The grammar of climate change


11 January 2016

Outside of the legal and specialised professions, the words “shall” and “should” are mostly interchangeable in everyday layman use.

According to Oxford dictionaries, one meaning of should is “indicating a desirable or expected state” while one definition of shall is “expressing an instruction, command, or obligation.”

However, when should replaced shall in one of the key clauses of the Paris climate agreement in Paris recently, it made a world of difference to the worst victims of climate change, depriving them of billions of dollars in much needed funds.

So, what does this difference mean for countries like Bangladesh who are already suffering heavily from the fallout of the global phenomenon, in which they had nearly no roles to play, and a grim future ahead?

What does this difference mean for countries like Bangladesh that are on the road to achieving solvency with focus on industrialisation?

The draft text of the Paris climate conference said developed countries, who are responsible for almost the entire of the global carbon emission at present, “shall/should” achieve a balance between adaptation and mitigation while disbursing climate-related funds to the vulnerable countries.

But, the relevant article 9.4 of the agreement part of the final text, the word “should” was used.

“Shall” would have legally bound the developed countries to strike the balance between adaptation and mitigation. But now, because of the word “should,” the entire thing has become voluntary.

This actually means that the developed countries, who have recently been trying to strongly push a global “low carbon development path,” now have the option to disburse less funds for adaptation and more for mitigation.

So, why is this bad news for a country like Bangladesh and good news for the technologically advanced developed countries?

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), climate change mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases. This include using new technologies and renewables, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behaviour.

Economist Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, Bangladesh’s lead negotiator at the Paris climate conference, said Bangladesh does not have absolutely any need for mitigation funds right now.

“All Bangladesh needs right now is money for adaptation. Bangladesh is well on the path of industrial development and therefore carbon emission is inevitable. Even in the distant future, Bangladesh’s emission would not be anywhere near to some of the biggest emitting developed countries. So, mitigation is not a headache for us,” he said.

Adaptation, on the other hand, includes large-scale infrastructure projects such as building defence against rising sea level, behavioural shifts such as using less water, inventing and planting extreme climate-tolerant crops, and so on.

Bangladesh is already a model of adaptation for the world, whose climate is changing alarmingly fast. This is the only country in the world to have a specialised fund for climate adaptation – the Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF).

Over the last five years, the government has spent around Tk2,900 crore under this fund from its own budget alone for initiatives such as developing salinity and drought tolerant paddy and wheat, building cyclone shelters, and so on. No other countries have ever done anything remotely close.

Bangladesh is also the only country in the world to have its own strategic action plan for climate change – Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. This plan, laid out in 2009, envisages how the country should deal with adaptation, mitigation, technologies, capacity building, and so on.

In addition, Bangladesh has also began the process of mainstreaming the climate change issue in the overall development agenda, thus becoming one of the very first countries to do so.

In other words, Bangladesh knows exactly what it has to do in the coming years to tackle climate change. However, money is the biggest problem for Bangladesh, who is identified by the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as one of the most vulnerable countries.

So, if the developed nations cut fund from the adaptation head and inject it into mitigation, Bangladesh will be forced to buy low carbon technologies – which only the developed countries have – instead of adaptation.

In that way, all of Bangladesh’s climate plan would be rendered literally useless because the country does not have enough money to implement all its plans by itself.

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad said: “The developed countries want us to use their money to buy their technology.

In that way, eventually the money that they will give us will go back to them. They have been pushing their so-called ‘low carbon development path.’ This is not meant for Bangladesh, who only emits 0.3 tonnes carbon per capita.”

World Bank’s 2015 data showed that some of the biggest carbon emitting countries are: US with 17 tonnes per capita, Germany 8.9, UK 7.1, China 6.7, France 5.2 and India 1.7.

According to clause 54 of the decision part of the Paris climate agreement, developed countries will go for collective mobilisation of funds if the recipient countries can ensure “meaningful mitigation actions and transparency in implementation.”

Mohammad Zakir Hossain Khan, a senior manager at Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), said: “This decision of the agreement clearly indicates that the developed countries will only give priority to meaningful mitigation, not adaptation, which is an urgent need for countries like Bangladesh.”