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Air pollution must be tackled: Dr Leena Srivastava

In all likelihood, we would be somewhere in between and would be required to act on both, says Dr Leena Srivastava ahead of the Katowice Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Poland in December

Asha Ramachandran |

The impact of climate change is increasingly being felt now as never before. The latest report of the IPCC, on the impact of climate change in a world warmer by 1.5 degrees, brings out in no uncertain terms the need for aggressive action to combat the emissions of greenhouse gases and to accelerate the pursuit of inclusive sustainable development.

The world has two choices ~ either drastically change production and consumption patterns or build adaptive capacities to such a great extent that it minimises the impact on populations vulnerable to climate change to near zero. Both of these are unrealistic scenarios, says Dr Leena Srivastava, Vice- Chancellor, TERI School of Advanced Studies, who is also on the President’s Advisory Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

In all likelihood, we would be somewhere in between and would be required to act on both, she told ASHA RAMACHANDRAN in an interview ahead of the Katowice Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Poland in December. Excerpts:

Q: The latest report of the IPCC calls for action much beyond what was agreed at the Conference of Parties in Paris in 2015. How feasible is it?

A: The latest IPCC report on 1.5 degrees warming was mandated by the UNFCCC to explore whether it was indeed feasible to limit global average temperature increase to this level over the pre-industrial era and if so, what would be the ensuing benefits over a 2 degree temperature increase scenario. The IPCC report has reaffirmed that it is indeed both feasible and eminently desirable to aim for this more stringent target. However, the reality of being able to achieve this has to be seen in the context of the current national commitments that have set us on path to a world that would experience a temperature increase of more than 3 degrees C. The first step, therefore, would be to at least align ourselves with the more modest target of 2 degrees C and then use the stocktake mechanism of the Paris Agreement to increase our ambition levels.

Q: How, in your opinion, will India be impacted, going by the IPCC report?

A: The impact on India of climatic changes has to be seen in the context of impacts on natural systems translating into, and exacerbated by, impacts on human systems and human well being. From a natural systems point of view, India will experience greater rainfall variability, a more rapid melting of glaciers, extreme heat events, ocean events affecting our coasts, etc., that would then translate into losses in agricultural productivity, human health impacts, vulnerability of urban infrastructure, etc. However, given India’s large population and the large percentage of population that is poor and vulnerable, the likelihood of these impacts evolving into disastrous events would be significantly higher. The weak infrastructure and institutions are also likely to convert extreme events into disaster outcomes.

Q: How is India placed to meet this latest call for action?

A: India has done very well in terms of its renewable energy ambitions. It has also designed some innovative programmes on energy efficiency. However, beyond these, a lot more needs to be done on emissions reductions opportunities such as mobility choices, agricultural production, green buildings, etc. Also, India needs to move beyond the design of government-driven policies and programmes to engage every other stakeholder in the effort to reduce its GG emissions ~ corporates and civil society included. As of now, the perception still remains that climate change is a problem that governments only have to deal with and initiate action on.

Q: With the report figuring as a major agenda item at CoP24, do you see the Paris Agreement being renegotiated?

A: I do not believe that the time is right to re-open the Paris Agreement for re-negotiation, nor is there a need. While it is true that the ambition level of the Paris Agreement leaves a lot to be desired, the achievement of this Agreement has been hailed as a major step forward. It is critically important for the world to demonstrate that a bottom-up process of commitments can actually deliver desired results, using the mechanisms and safeguards already in place. The Paris Agreement already makes reference to making all efforts to restrict the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C. A higher ambition level can be targeted under these provisions.

Q: With the US having pulled out of the Paris Agreement, how do you think the member countries will re-negotiate in the light of the new findings?

A: The member countries, I believe, will factor in any commitments made at a State level in the US while determining the need to step up their own ambition levels. In any case, the ability of countries to step up their ambition level will be determined by their national contexts and a facilitative dialogue for enhanced ambition. It can only be hoped that the pulling out of the US may lead to greater levels of cooperation across the remaining countries.

Q: What do you see of India’s role at the negotiations, especially since we will be one of the most impacted?

A: India has the potential to take a greater leadership role in the climate discussions going forward. Its commitments on renewable energy and the initiative on the International Solar Alliance have won it many accolades. India has many other initiatives to showcase and has demonstrated the ability to leapfrog technologies. It has the advantage of having a tech-savvy population, great entrepreneurship and a strong research infrastructure. On the basis of these strengths, India should make further bold announcements at COP 24 particularly around mobility emissions and the role of cities.

Q: With pollution levels in India’s urban areas getting bad to worse, what action is required at home?

A: The increasing pollution levels in the cities of India is symptomatic of the lack of a systemic approach to dealing with pollution problems and the weakness of regulatory institutions. India needs to tackle air pollution on a war-footing and needs to empower/establish an air quality regulator with the mandate to direct cross-sectoral developments and dynamically define penalties that create the requisite deterrence. At the same time, we need to review our fiscal policies to remove any hurdles to adopting cleaner technologies and consumption choices, among several other measures that can be put in place.