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Paris climate pact: The play of words

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By Rajendra Shende

New Delhi: The Paris Climate talks was one of the biggest event of 2015 for the global environmental movement. However, 2016 began with the same old approach.

I had heard European ParliamentPresident Martin Schulz’s intervention after the climate agreement was adopted in Paris on Dec 12, 2015.

“Historic is an often-abused adjective in politics, but today’s agreement deserves this qualification”, he had said.

Interestingly, less than 50 days later, another adjective has emerged in the US on the climate change issue during the presidential debates among Republican and Democratic candidates. “Callous” is that adjective used to describe the attitude of the candidates, and even the moderators of the debate on climate change. The most crucial election in the world to elect a leader in the most powerful country is now signaling the true fate of the Paris climate agreement.

Benjamin Franklin, the first US ambassador to France, is credited with creating the world’s first bifocal lens. Tired of switching between two pairs of glasses, Franklin cut two sets of lenses in half and assembled them in a frame. The Paris summit did exactly that after two groups of countries haggled for more than two decades about their distinct history of carbon emission and future roadmap to de-carbonize the development space. Tired of these wrangles, the Paris summit succeeded in forging the two groups in such a way that both serve a common purpose with differentiated responsibility.

The significant success of bringing the two blocks together can be attributed to honesty and French diplomacy.

Interestingly, it was American diplomacy that raised a literally last-minute issue about an innocent and decent four-letter word – shall – that almost cracked the bifocal frame assembled so carefully by French presidency. That was in article 4 in its fourth para, that was earlier missed by the American team. When it was noticed, all hell broke and the whole COP-21 came to a halt.

French efforts with seductive diplomacy turned into a bizarre show of calls behind the curtain. The sentence that made the American delegate pull the chain in the running train was the sentence: “Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts.”

English dictionaries, including American editions, explain that “shall” expresses certain laws, rules and events that are intended to be certain in the future. It gives a legally binding color to the sentence. “Should” is used to express advisability, possibility or making suggestions, permissibility, making propositions and recommendations that have colour of encouragement.

What happened next for nearly an hour in that high-frequency excitement is the subject of a classical case study in modern multilateral diplomacy. It was conveyed by the US that either the French presidency change the word to “should” or the Americans would not support it. It was, indeed, too late to fail the Paris agreement. The sentence was changed to: “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission-reduction targets.”

Witnessing that high-octane development, sitting and waiting in the delegates’ hall and corresponding at TGV speed on WhatsApp with my friends in the frontline of negotiations, I was not baffled. I had seen such terse turns, tricky trials and turbulent tribulations in environmental diplomacy before.

What baffled me was what triumphed at the end of that drama – a spirit of “we shall”, passing the phase of “we should”. Without such “we shall” instinct proactively demonstrated by the developing countries, the Paris Summit would have opened yet another round of negotiations for next two decades. But the French presidency’s seductive gravel went down to adopt the Paris agreement.

The American drama in the “green room” was brought on stage with a script that was read out by the UNFCCC secretariat as a “typographical error”, which of course was a cover-up. Earlier drafts clearly indicated “shall” and were overlooked by the Americans. It all boils down to the fact that the US did not want the Paris agreement to be legally binding because the Republican-dominated Senate would never approve it. The verb “should” would give a developed country the freedom from legality.

While presenting the draft agreement, French Foreign Minister, and COP-21 president Laurent Fabius described it as “ambitious and balanced, fair, sustainable, dynamic and legally binding”. French President Francois Hollande just described it as “binding” as did the UN press release issued immediately after Hollande’s gravel went down.

International legal experts say any agreement is not binding in so far as it does not provide for a coercive or punitive mechanism for countries that fail to comply with their commitments. If the states that would ratify the Paris agreement want to just walk out of commitment, there is no provision to deter them.

The intent, however, as can be read from the Paris pact is that legally binding policies on compliances would emerge in future. As per the agreement, countries are required to re-convene every five years, starting in 2020, with updated plans that would tighten their emission cuts and starting in 2023, to publicly report on how they are doing so. Considering the on-going presidential debate in the US, those dates appear to be, to use another adjective, a “distant” dream that does not show any sign of getting ready.

Benjamin Franklin’s quote, loaded with verbs, says: “By failing to prepare, you are

preparing to fail.”(IANS)

( Rajendra Shende, a former director of the UNEP, is chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com)

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Air Pollution And Its Effects On Our Heath

Man is not just affected physically but his mental peace takes a toll too due to the increasing air pollution

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Stubble burning is one of the main reason behind heavy pollution in the Delhi and NCR region. Wikimedia Commons
  • Air pollution is a major concern nowadays and has major effects on one’s health
  • There are many toxic air pollutants in our environment which can cause severe health hazards
  • Health-related problems like asthma, headaches, nausea, etc. can be caused as an effect of air pollution

Air Pollution and their dreadful consequences are not some newly found phenomena of the new-found world. There have been instances of hazardous effects even in the past. The three major historic documentation, dating back to the middle of the 20th century, happened at Meuse Valley in Belgium, Donora in Pennsylvania, and London. The most gruesome of the three is the well-known London mishap that claimed over 4000 lives during the episode, due to temperature inversion and associated elevated levels of Air Pollution, and over 8000 lives in the subsequent period.

Air pollution can have severe effects on one's health.
Air pollution can have severe effects on one’s health.

Mankind is in a fast-paced race, always in the process of trying to outwit each other. The numerous developments born out of this race have brought along with them dreadful health consequences. Air Pollution is one such inadvertent yet a disregardful act by humans. The pollution does not begin only when you step out of your homes but is present within your safety havens itself.

According to the World Health Organization report in 2014, 92% of the world population was living in places where the air quality guidelines levels were not met. Outdoor Air Pollution was cited to be the cause of  3.7 million premature deaths in both cities and rural areas. Around 80% of those deaths were due to heart diseases and stroke, and the rest were due to respiratory illnesses and cancers due to exposure to fine particulate matter.

Air pollution can even cause risk of life.
Air pollution can even cause risk of life.
Air pollutants categories:

Air pollutants are categorized into two groups based on their impact, Criteria pollutants and Toxic air pollutants. Criteria pollutants include particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and lead (Pb). (defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the Clean Air Act). These pollutants are present everywhere and cause health issues when present at significant ambient levels. In general, the criteria pollutants are regarded as the cause of most respiratory and cardiac issues.

Also Read: How exposure to air pollution in womb may shorten lifespan

Toxic air pollutants are also known as “hazardous air pollutants,” are substances that cause cancer or lead to other potential non-cancerous effects on the reproductive and neurological systems and have disastrous consequences in the development process. It is also assumed that there is no threshold level of exposure required to cause cancer. Meaning any amount of exposure to these toxic pollutants can lead to cancer.

At risk Populations:

In any geography, the already ailing and sick (pre-existing medical condition) population is more at risk for suffering from the ill effects of air pollution. Apart from this category, young children are the next at risk.

The reason for children being affected more is that they have higher breathing rates than adults. Therefore, they unknowingly inhale a lot more pollutants than an average adult. The potential for exposure is also increased with increased amount of time spent outdoors. The developing lungs of the young people have a limited metabolic capacity to placate toxicity.

Exposure to air pollutants can case cancer as well.
Exposure to air pollutants can cause cancer as well.

 

Air Pollution Respiratory Diseases:

The small particulate matter of the criteria pollutants has the capacity to reach the lowest portion of the lungs, where the gaseous exchange occurs. The larger particles get trapped in the nose and the medium- sized ones settle in the tracheobronchial region.

The effects of the settlement of these particles are upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma attacks, loss of quality living days, and restricted activities. Chronic exposure to particulate matter has also been associated with the development of chronic bronchitis- inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes. This condition presents as a cough with mucus.

Also Read: Neurologists say rising air pollution can cause stroke among adults

Lung Cancer:

It is a commonly known fact and an “ought to be stressed upon” fact that chronic exposure to polluted air can also lead to the cancer of the lungs.

Ozone’s effect:

Ozone, an oxidant gas that is poorly water-soluble, travels throughout the respiratory tract due to its nature of solubility. It reacts with the molecules on the surface of the lung and leads to pulmonary oedema, inflammation, and the destruction of epithelial cells that line the respiratory tract. Children who stay outdoors in high Ozone areas develop asthma. Some of the disastrous effects are permanent in nature.

Air pollution can harm you even when you are inside your own houses.
Air pollution can harm you even when you are inside your own houses.
Some more Criteria air pollutants:

When Carbon monoxide reacts with blood haemoglobin, it reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and hence can cause damage to the nervous system. It causes a headache, fatigue, dizziness, coma, respiratory failure, and eventually death.

Nitrogen dioxide is mostly an indoor air pollutant released due to the increasing use of gas stoves. Exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can lead to respiratory distress with symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest.

Air Pollution Cardiovascular Effects:

The above-mentioned actions of air pollutants in the respiratory tract can also affect the cardiovascular system. The inflammation in the breathing tract induces transient hypercoagulability (abnormal blood clotting), the progression of atherosclerosis, and propensity to plaque rupture, especially in people with coronary atheroma. Long-term exposure to Air Pollution can also speed up the atherogenesis process, heart rate invariability, and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). Some recent studies have also found a significant relationship between heart attack (Myocardial infarction) and exposure to polluted air.

Air Pollution in Reproductive and Child Health:

Long-term exposure to the air pollutants poses risks even to an unborn child. It causes Intrauterine growth restriction -low birth weight at term, intrauterine growth retardation, smaller fetus for gestational age etc.

Indoor Air Pollution :

Some of the major causes of indoor air pollution are indoor smoking and burning of fuels for cooking purposes, especially in the second and third world countries. The people in these countries cook and heat their homes with biomass fuels and coal. Thus the main noxious gas released is sulfur dioxide, that causes respiratory issues and eye irritation

 

In Delhi, air pollution is a major concern.
In Delhi, air pollution is a major concern.
Quality of life:

Man is not just affected physically but his mental peace takes a toll too when the feelings of insecurity and the perception of having to live in a hazardous environment take over. Severe annoyance, sleep disturbances, reduced the ability to concentrate, communicate or perform normal daily tasks also accompany the psychological stress issues.

Some of the issues are too massive to be controlled at an individual level but a resolution to change can, of course, make a significant impact. Individually we are just one drop of water but together we can make a big ocean.

Simple steps involve following the government regulations in your state regarding the upkeep of your vehicles, carpooling, avoiding the burning of coal, adequate ventilation of your homes to dilute the effect of indoor air pollutants among others.

Wish for a change? Be the change! Same Condition

Air Pollution Health Effects