Climate crisis: Is there a Savitri to save the world from catastrophe?

The legend of Savitri and Satyavan in the Mahabharata, is a love story. Savitri, a beautiful princess, marries Satyavan, a penniless woodcutter, despite the Sage Narada warning her that Satyavan, a dead man walking, would die in one year. Now, the story of Savitri and Satyavan is being played out in real life in the ongoing climate change saga.

Sagar Dhara, FirstPost

The legend of Savitri and Satyavan in the Hindu mythological epic, the Mahabharat, is a love story. Savitri, a beautiful princess, marries Satyavan, a penniless woodcutter, despite Sage Narada warning her that Satyavan, a dead man walking, would die in one year. On the day of reckoning, Yama, the God of death, comes to collect Satyavan’s soul. Savitri pleads with Yama to take her too, but Yama declines. Yama is touched by Savitiri’s love for Satyavan grants her a boon. Savitri asks for children, which Yama grants. He then realizes the implication of his boon and gives Satyavan his life back so that he and Savitri can have children.

Now, the Savitri-Satyavan story is being played out in real life in the ongoing climate change saga.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), playing the role of Narada, has issued a strong warning of the possible demise of the earth (read Satyvan) as we know it today. UNEP has just published the Emissions Gap Report 2019 (EGR2019). The report states, “We are on the brink of missing the opportunity to limit global warming to 1.5°C.”

Scientists warn that a temperature rise exceeding 1.5oC above pre-industrial times would result in catastrophic consequences — rapid glacier melt, rising sea levels, acidifying oceans, greater rainfall and temperature unpredictability, frequent extreme weather events, rise in species extinction rates, decrease in food and water security and consequent rise in malnutrition and disease.

The EGR is published annually every November just before the inter-governmental body, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), meets to decide the future course of global action to tackle climate change. The EGR makes an assessment of the disconnect between our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions today and what they could have been if we had kept things in control.

UNEP also recently published another report, Lessons from a Decade of Emissions Gap Assessment (EGR10). The EGR10 compares the emission predictions it made 10 years ago with today’s reality, and concludes that “Despite a decade of increasing political and societal focus on climate change and the milestone Paris Agreement, the global GHG emissions have not been curbed, and the emissions gap is larger than ever.”

The writing on the wall is clear — climate change poses a clear and present danger. These reports together emphasis the yawning gap between climate science and climate policy has never been wider, and in order to avoid descending into an apocalypse, drastic corrective measures must be taken immediately.

Two decades of global climate agreements and we are still highly unsustainable

Inter-governmental cooperation to tackle climate change began in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol (KP) was drafted. The KP granted preferential emission rights to 42 North nations, but obliged them to reduce their collective emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012 over the base year 1990 (the KP period). In 2013, the emission reduction of North nations for the KP period was estimated at 16 percent, and the KP was hailed as a “runaway success.” The KP did not bind the South nations with any emission reduction targets.

The KP required calculating territorial emissions, i.e., all GHG emissions emitted from a territory. This was different than the consumption emissions of a territory, which is the true reflector of a territories’ emissions. In consumption emission, embedded carbon emissions of imports are added, and those from exports are subtracted (net trade emissions) to territorial emissions. Consumption emissions of North nations during the KP period increased by 14.5 percent. This calls into question the validity of the 16 percent emission reduction declared by the North nations for this period, which was calculated using a method that was incorrect.

Outsourcing of goods and services consumed by North nations to South nations, particularly to India and China, was in vogue by 1990. This helped the North nations in two ways — it reduced the prices of many products and shifted the crediting of a significant amount of trade emissions from the North nations to South nations.

Territorial and consumptive emissions of major GHG emitters

Secondly, clubbing the emissions of all North nations hid the real performance of many of their worst performers, particularly the large emitters like USA, Canada and Australia. During the KP period, the emissions of these countries increased by six percent instead of decreasing by their six percent target. West European countries fared better. As against their target of an eight percent emissions reduction, they achieved seven percent. During the KP period, East European and Russian emissions reduced by 55 percent as their economies shrank drastically after 1990 when the Soviet bloc collapsed. This more than compensated for the poor emission reduction performance of large emitters such as the US.

The KP was a “runaway failure.” It did not retard the growth of global emissions. Moreover, it aided the North nations to pin the blame on India and China for their rapid emissions growth.

KP’s successor, the Paris Agreement, was drafted in 2015. It aims to strengthen the global response to climate change to limit warming to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue an effort to limit it to 1.5oC. The agreement will also help countries adapt to climate change impacts, foster low carbon development pathways and steer global financial flows to enable these processes.

As of November 2019, 195 countries had signed the agreement. Under the agreement, each country may determine, plan, and regularly report any non-binding contribution (known as nationally determined contributions or NDC) it wishes to pledge to mitigate global warming. Each new emission target must be more ambitious than the previous one.

An inter-governmental meeting, known as the Conference of Parties 25 (COP25) is underway in the first fortnight of December 2019 in Madrid to take stock of the progress made by the Paris Agreement and prepare for the next COP meeting to be held in 2020.  Major course changes are expected to be attempted in COP26, to be held in Glasgow in 2020, to limit warming to 1.5-2oC.
The gap between “what we say we will do and what we need to do” widens

In the last decade, GHG emissions rose by 1.5 percent per annum, reaching a record high of 51.8 GtCO2e (Tonnes of CO2e) in 2018, if land-use changes. The graph indicates that the Kyoto Protocol did little with regard to GHG emissions. Nor are there early signs that the Paris Agreement has had any effect.

Global GHG emissions from all sources.

To have a fighting chance of restricting warming to 1.5oC, the EGR2019 indicates that GHG emissions must tumble down to 25 GtCO2e by 2030. If emissions reduction had begun a decade ago, the reduction rate would have been just 3.3 percent per annum. If it is started today, without waiting for COP26 to happen at the end of 2020, GHG emissions must decrease by 7.6 percent every year from now till 2030. A five-year delay, i.e. in 2025 start for an emissions reduction programme, will make the GHG reduction rate at 15.4 percent per year which is virtually unattainable.

Unattainable reduction rates

GHG emission reduction rate required to remain within 1.5oC warming if the reduction was started in 2010 (left) 2020 (centre) and 2025 (right).

To move from a GHG emission release rate of +1.5 percent to -7.6 percent is a Herculean task. And it requires all countries to muster the will to be on the same page and have immense follow through wherewithal to implement their commitment. Do they have this?

UNEP has been doing EGRs for a decade and has been continuously warning the world of the widening gap between promise and performance. For example, UNEP’s EGR 2015 indicated that the gap between the 2015 global emissions trajectory projected to 2030 and the desirable emissions in 2030 to restrict warming to 1.5oC was 17 GtCO2e. EGR 2018 found this gap had almost doubled to 32 GtCO2e in 2018, i.e., that the Paris Agreement was failing.

UNEP has said the same thing that it did earlier, but for the first time it has used strong language to make the COP25 delegates meeting in Madrid and the world sit up and reflect on their business-as-usual way of dealing with climate change. In EGR2019 UNEP states, “Today our report card says we are failing to close the ‘commitment’ gap between what we say we will do and what we need to do to prevent dangerous levels of climate change.

US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

Following Donald Trump’s promise, the US announced its intention to pull out of the Paris Agreement in November 2019.  According to preliminary estimates that New York Times quotes, US CO2 emissions spiked to 3.4 percent per year in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years. Yet, using the trends in the last decade when US emissions remained flat. If US GHG emissions (13.2 percent of global emissions) is assumed to remain constant at 6.8 GtCO2e for the next 10 years, the other countries would have to reduce their GHG emissions by 9.5 percent per annum to subsidize the US for its failure to decrease emissions, just as the East Europeans subsidized the US during the KP period.

There is a yawning gap between the Paris Agreement’s aim to reduce emissions and their unabated increase.

Climate justice

North nations (Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan), with 17 percent of the world’s population today, are largely responsible for emitting over 60 percent of the over 2,000 GtCO2 of historic emissions (cumulative emissions between 1751-2017). The per capita historic emissions of North and South nations are 1,200 and 85 t/person, respectively. The rich in South nations, though small in number and asset holding, are also responsible for climate change.

Climate justice requires that per capita historic emissions, and at the very least per capita current emissions, across the world’s population be equal. Else, those with less per capita emissions, historic or current, will feel short-changed and argue for increasing their emissions to catch up with the privileged, particularly when there is considerable doubt whether renewable energy can ever replace fossil fuels.

So, what should a South nation do? Let us take the case of India. It has emitted only three percent of the world’s historical emissions. With 17 percent of the world’s population, its current emissions are seven percent of global emissions. It’s per capita GHG emissions are only ~42 percent of the global average per capita emissions (6.6 GtCO2e). India aspires to have its GDP grow at 8-10 percent per annum. Its emissions growth in the last decade was 3.7 percent per annum, and its emissions in 2018 grew at 5.5 percent. Seventy-five percent of its commercial energy comes from fossil fuels. Its population below the national poverty line and multidimensional poverty index are 29.5 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

If India allows its GHG emissions to grow, it will contribute to shooting down the 1.5oC temperature rise redline. Further growth by any of the large emitters is virtually not possible as the world’s remaining  emissions budget for staying under 1.5°C warming is all but gone. And if it decreases emissions by reducing fossil fuel use, its growth will flag, and that will condemns 30-40 percent of its population to remain under the poverty line as it has chosen to use the flawed trickle-down theory of development.

The North nations have forced the South nations into a Catch-22 situation where they are damned if they reduce emissions and they are damned if they do not. Moreover, South nations are far more vulnerable to climate change than North nations — because of their geography and their lower capacity to meet disasters. And India, as part of South Asia (historic emissions 3.5 percent), is in one of two regions that will suffer the most from climate change impacts.

India will be subject to internal stresses such as extreme weather events, sea rise, floods, droughts, decreasing food and water security, internal migration. It will also be subject to external stresses as almost of the Maldives and a quarter of Bangladesh will be under the sea by the turn of this century. More than five crore climate refugees will walk into India. Nepal and Bhutan will reel under frequent glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and consequent devastating floods. Pakistan and Afghanistan will become severely water-stressed countries as their rivers are highly dependent on glacial melt, and as glaciers melt, their rivers will run dry.

A Savitri to save the world, and India?

At the current global GHG emission growth rate of 1.5 percent pa, the world will warm by 1.5-2oC in a few short decades. In the EGR10 and EGR2019 UNEP warns, “Unless mitigation ambition and action increase substantially and immediately, exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided” and “If we rely only on the current climate commitments of the Paris Agreement, temperatures can be expected to rise to 3.2°C this century.” In other words, the average temperature in future may be nearly as high as what meteorological departments currently classify as heatwaves.

Recent scientific findings are noteworthy. The first is the study of Antarctica ice sheets that made scientists conclude that abrupt and irreversible changes in the climate system have become a higher risk at lower global average temperatures. The second is new evidence that climate systems separated by thousands of kilometres may be inter-connected and exceeding tipping points in one system can increase the risk of crossing them in others. And the third is that new climate models being used for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, to be released in 2021, predict that temperature rise by 2100 may be as high as 6.5-7oC. Climate change has put the Earth’s environment and human society at the risk of drastic and permanent damage.

It will take time for these findings to be verified. But scientific uncertainty is not a good reason for procrastination while earth, like Satyavan, has become a dead man walking. But if the policymakers continue to play “Fiddler on the roof” as they have till now, who will play the role of Savitri and save the earth? It is only people who can save their environment and themselves. And that has already started in North nations, and must now spread to South nations. So what should people do?

People should form rainbow national coalitions of people of all walks of life—workers, farmers, fisherfolk, youth, women, scientists, and link up with one another. Next, they should ask national governments and the UN to declare a climate crisis and implement the following stringent measures immediately:

Sustainability: North nations emissions must become net carbon zero by 2030, and South nations by 2040. Gross global consumption should be reduced to sustainable levels and a sustainability index should be agreed upon to measure efficacy of sustainability objectives. These measures include leaving 80 percent of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground and every nation sequestering its consumptive emissions within its territory.

Taking responsibility: All nations should take responsibility for climate change-related injury, displacement and property loss to people, and damage to the environment, in proportion to their historic emissions.

By 2040, global energy consumption equity should be achieved.

Decentralized and autonomous local self-governing bodies of communities must have oversight powers over provincial and national governments, and international cooperation agencies. Decisions at all governance levels must be democratic and transparent.

Environmental restoration: 
Air, water, land, soil, and to the extent possible biodiversity, should be restored to their earlier quality.

People should also take the initiative and themselves implement such programmes that do not require government intervention or help, e.g., organic farming, dispensing with private transport, etc. After all, it is the future of their children and grandchildren that is at stake.

      Knowledge of global warming is not recent


1896:     Arrhenius publishes first calculation of global warming from human emissions of CO2

1930s:    Milankovitch proposes orbital changes as the cause of ice ages

1938:     Callendar argues that COgreenhouse global warming is underway

1956:     Plass calculates that adding CO2 to the atmosphere will have a significant effect on the radiation balance

1960:     Keeling accurately measures CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and detects an annual rise

1963:     First meeting of experts concerned with global warming warns that a rise in sea level is likely, with “immense flooding” of shorelines

1965:     Lorenz and others point out the chaotic nature of climate system and the possibility of sudden shifts

1966:     Emiliani’s analysis of deep-sea cores and Broecker’s analysis of ancient corals show that the timing of ice ages was set by small orbital shifts, suggesting that the climate system is sensitive to small changes

1965:     American President warned of dangers of global warming by his Scientific Advisory Committee. American Petroleum Institute issues a similar warning.

1968:     Studies suggest a possibility of the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, which would raise sea levels catastrophically

1971:     Leading scientists report danger of rapid and serious global change caused by humans, calls for an organized research effort

1975:     Manabe and collaborators produce complex but plausible computer models which show a  temperature rise of a few degrees for doubled CO

1976:     Studies show that CFCs (1975) and also methane and ozone (1976) can make a serious contribution to the greenhouse effect. Deforestation and other ecosystem changes are recognized as major factors in the future of the climate

1982:     Greenland ice cores reveal drastic temperature oscillations in the space of a century in the distant past

1982:     Exxon was fully aware about global warming and its risks, but would not tell or take action about it

2000:     Exxon plays down dangers of global warming

2016:     Petroleum companies–Chevron, Exxon and BP donate US$500,000 each to climate denier Donald Trump’s campaign fund

The author is an environmental engineer specialized in risk analysis. He had worked earlier with UNEP as a consultant and was a faculty in BITS Pillani


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