Carbon trap: Where should India be focusing it's collective climate action efforts?

India should tackle disasters taking place in the country and its neighbourhood as its neighbour's vulnerabilities can be national security issues.

The headlines blared recently that Mumbai could be wiped out by 2050 because of sea-level rise. And yet, we don’t see people packing up and moving away from Mumbai or even away from the coasts. The current headlines are focused on 2019 being the second warmest year on record and yet no large-scale panic has hit the streets.

Headlines keep coming and going with nary a change in people’s daily lives other than headlines about Greta Thunberg demanding climate action. Is it because public memory is short or is it because climate action is simply not intuitive for most humans?

It is predicated that Mumbai will be wiped away by 2050 because of rising sea levels. Image credit: Wikipedia

It is predicted that Mumbai will be wiped away by 2050 because of rising sea levels. Image credit: Wikipedia

The lack of alarm despite these blaring headlines underscores the difficulties in the way we are stumbling along, trying to contain global warming. Moving away from the coasts is clearly one of the options in response to projected sea-level rise. But can or will a city like Mumbai really start retreating from the coast or even stop new constructions close to the waterfront anytime soon? Even if the city decides to engineer solutions against the rise, how much sea-level rise can it defend depends on the cost of such solutions and not on the projections!

Similarly, the fact that the second warmest year comes with cooling in some places and greater than 2C warming in others highlights the complexities of trying to contain global warming to 2C or below to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference or DAI. In fact, ‘dangerous’ in DAI is not even defined formally.

Can collective climate action save the day?

One could take an optimistic view that the participation of entire humanity in climate negotiations is a clear indication that collective action will ultimately save humanity from itself. But the failure to accomplish the desired outcome on carbon pricing at the just concluded Climate Action Summit in Madrid is a harsh reality check.  What if the framework employed for the negotiations is simply misguided?

It has been argued that treating climate change as an issue of managing global commons or shared resources, such as the global atmosphere and ocean, has totally failed. Relying on collective action to save global shared resources or commons may be fundamentally flawed. Bernstein and Hoffman of the University of Toronto posited recently that the international community has indeed adopted a wrong framework by focusing on emission reductions and temperature targets. They have proposed that complete decarbonization is a better framework for negotiations as well for driving innovation, regulations, climate politics and climate action.

2019 was the second warmest year on record and 2010 was the warmed decade to be recorded.

2019 was the second warmest year on record and 2010 was the warmed decade to be recorded.

Decarbonization as a framework for climate action

Bernstein and Hoffmann argue that humanity is trapped in a Carbon Fractal where actions to reduce emissions at the individual, local, national and global levels are guaranteed to fail because the system is inextricably beholden to a carbon-intensive existence. This carbon lock-in is argued to be not just technological but also economic, cultural and political.

A fractal is where similar patterns keep occurring at smaller and smaller scales with similar characteristics as seen in this short video of a snowflake. If every part of the system is designed to reinforce fossil fuel use then finding our way out of this carbon fractal trap will be nearly impossible. The phraseology of a carbon trap is meant to invoke the other wicked problem humanity faces, namely, the poverty trap. The poverty trap is found to snare multiple generations in a cycle of poverty due to the cascade of poverty into a lack of education, productivity, employment, income and so on.

Since it is carbon that needs to be eliminated from the system to deliver ourselves, decarbonization is a better framework which leads to unambiguous goals.  As distinct from reducing emissions, decarbonization is meant to move the entire system away from carbon-based energies eventually. Temperature targets seem copacetic but are chosen for political expediency rather than based on any scientific evidence especially considering that it is unclear what is ‘dangerous’ in DAI.  A 2C global warming comes with highly disproportionate warming in places like the Global South with the accompanying extremes and sea level rises as is already evident across much of the tropics. In fact, many places around the globe like the northern polar circle are already above 2C.

Designing action to reduce emissions equitably with such non-uniform warming, sea-level rise and other climate impacts on food, water, energy and health, is a monumental challenge if not impossible. The current strategy of Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs are very far from meeting the temperature targets in any case.

Decarbonization on the other hand requires that the entire system begin to wean itself off carbon-intensive energy and also focus on innovation for drawing down carbon. It is argued that a revolution to accomplish a push past the threshold to complete decarbonization can be induced by identifying sensitive intervention points in the system.

What should guide India’s climate actions?

For a country like India which is facing climate disasters already, climate action has to be guided by its need to reduce the energy intensity of its GDP so that it can keep improving its energy security. Food and water security must be guided by climate adaptation. What is India’s role in climate mitigation which is about reducing its carbon emissions?

Reducing the carbon intensity of its GDP and energy production is India’s pledge to NDC. The co-benefits of reducing carbon intensity include reduced air pollution and a reduction in the loss of lives lost to air pollution as well as the loss of labour and productivity. But should India be concerned about projections beyond the next decade or two?

Sea level rise will offer unique challenges to growing population closer to the coasts and that is necessarily a longer timescale problem.

Sea level rise will offer unique challenges to growing population closer to the coasts and that is a long timescale problem.

The Achille’s Heel for climate projections is the fact that model biases in temperature and rainfall are often much larger than the projected changes in temperature, sea-level rise and rainfall. Palmer and Stevens point out that the current generation of models is incapable of providing regional-level information that is accurate. By ignoring this deficiency, not enough attention is being paid to improving the models for better projections. They go on to suggest that the scientific community is failing to provide usable information for decision making.

In this context, India is must focus on the disasters already unfolding within its borders and in its neighbourhood. The best strategy would be to focus on early warning systems for food, water, energy and health to manage resources and climate hazards effectively and efficiently. Such information must also be shared with its neighbours since the vulnerabilities of India’s neighbours are India’s national security issues.

The other timescale India must pay attention to is the evolution of climate change disasters at a multi-year timescale. A new effort on multi-year predictions is emerging under Climate Variability and Predictability, an international project under the World Climate Research Program. India can and must build on its massive investment in weather and climate predictions and projections to zoom down into this socially relevant timescale to manage its portfolio of food, water, energy and health.

In other words, instead of focusing on uncertain projections beyond 2050, India is better off investing all its resources in climate resilience at days to seasons and years to a decade or two. Sea level rise will offer unique challenges to growing population closer to the coasts and that is necessarily a longer timescale problem. But increasing cyclones driving higher storm surges will bring home the message much sooner demanding regulations and action in the coming years and decades.

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