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Enabling transfer of green technology is the key to stemming climate change

By Vineet John Samuel

As 195 countries meet at CoP21 in Paris to hammer out a treaty on climate change, the only viable solution appears to be to enable and create new bodies to fund the development and transfer of green technology between countries

The year 2015 will go down as the hottest year reported in human history. Sea levels are at their highest. Metro cities like Chennai have been submerged and the first applications for climate change refugees have started coming in. The world now stares dead on at a crisis that threatens to throw environments, economies and nations into disarray. The question is -- How will we, as a planet, respond?

Nearly 150 world leaders from 195 countries have finally agreed to come to the table to  hammer out a legally binding treaty that will perhaps give the environment and humanity a chance. The Conference of Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) hopes to achieve exactly this on November 30, in Paris. With world leaders finally acknowledging that the current narrow-minded approach (which looks only to individual national interest) will no longer suffice, it seems as if there is still some hope left for concrete change.

In the past, several factors have hindered progress during climate change talks. Not least is the non-compliance of developing nations such as China and India (the first and fourth largest emitters respectively) who argue that without equity in treaties the question of signing a legally binding agreement does not arise.

This hurdle has its root in fundamentally different mindsets at both ends of the table: developing countries argue that since climate change occurs due to a cumulative build-up of Green House Gas (GHGs) in the atmosphere, developed nations must accept higher cuts in their emissions as they have contributed much more to GHGs than countries that have only recently begun rapid development. Developed countries however, stress on the importance of standards being set according to current emission levels as they believe that nations like India and China must take responsibility for what, they claim, are extremely high and unsustainable emission intensities.

This time around however, we have seen a thaw in the rigid climate change policies on both sides and in light of recent environmental readings (that point to possible failure of capping temperature rise at the '2 degrees Celsius greater than pre-industrial levels' target set by the United Nations) both sides have decided to meet halfway. The signing of the historic bilateral agreement between the United States and China is in itself a landmark for climate change talks. China has finally agreed to fulfil 20% of its energy needs with clean energy by generating 1000GW of zero emission energy by 2030. This, coupled with India’s forward-looking Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), might signify an extremely productive Paris session so long as both sides remain committed to change and do not succumb to populist pressure on the national front.

However, for meaningful change to happen, any treaty that comes out of CoP21 must be legally binding because, as a planet we are too far gone down the road to settle for anything less than concrete and enforceable commitments. While this might prove to be quite a hurdle due to Republican resistance in the United States, an equitable and legally binding treaty is a must.

Developed nations must also realise that their interests are almost perfectly in sync with those of developing nations, and that without developing nations going green any attempts at a sustainable future will be futile. Acknowledging this would then mean that developed and developing nations would have to come together to enable low carbon technology transfer as well as funding for adaptation and mitigation purposes.

In this spirit, it is only natural that the polluter-pays principle be adopted so as to avoid the wave of 'green capitalism' that seems to be taking over policy discussions. Green capitalism has led to the hoarding of low-carbon green technology by the developed nations (which also happen to be the largest polluters per capita) even as policy discussions remain focused on making developing nations pay. The inevitable result would be a complete reliance on developed nations for green technology and the reduction of developing nations into dependent nations.

This is an outcome that developing nations will not accept, and the conversation will, once again, descend into accusations of 'obstructionist' and 'colonialist' on either side, with policy formation coming to an unfortunate and environmentally catastrophic impasse.

Thus the only viable solution seems to be to enable and create new bodies to fund and encourage the development and transfer of green technology between countries. Like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a $100 billion funding mechanism to assist countries with adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change, the United Nations is in dire need of bodies that facilitate the exchange of mutually beneficial green technology while keeping the larger cause of global sustainability in mind.

As the metaphorical hourglass of global environmental survival runs down, we must realise that yet another impasse could spell doom for the environment and that if talks fail again, the only seeds that we will be planting are those of our own destruction.

(Vineet John Samuel is a student at the Tata Institute of Social Science), November 2015