C2GTalk: An interview with Sunita Narain, Director General of Centre for Science and Environment

How can countries work together to tackle climate change?

26 September 2022

How can countries work together to tackle climate change? 
Is there still a chance of keeping warming below 1.5°C or should we be preparing for the consequences of a temperature overshoot? 
What are the challenges of deploying nature-based solutions to tackle climate change?
How could the world accurately measure nature-based carbon sequestration?
Should the Global North remove the carbon dioxide it has already emitted?
Are policy makers preparing for the possibility of overshooting global warming goals?

This interview was recorded on 25 Aug 2022 and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

Countries need to set aside their differences, recognize their interdependence, and negotiate as equals to tackle the climate crisis, says Sunita Narain, the Director General of India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) during a  C2GTalk. Nature based solutions can play an important role, but they need much simpler accounting rules, and should be deployed in a way that benefits local communities. 

Sunita Narain is the Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Editor of the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth. Dr. Narain plays an active role in policy formulation on issues of environment and development in India and globally. She has worked extensively on climate change, with a particular interest in advocating for an ambitious and equitable global agreement. Her work on air pollution, water and waste management as well as industrial pollution has led to an understanding of the need for affordable and sustainable solutions in countries like India where the challenge is to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth. She was a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change and has been awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour. In 2005, the Centre for Science and Environment, under her leadership was also awarded the Stockholm Water Prize. In 2016, Time magazine selected her as one of the most influential people in the world. She received “The Order of the Polar Star” award from the Swedish Government in 2017.  CSE bagged the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize for peace, disarmament and development for 2018. Ms. Narain continues to serve on national and international committees on environment including One Health Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance set up by WHO/OIE/FAO  

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The world faces many interlocking crises — continued poverty, climate change, the pandemic, and food insecurity — yet the ability of governments to tackle these crises collaboratively at a global level is increasingly under strain.  You have in your recent writings warned of a growing polarization exacerbated by misinformation and mistrust.  How would you describe the geopolitical moment we are living through right now? 

I think we should be worried because this is possibly the worst time for us to be discussing a serious issue like climate change in the world.  The fact is climate change requires that we must work together, it requires countries to put aside their differences and to collaborate, and it is very clear that a global existential issue like climate change requires us to understand interdependence of our societies and of our nations as never before. 

Yet, it is today a time when the world is even more divided between us and them; between a war which is horrific and which has led to huge problems across the world, but more than that it is putting the world into these different camps of who is with whom; and frankly these boundaries, these borders, are not good for climate change.  We require a world that is going to talk to each other and which is going to negotiate as equals between the poorest and the richest countries. 

Let’s be very clear.  Climate change is a great equalizer and we have to work together.  This is one issue on which the rich cannot bully the poor, and it is also one issue on which the poor cannot not cooperate; so we need both sides.   

It is a tough time in the world.  I don’t know what else to say to you other than to say that as somebody who has been campaigning on climate change for the last three decades, I have never seen the impacts of climate change as horrific as they are today, and yet our governments are so distracted that they are not taking the necessary action at the scale and pace that is required. 

Obviously there are limits to what any one actor can do, but how are you tackling this polarization and challenge to collaboration in your work? 

It’s almost impossible for us to tackle the issue of global polarization other than to point to it and say that this does not make for a better world and for us to point out that the situation is urgent. If you look at my own country of India, we are seeing huge impacts on the very poor of India because of extreme weather events that are unfolding in our world, from extreme rainfall which is leading to floods to long drought periods and very high levels of heat waves.  You are essentially getting into a situation which is, as I call it, the “revenge of nature,” and governments still don’t seem to understand that this revenge of nature is a call that we have to respond to. We cannot have the arrogance or the hubris to think that we will be able to ride this out. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued a warning that the world is almost certainly going to overshoot the 1.5°C warming goal with obviously increasingly severe consequences for people around the world, especially the most vulnerable.  Do you think there is still any chance of keeping warming below 1.5°C — “keep 1.5°C alive,” as one expression goes — or, alternatively, are you thinking about the consequences of an overshoot to human wellbeing, ecosystems, the economy; but also politically and psychologically what does it mean to go over that 1.5°C goal? 

Mark, I will be blunt with you.  I think the world was fooling itself.  It was delusional.  I think we were on an overshoot the minute we signed the Paris Agreement because the Paris Agreement said we will do as much as we can, whatever is convenient.  There was no target set for each country based on its responsibility.  Global rules were given short shrift when it came to saying how much a country’s contribution to the climate change problem should be and therefore how much should a country cut as a target.  It was an agreement that was built on the notion of saying: “We will do our best and we will try to ratchet up that action over time.” 

I think in 2015 itself we knew that the world would overshoot 1.5°C, but it is delusional to keep thinking — and I think that is where the IPCC has failed us all, because the IPCC should have pointed to this, but they always say they are scientists and therefore politics is not their business.  They needed to have pointed out the fact that the global carbon budget was so shrunk now that unless there was a fair allocation of that budget the world would overshoot 1.5°C.  I think that is where science has failed humanity, and the IPCC should be in the dock for not being able to speak truth to power. 

So in terms of the consequences, political as it were, of the overshoot, from what you are suggesting perhaps there was already an understanding that there would be an overshoot, so the actual consequence of the overshoot might not be as large as one might expect.  I am interested in your thoughts.  Is there a moment at which you overshoot 1.5°C that this has an impact on the way the world thinks about climate change? 

Please understand.  There has never been a logic for 1.5°C or 2.0°C, okay, and we all know that; so I think they will say 1.5°C was aspirational, and now of course it is a 2.0°C target, and when we overshoot 2.0 °C it will be a 2.5°C target. 

We need to know that this is a target which is designed to take us all to hell.  We are only at 1.1°C rise from 1850–1870 when records were kept.  We know that is on an average in terms of global temperature rise.   

Yet, you and I are talking today of devastations in the rich countries and poor countries like never before, and that is only at 1.1°C.  So let’s be clear.  As each degree increases it is going to get worse and much worse. 

We knew we would overshoot 1.5 °C, but it was convenient to have a narrative because the rich and the developed countries didn’t want the responsibility to shift to their end to take the drastic reductions.  But now we are going to overshoot that, and there is going to be a budget which is already very, very tight.   

So let’s be clear about this, Mark.  Things are only going to get worse, and I am not sure whether we understand what adaptation to climate change can even be and how we are going to cope with the consequences. 

Maybe just one last question about the 1.5°C goal: There was always this understanding with the concept of overshoot, whether or not you would agree with it, that you overshoot and then bring it back down again and that the challenges are to do that overshoot for the least amount possible — every tenth of a degree matters — and for the shortest amount of time possible.  Do you think that the 1.5°C still has some meaning in the sense of, “Well, we now just need to bring it down as quickly as possible?” 

Mark, I think some wiser people need to give an answer to that.  I cannot understand how, when you have filled an atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which has a life of 150 years, you are going to absorb that.  What kind of trees are you going to plant?  What kind of sequestration are you going to do to be able to get that carbon dioxide, which is a long-life task, out of the atmosphere?   

You can definitely say we can overshoot 1.5°C, but then maybe, if we are wise enough, we will be able to reduce drastically our emissions so that we don’t add further to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; but how we are going to remove those gases from the atmosphere after we have overshot 1.5°C I think is more about theory than science. 

That’s interesting, and that is in fact something I definitely want to move to.  There are different approaches to carbon dioxide removal suggested, a variety of nature-based approaches and also technological approaches.  Obviously, the idea is first that these might be helpful in achieving net zero to offset — which is now a word under increasing scrutiny — tough residual emissions, but also maybe to go net negative, to bring down the total atmospheric CO2 concentrations. You have already shared some thoughts on it, but I wonder if you could go a little further.  What awareness do you see amongst your audiences and interlocutors of this aspect of climate action that is getting increasing attention in various countries and in the IPCC of carbon dioxide removal?  What understanding is there of the challenges of the different approaches and technologies, who might pay for it, and so forth? 

Very good question, Mark.  The only area in which I would have any idea or any information or perspective to share with you is what is broadly called “nature-based solutions.”   

There is of course this grand plan, and a lot of people have jumped onto it to say “Let’s plant trees” as a way to be able to sequester carbon dioxide.  To me planting trees is a win-win, no question about it.  Planting trees which are in the hands of the very poor is a win-win.  Planting trees so that the livelihood of very poor communities benefits from the planting of those trees is a win-win, which also means that they need the right to be able to both plant the trees and cut them.  They need to be able to plant trees which are useful for their economies and not to plant to trees just as carbon sinks. 

I have been looking at the science of carbon removal by nature-based solutions, and there is a huge gap in terms of exactly how you account for this and differences also in estimates from the different methodologies used for calculating or estimating the potential of trees to be sinks.  When I look at those estimations and the order of magnitude by which they differ it has a lot to do with how you plan to include the role of trees, grasslands, and land as potential for the mitigation and removal of carbon dioxide. 

My view, Mark, would be a little different: We definitely need to invest in nature-based solutions — I have no doubt about that — but we need to make sure that the politics of nature-based solutions are not focused on just the removal of carbon dioxide but the fact that we need to build these as livelihood and resilience options for the communities that are going to be worst impacted by climate change, and if we can do this and we improve the accounting systems so that we can transfer good money and real money into the hands of the poor communities, you have a chance to be able to if not mitigate the problem at least to be able to find ways of using nature to work for nature.  I think that would be a very powerful tool. 

But then, as you very rightly asked, the question is financial.  If I look at the costs of why nature-based solutions are becoming so prominent in the mitigation options and in net zero, it is because everybody thinks that there is a huge amount of land available in countries of the developing world, whether it is Africa or India, where you can plant trees at negative cost or at minimal cost.  You look at the ranges coming out of Europe which say it is going to be so expensive to plant trees there but you can do that in Africa.  But that African land belongs to somebody, it belongs to some community that needs to get a livelihood security from the use of that land.  They need to benefit from it. 

So I think, Mark, we are not putting our money where our mouth is.  We are not serious about climate change when we come to these newfangled words we pick up because at the end of the day I am old enough to tell you that “nature-based solution” was called “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD)” earlier and then “REDD+.”  There was always this talk about using trees, forests, land, and others to be able to improve the resilience of the planet, but I think we have never been serious about it, and now that things are so dire we are just clutching at straws.  We are still not serious about using what could be a viable solution and making it work for the planet, for climate change, and for people. 

There has been a lot of focus recently on the idea of greenwashing, whereby companies “absolve their emission sins,” so to speak, by paying for a project which may or may not have happened anyway or by paying for some trees not to be chopped down which may or may not have been chopped down anyway.   

What’s your feeling around that whole debate now?  There is so much focus on this idea of greenwashing, accounting, and verifying, and how on Earth you actually go about creating a system that properly monitors, verifies, and so forth.  Do you have any thoughts on what needs to be done there and to what extent the international community, given the problems that we addressed earlier, is able to actually create that system? 

I think, Mark, we need to turn this on its head.  The fact is today when I look at the rules that are being set up for measurement of carbon sequestration, they are so complicated that actually you would need a team of the most advanced auditors, who would then require auditors to audit their work, exactly as we did in CDM (Clean development mechanism), and at the end of the day it is going to be a scam. 

I think what we need are much simpler rules.  You need to make sure that you can put real money into the hands of people and communities, and you need to find measurement tools which are easy to use, whether it is satellite-based measurements or financial measurements, and both can easily be done.   

All our countries have afforestation programs today and have the same challenges and are looking at ways to be able to measure the survival rate of trees and making sure that those trees are actually used for community welfare because at the end of the day we will need to plant trees and we will need to cut the trees and replant the trees.  So we also need to understand that we are not doing this as tree planting in perpetuity because that actually will not work as well as we want for carbon sequestration and certainly will not work for the people on whose lands these trees will be planted. 

Do you have any thoughts on the technological solutions that are now being looked at — direct-air capture plants or some of the hybrids like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage?  Do you have any thoughts on those approaches? 

What I understand for verification of tree planting is there are a lot of satellite-based tools that are coming up.  Then of course there is the more complicated work that you are talking about, which is what happens with bioenergy, what happens with the trees you plant and then use to run energy plants with?  What kinds of measurements do you do?  That is where Europe has been on this very slippery slope of using bioenergy and double-counting its carbon sequestration. 

I think there is a need for making some more robust rules.  But I would certainly urge the global community — and when I urge the global community on this I know this will be water off a duck’s back because they never listen to this.  They like their rules to be so complicated that only some really expensive auditors can even understand them, forget applying them. 

We have certainly seen a lot of critique and skepticism of CO2 removal in the environmental movement.  At the same time there were some very interesting calls last year, and they may be repeated this year, from India reframing it almost as, “It’s up to the Global North to try to go net negative,” essentially cleaning up its historic emissions, its past mess — some have even used the frame of “decolonizing” the atmosphere — to allow the Global South the ability to gain the advantages of fossil fuels and their emissions for a little longer and that there may be some climate justice equation here in terms of pressing the developed countries to push for carbon dioxide removal.  How do you view that reframing in a sense?  Do you think it makes any sense? 

I think, Mark, that is a very important and powerful reframing.  There is no doubt that the Global North has overused its share of the atmospheric space.   

Let’s be very clear. Thirty percent of the global population — including China, Mark, and I include China in the Global North now because their emissions have overtaken those of most countries — occupy 70 percent of the global carbon budget up to 2030.  What happens to countries like India?  What happens to Africa?   

Therefore, there is definitely a need for much more drastic emission-reduction trajectories in the Global North — in Europe, in the United States, and also in China, Australia, and Canada.  Within the role of carbon sequestration, of carbon removal, if those countries find that they are able to do that, they can invest money in it, and it is actually a viable technology and not one in which we are playing God once again. 

The only thing that worries me sometimes when I read about these technologies — I don’t know enough, and this is more philosophical than actually practical, so forgive me on this — is that we are where we are today because humankind has believed that they can dominate nature and they have no real understanding of the consequences of reaching the planetary boundaries. 

My worry with some of the technologies that I read about — I don’t know enough about them other than the nature-based solutions — is that it will make the countries more complacent thinking that there is a solution out there so we can do what we do without worrying about mitigation.  Another worry is that we don’t play God once again because I think we need to be much more humble with nature rather than thinking that we will be able to overcome and reengineer nature for our benefit.  We are where we are because of the arrogance that we have had. 

I think it is fundamental in this debate where your ethical framework is and how you place yourself vis-à-vis technology, nature, and different forms of making ethical decisions.  I will come back to that with regard very briefly to something else in a second. Basically, even with vast emission cuts and if some form of carbon removal can work at a serious level, even with all of that, climate impacts are going to grow more severe in the short to medium term.  We already see the evidence of the heat waves in India and climate stresses all around the world even at 1.1–1.2°C warming, as you said.  Do you see policymakers, including in the Global South, doing enough to prepare for this higher level of warming that is coming, whether through adaptation or other additional risk-reduction approaches?  Do you actually see people getting to grips with the fact that this world is coming? 

We started our conversation with this, and there is no doubt that politicians in my world are very worried.  They can see the impacts.  There is no longer only talk of climate change, and we also know that climate change is not the only factor because of which we have such severe consequences.  There are always multiple reasons.  It is more the mismanagement of land and water, it is the lack of development of poor people, and that is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.  So, there is worry.   

No politician in our part of the world or any part of the world can remain immune to this because they are responsible to their people.  They are seeing more flooding, they are seeing more drought, and they are seeing more heat stress.  Farmers are struggling today between more heat, more pests, and lack of water.  So it is a very tough time. 

But whether they are able to rise above all the petty politics of the world and focus on this as the biggest imperative, I suspect not.  I think there is too much to distract them today.  I just wrote an article saying that we have reached a point where all these natural disasters have reached the tenth pages of our papers.  It’s almost like this is the new normal and life goes on.  Yet we know that it is getting worse, we know that every year is different.  It floods in Bihar, it floods in Assam in India, but this year the flood in Assam has been a six-month affair, which means that there is little time for the state to pick up and restart. 

You can always say that societies always look for a copout, an easy way out. 

Also, I am a little reluctant to play into this fear and to keep talking about “Here’s a doomsday clock” because that only makes people just stop reading and stop focusing on it, saying, “Sunita, it is never going to improve.”  Human beings never want to face up to something when you hold up a mirror to them and say, “You are going to die.”  You cannot do that.  So you have to focus on what’s the possibility of being able to take action and the need for urgent action. 

 I will just finish on this.  Just in terms of personally — because it can be very difficult for people working in climate to maintain a sense of optimism, hope, and agency; this is something that professionals working in this field struggle with, both for themselves and then to impart it to their audiences — how do you navigate that particular challenge, the question of maintaining that?  What philosophies do you turn to to keep you going?  

Very good question, Mark.  I do feel increasingly when I see the devastation around us, how should we go on?  It is all our combined failure.  I have been in this for as long as anyone else and have been arguing, pushing, and making the world aware of climate change, and yet it seems that we are almost losing the battle. 

The only way we have to go on — and this is the way I do it — is through the sheer philosophy of saying: “We have to stay on course.  We cannot give up.”  We have to keep letting the world know that this is serious, it is an existential threat, and we have to find answers.  And I do believe in humankind’s ability to be able to rise above its pettiness, its crassness, and to recognize the fact that we are in a crisis that requires us to come together and to work together. 

That is what we do in India.  We are looking for answers.  We are constantly looking to suggest what needs to be done because I think that is also part of not giving up.  It is part of looking at where the solution is. 

That is why all solutions should be on the table, no question about it, but the solutions that we work on and constantly focus on are to say: “Okay.  Let’s keep at it.  Let’s stay on path, but let’s be real.”   

The only thing that really does bring out the worst in me is when I see people just trying to talk and not walk the talk.  Talking the talk is the problem that I have.  I think the matters are too serious for us not to be extremely, extremely aware of the need to take urgent action and for the action to be real.  

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