In the strict legalese that the United Nations is accustomed to, the Madrid Climate Summit is called the 25th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We will call it COP25 for short. After riots engulfed Santiago in Chile, the venue was shifted to Madrid — just as well because that reduced the carbon footprint of the gathering.

COP25 comes at a time when scientists have warned that the goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015 are outdated, and the targets for curbing carbon emissions need to be revised. Erratic weather, the melting of polar ice-caps, glaciers shrinking in the Himalaya and other climate-induced changes that scientists expected to happen in 2030 are already taking place.

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The reason: carbon emissions are going up instead of down. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere crossed 408 parts per million last week — several orders of magnitude higher than before the industrial revolution, when it never rose above 300.

Just to put it in perspective, all the changes we see happening around the world due to global warming have been set off by a temperature rise of only 1oC since human society started burning fossil fuels like coal. Yet, in the best-case scenario global average temperature is set to rise by at least 2oC in the next 30 years.

In its Emissions Gap Report 2019 last week, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warned that countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% a year between 2020 and 2030 in order to cap temperature increase at 1.5oC, as agreed in Paris. But the US has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and major emitters of carbon dioxide have not reduced their emissions as agreed. To meet the Paris targets, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by 40% by 2030 and countries need to become carbon neutral by 2050.

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COP25’s motto is ‘Time To Act’, and it is hoped the 50 heads of state attending the meeting will do just that. Environmental activists are holding a parallel ‘Social Summit for Climate’ to pressure governments to not backtrack on commitments. Yet, conspicuous by their absence in Madrid are US President Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Together they represent more than half the total emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide today.

Scientists have painted an apocalyptic picture of what will happen if the world fails to act. Rising global temperatures will lead to heat stress, falling food production, continental-scale forest fires, receding icecaps and rising sea levels. All these slow-onset disasters will have an impact on food production and human habitation, forcing tens of millions to relocate. The climate crisis is already leading indirectly to political instability and conflict, which in turn adds to migration pressure.

Aside from all the other changes like mass extinction of species and collapse of natural ecosystems, it is migration that will have the most profound impact on human society. Some of these challenges are supposed to be discussed this week in Madrid, as delegations deliberate on the nexus between climate and migration. The UNFCCC’s task force on displacement will present its report, and rich countries will also have to fund the under-pledged $100 billion Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

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To be sure, humans have been migrating throughout history, forced to move due to natural climate cycles or the advance of the Ice Age. However, this is the first time they will be migrating because of human-induced changes to the climate.

People migrate due to sudden disasters like cyclones, floods, wildfires or droughts. But they will also relocate because of slow-onset changes like sea-level rise and erratic rainfall patterns. The lesson of the past two years is that slow-onset is not so slow anymore.

The world has reached a tipping point, where small quantitative changes have created larger non-linear irreversible movement of people. This poses huge implications for politics and security.

People are leaving the mountains due to landslides and floods, drylands because of water stress and coastal areas due to sea-level rise. Their destinations are overcrowded urban areas where they are even more vulnerable. A sign of things to come was Cyclone Fani, which forced 3.5 million people in India to be displaced earlier this year.

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The World Bank estimates that by 2050, nearly 150 million people in South and Southeast Asia may become climate refugees. Sea level rise alone is expected to displace 50 million people from Bangladesh and India.

Unless Nepal’s subsistence farmers get irrigation and other support to survive erratic monsoons, they will have no choice but to move. As our reports this week show, outmigration of Nepalis is now increasing, partly due to climate change. With the men gone, women are left to cope with the impacts of the climate emergency on their own.

Nepal also needs to do much more to reduce petroleum demand — not just to save the planet but also to save its own economy.

In the end, it all boils down to vision and governance to recognise the climate crisis and be ready for its effects. Being unprepared will be much more costly in the long run.

10 years ago

As world leaders gather in Madrid this week for the Climate Summit, it is interesting to note that exactly 10 years ago this week Nepali Times #479 was discussing the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009. Excerpt from an editorial from 4-10 December 2009:

‘The people in the mountains of Nepal do not know that the futures of their children and grandchildren are tied up with how the international climate change conference next week in Copenhagen goes.

Will the rich countries agree to cut back to 40% of 1990 emissions in the next 10 years (which scientists warn is needed to keep the average rise of global temperatures to within two degrees Celsius) or will they stall at the 13% the Americans say is as far as they can go?

The Copenhagen meet will also reveal whether the rich countries are actually willing to help developing countries make the switch from fossil fuel to renewables, and whether they will help to fund adaptation measures so the world’s poor can cope with rising sea levels and receding snowlines.'