The earth is heating up!
Human activities are warming the planet at an unprecedented rate. Global surface temperatures have risen fast since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2000 years. In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations were higher than at any time in the last 2 million years and concentrations of GHGs methane and nitrous oxide, were found to be higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years. And the impacts of this are increasingly getting obvious with the rise in extreme events around the globe.
The Paris Agreement sets the goal for temperature rise by the end of the century to be no more than 2°C, and preferably no more than 1.5°C. The IPCC, Working Group 1 (WGI) report warns that the 1.5°C and 2°C warming limits will be crossed in the 21st century itself unless we reduce CO2, along with other greenhouse gas emissions, to net zero around or after 2050.
India, in the hot seat!
These changes will impact India greatly. Recent climate studies project increased precipitation and warming over India to match the global average leading to increase in frequency and severity of hot extremes.
The increase in rainfall will be more severe over southern parts of India. On the southwest coast, rainfall could increase by around 20 percent as compared to 1850-1900. The report warns that decision-makers need to implement net zero plans if we are to stop warming. While removing carbon dioxide is crucial, it needs to be accompanied by emissions reductions. While we now have an idea of the remaining carbon budget, it also reveals that it has remained unchanged till now.
How we move into a low carbon world is a challenge that we all need to face in the coming years. However, the shift towards a low carbon world will need efforts to work out a balance between achieving economic growth that is based on more sustainable methods and outcomes. It is also crucial that it involves everyone in the process.
Just, equitable and sustainable transition to a low carbon world
It is increasingly becoming clear that justice and equity are essential principles upon which to build the transition to a low-carbon world. At the heart of ‘Just Transition’ lies the fear that monumental climate challenges require us to choose between either protecting the planet or growing the economy to sustain people. This economy versus environment binary inhibits debate on a more profound transition that could alter the existing systems and structures.
Today, people working with both corporations/market systems and governments are calling out the need for climate action to be at the front and center of economic progress and decision-making. They stress on the huge business opportunities associated with a green economy. But their calls to action do not involve changing the rules of global capitalism. Rather, they focus on - the greening of capitalism through voluntary, bottom-up, corporate and market-driven changes.
As Zaid Hassan (XinX, Complexity University) states, “We have an economic and developmental paradigm that makes no sense. People have been sold an idea that you can have everything you want and the economy will provide it for you. The problem is a little thing called materiality. Replacing just all the cars in the U.K. with EVs will require tripling global copper production, not to mention all the other material requirements. Go through the list of materials needed for people to continue pursuing high energy lifestyles and you’ll see that it makes absolutely no sense. We are missing a real-world strategic response to the climate crisis. That’s the real crisis. We need to consider alternative development pathways that move away from the dominant economic systems, built on continuous growth. We need an approach that is rooted in profoundly different human-environment relations.
Those working with the marginalised/bottom of the pyramid populations articulate the need for development to lead, with climate action naturally following through as a result of this development-first focus.
Harish Hande’s (SELCO) framing of this principle is that sustainability should be a default part of any and all solutions, ‘...like the salt in food…it’s obvious and no one needs to specifically call it out.’
Solutions then are not solely produced via market forces or traditional forms of science or technology, but emerge from modified governance structures, democratic participation and decision-making and ownership. This means structural reform with the distribution of benefits or compensation bringing agency of workers, communities and other affected groups and not simply granted by the powers that be. A ‘Just Transition’, implies institutional change and structural evolution of the system.
How can this be achieved?
India faces many development challenges, and while climate change is important, it is not the only issue at hand. Solutions need to be multidimensional and resilient, and should take a co-benefits approach. There is a need to build local capacity and capabilities.
Arunabha Ghosh from Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) offers a compelling recommendation on how this kind of a just transition can be achieved while achieving a low carbon energy transition, “…..The fundamental problem is not just technology, it’s not just policy, it's not just investments. Renewable energy as a sector needs to be mainstreamed—and this can be done by building capacity at state and district levels to figure out pathways and then deploy them. (We) need to help states design alternative pathways and create options to build/construct/destroy and reconstruct industry solutions. The Energy Transition has to be brought closer to people”.
Mala Subramaniam,CEO, Arghyam highlights the on-ground changes needed, “The first shift we need is in the way participatory programs look at the first mile (workers) or the front line, which have traditionally carried the connotation of last mile and consequently have been the last priority for designing interventions. Communities or a first mile view is imperative for sustaining, for example, participatory water management initiatives at-scale”.
What’s needed is a multi-sectoral approach, one in which everyone needs to play their role, work in cohesion and move with urgency towards a Just Transition paradigm.
What Next From Here
The core of ‘Just Transition’ is around protecting the people who would be most impacted by the shift to a low-carbon world. This could include informal workers, frontline communities, or marginalised groups.
What’s clear is that large-scale systemic transformation is critical to decelerate climate change. Just Transition measures are central to support those affected by these changes and to ensure that no-one is left behind.
The process to build such a transformation is still emerging. It is context specific and dependent upon the status quo from which it emerges. The manifold causes of unsustainable economic progress and social injustice need to be rooted out; changes at the margin are no longer enough!
Maria Clara Pinheiro is the Director, Ashoka, South Asia. Maya Chadrasekaran is the Co Founder and Managing Director of Green Artha, a climate venture fund and innovation firm. Vidushi Kamani is the Head of the Ecosystems Programme at Green Artha.