mitigation rests on small and big initiatives. In a permacrisis the sum of pieces matters. The structural challenges in the global economy illuminate the need for conservation. The silence on wastage must end. It must be flagged at COP27.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar:
A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit
Revolution, and Accidental India