Act now: The latest IPCC report states that there is clear evidence that across Asia, climate-induced loss and damage is already occurring. Photo: IPCC

The IPCC and resurgence of the politics of science

India’s positions during the IPCC plenary sessions have seen alignments with “problem” nations such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. But for now, these alliances are more incidental than political

Adapt now or never—that is the gist of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, finalised and approved by 270 authors and 195 governments released this week says. The Working Group II report clearly outlines the grim reality that climate change is impacting us faster than we are adapting to it. The report still gives a glimmer of hope by stating “near-term actions that limit global warming to close to 1.5°C would substantially reduce projected losses and damages related to climate change in human systems and Ecosystems”. But it won’t eliminate them completely. 

For the Global South, which is at the forefront of this battle, the time to adapt seems to be narrowing much faster than the North. For example, the report states there is already evidence of regions in South Asia, especially households in low-lying coastal areas (which are sinking) — reaching soft adaptation limits due to financial, institutional and socio-economic constraints. This means even though there are available pathways for these regions and communities to still adapt to the changing climate, resources to do so don’t exist. Development in the Global South is already a challenge thanks to legacy issues such as poverty. The lack of financial aid, especially from developed nations, who are still reluctant to admit that their past emissions have caused the situation the world is facing now, has left developing nations in a tight spot. This theme continued on from last November’s COP into the plenary review of the IPCC report before its release.

The IPCC report states that there is clear evidence that across Asia, climate-induced loss and damage is already occurring, and is likely to increase at higher warming levels. India is already facing food insecurity, with its crops being damaged by extreme weather events, such as droughts, extreme rainfall events, heatwaves and floods. Add sea-level rise to the mix, and the country’s growth story is at high risk of coming to a grinding halt sooner rather than later. 

The International Energy Agency’s Indian Energy Outlook 2021 did suggest a way out. It estimated that since nearly 80% of India’s infrastructure in 2030 is yet to be built, the country had a unique opportunity to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure. In the IPCC report, climate-resilient development (CRD) has been mentioned frequently. But questions have been raised by the Global South about whether CRD takes on a rather blinkered view of what climate action should look like by conflating adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development. 

The axis of “obstruction”

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) for the report was released on February 28. The run-up to the release though was not without its share of stagecraft. The IPCC approval mechanism involves a plenary discussion of governmental delegations to build consensus around the content and messages of the SPM and the report at large. The plenary, essentially, is intended as a global collaborative editing process for the exhaustive scientific review that the IPCC is charged with compiling. These discussions, like much of the UNFCCC negotiation process, dictate not just which messages of science are retained and which are left out, but also the framing and context of these messages. When viewed as a guiding document for larger climate negotiations, the relevance of the politics of science becomes clearer.

As climate action becomes central to development planning and strategy around the world, there has been a resurgence of the politics of science in the IPCC arena. And the schisms between priorities have become clearer over recent sessions of IPCC plenaries. For developed countries, a key focus has been on amplifying the potential of mitigation, while evading issues of adaptation and historic responsibility. Oil producers have an interest in protecting the future of fossil fuels. While Saudi Arabia has, on multiple occasions, asserted their objection to 1.5°C warming being used as the benchmark for emissions pathways, Russia has similarly put forth a contrarian and absurd position that “positive” implications of climate change be included in assessments of impacts. 

For developing countries like India, the tussle is between the clear vulnerability to climate impacts and pursuing existing developmental objectives.

The Indian delegation has traditionally been among the more active participants in the plenary process. Recent years, however, have seen a marked uptick in Indian interventions. India’s positions during the WG1 plenary session gained notoriety in the West, which reported a dogged assertion of historic responsibility and equity as part of an “obstructionist” agenda being shaped along with Saudi Arabia and Russia. 

Indian interventions at the WG2 plenary were a logical extension to the stance adopted in the previous plenary session and long-standing values. The apparent focus this time was primarily the establishment of some grounds for adaptation finance and protection of carbon space for development. According to those close to the negotiations, India’s positions have been crafted to reflect the needs of the larger developing world, rather than being purely nationalistically oriented. 

This was evident in India’s strong objections to original framing that linked population directly with adaptation capacity and emissions. Stemming from the ideal of protecting demographic sovereignty, the Indian delegation pushed back on language that sought to draw Malthusian connections, attributing impacts and climate action limitations to population figures. The Indian stance reflects concerns that inclusion of circumstantial linkages to population will penalise demographic dividends in many developing countries. An added fear is that such assertions will be used to strong-arm developmental objectives and dilute the significance of bridging per-capita energy and carbon deficits in the developing world. India’s discomfort with the term Climate Resilient Development (CRD) also comes from a fundamental disagreement over the conflation of adaptation and mitigation for which CRD ostensibly advocates, and the differentiated responsibilities of developed nations towards those actions.

Another excerpt from the original text that evoked strong reservations from the Indian delegation were the direct linkages drawn between climate change and violent conflict. Strong connections between climate change and violent conflict presented in the draft was ultimately changed to a much weaker connection in the final text, mostly at India’s behest. India’s arguments to weaken the purported link was rooted in supplementary scientific literature that points out that while climate impacts and resource crunches can exacerbate societal instabilities and worsen conflict situations, these pressures are largely manageable in places where socio-economic indicators are good and governance capacity is high.

India’s strategy at IPCC plenaries and other climate negotiation forums have largely been consistent as far as pursuing equity and protectionism of developmental objectives go. This, however, in no way negates the deficit of trust at the root of the politics of climate science and climate action.

At this point, beyond the scope of amplifying negotiating power, India’s alignments with other “problem” nations such as Russia, China and Saudi Arabia are incidental rather than explicitly political. But as climate becomes intrinsically linked to nations’ development and energy strategies, negotiation platforms are emerging as important arenas for geopolitical jostling. Given the palpable geopolitical churn currently in play, it would hardly be a surprise if geopolitical alliances become increasingly tight (and fraught) in the arenas of climate negotiations.

Negotiating a global shift

The fallouts from ongoing territorial conflict in Ukraine, following an invasion by Russia in the last week of February, are gradually becoming clearer. Beyond the devastating loss of life and direct economic damage, response in the form of widespread sanctions against Russia has sent oil and gas prices through the roof. While oil and gas exports from Russia have thus far mostly been spared (with the exception of newly placed sanctions in the US and UK) due to Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, the conflict has invariably amplified calls for protectionism and energy independence in Europe. 

The invasion prompted an immediate cancellation of the controversial Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. In his first public response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a rapid expansion of gas and coal reserves, and search for alternate sources, in order to separate itself from Russian oil and gas. Executive vice-president of the European Commission announced earlier this week that the EU will be devising a new immediate energy strategy that will reduce Russian energy imports to just a third of current levels by the end of the year. Other European nations are also charting similar plans to wean off Russian oil and gas over the next decade, a plan that has also been included in EU’s 2030 energy decarbonisation plans.

At present, strategic reserves chalked out to replace Russian exports to Europe will help shore over the few remaining weeks of the current winter, but not much beyond that. Inability to consistently replace supplies from the world’s third-largest oil producer will likely have a knock-on effect on energy transition plans across Europe and extend the life of coal in the bloc, particularly in coal-dependent economies such as Poland and Romania. An all-out war in Europe at this stage is sure to topple all other priorities, including climate action, which runs a real risk of sliding back decades on the back of increased military conflict and prolonged supply chain disruptions that started with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The effect on mitigation of climate change, however, is likely to spill far beyond the uncertainties of oil and gas supplies, with Russia and Ukraine accounting for substantial supply of elements such as aluminium, nickel and neon gas. These are vital for the new energy economy dependent on renewables, energy storage and smart processing capacities. On the adaptation front, Russia and Ukraine are also important in global food supply chains and fertiliser supply chains. Even the setting up of manufacturing capacities domestically, as India has stated is its ambition in several sectors, hinges heavily on sustained global supply chains of critical materials. Commodity prices of critical exports from the region, such as wheat and sunflower oil, have raced upwards in the past two weeks, and analysts fear that a continuation could trigger a spiralling out of food prices and severely worsen inflationary pressures across the world. Fears of aggression from Russia’s close ally China towards Taiwan have further complicated calculations on how this would further disrupt global supply chains.

The global alignment of power is undergoing a churn, and challenges to existing economic systems and security arrangements are evidently underway. With climate increasingly becoming an extension of energy, trade and security concerns around the world, a rise in the political significance of climate negotiations is imminent at the COP27 later this year, especially if tensions remain escalated. The coming weeks and months will be telling in how economic ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine play out and what implications they would hold for the calculations dictating climate action. The third installment of the IPCC AR6, focused on mitigation pathways, is due to be released in less than a month, and it will come as little surprise if alliances start becoming political rather than incidental.

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