Nothing as it seems

One of the most unexpected gifts of the Covid-19 lockdown: after nearly half a century the Himalayan peaks are visible from Nepal’s Kathmandu valley, 200 km away. Those mountains are an unprecedented sight for young people, and a forgotten one for the eldest, used to living with a grey sky obscured by traffic smog and factory fumes.

Last June, for the first time the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) in its report “Assessment Of Climate Change Over The Indian Region” correlated the 1901-2018 average temperature increase to the greenhouse effect. In comparison to recent decades (1976-2005), they are projecting a national average temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius in the best scenario, 4.4 in the worst.

In Western countries, India is often portrayed, together with China, as the main obstacle to achieving the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goals. Any effort made by Europe or the US is bound to fail due to Chinese and Indian policies on coal and other fossils. A typical refrain that does not help to fix the problem, but seems designed to justify more deregulation, and fewer ties for the West once again.

Yet in the ranking of the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which measures countries’ degree of fulfilment of their commitments made in the Paris Agreement, we see that behind Morocco and Gambia, the only two nations capable of carrying out a CO2 emission reduction program consistent with the 1.5-degree scenario, there is India. According to the CAT, the Indian government is carrying out a plan compatible with a 2 degrees increase, thanks to a steady rise in the share of renewable energy sources. A figure that can be improved, but still remarkable when compared to notoriously virtuous countries such as Norway and New Zealand, which are in line with the 3-degrees scenario. Even worse are China, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Vietnam, whose commitments are well above the 4-degrees scenario. But if you think India should be toasted as the new unexpected environmental champion, then the latest World Air Quality Report from IQAir informs us that six Indian cities make up the world’s ten most polluted urban areas. Data which seems more coherent with the wall of grey clouds surrounding the Himalayas. But even within this list we struggle to find consistency. Pakistan (three towns) and China (one) complete the air pollution top 10, and 48 Chinese towns make the top 100, whereas Beijing has dropped out of IQAir’s rankings of the top 200 most polluted cities, and it has been hailed as a model by the UN Environment Program – PM2.5 levels in Beijing have diminished for seven years in a row. Beijing’s air quality turnaround is maybe the best and most surprising legacy of the 2008 Olympic games, which proved that everything could be changed. Conflicting messages that do not allow to reach a quick verdict on any country or on any situation.

The proliferation of independent organisations providing data, analysis and rankings deserves credit and praise. Paradoxically, rather than giving one larger and unique picture and reinforcing the adoption of global policy goals, the abundance of data is favoring increasingly individualistic choices on climate, with each nation using statistics that are the most convenient to justify its choices and counter criticism from abroad. Even the exceptional images of the Himalayas or the crystal clear waters in the canals of Venice – rather than stimulating a more determined claim for change, innovation, protection of the environment – are used by those who deny or ridicule the climate issue to highlight nature’s ability to fix any human-made damage in a couple of weeks. Any claim, even the most flawed, finds useful statistics — a peculiar law of evidence, not trustworthy at all.

Gianni Serra