Fouling up the air

12 January 2010

India has become collusive in the weak and inequitable Copenhagen Accord. The government must correct course if India’s poor are not to suffer further.

While inaugurating the Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made what must be one of the greatest understatements of the decade. He said “very limited” progress was achieved at the Copenhagen conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and nobody was “fully satisfied” with the outcome. This assessment of “progress” would make logical sense only if India’s goal was to oppose a strong, effective and equitable agreement that sets stringent targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions for the developed Northern countries and maintains basic continuity with the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only legally binding climate treaty.

In fact, the so-called Copenhagen Accord, sealed between the United States and the new BASIC grouping of fast-growing countries of the Global South (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and originally signed by just 26 countries, represents anything but progress towards climate stabilisation.

The accord makes only a token, nominal reference to North-South differentiation of responsibility, implying that the North should take the lead in fighting climate change. But it contains no short- or medium-term goals for the North, no quantitative carbon budgets, no emissions reduction targets for individual Northern countries, nor even a real commitment – as distinct from vague promise – to limit global warming to 2° Celsius, not to speak of the 1.5°C demanded by more than 100 developing countries. It is silent on the year by which global greenhouse emissions must peak (which, climate science tells us, must happen by 2020), or by when they must fall by 50 per cent (which should happen by 2050) if dangerous, probably catastrophic, climate change is to be averted with a 50 per cent probability.

The accord negates much of the progress made in the UNFCCC negotiations since the Bali Action Plan of 2007. It drives a stake through the heart of the principle of multilateralism, which is vital in an area where strong collective action and universal global cooperation are essential. And it tramples cynically upon the concerns of the most vulnerable of peoples and countries, which pleaded for emergency action to prevent the small island states from drowning and the poorest of people from suffering the worst consequences of climate change.

Missing from the accord are references to continuing with the Kyoto Protocol or any other legally binding agreement, limiting emissions offsets, the financial governance structure, or focussed green technology development. By contrast, market-based mechanisms and REDD-plus (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) find a prominent place.

Ill-conceived

Simply put, the Copenhagen Accord is an illegitimate, ill-conceived, collusive deal between a handful of countries that are some of the world’s greatest present and future emitters. They imposed it on much of the world while excluding more than 160 of the 193 states present at Copenhagen. It undermines the momentum built up in favour of deep emissions reductions by the North; of transfer of substantial funds to the South, in compensation, to finance adaptation to climate change and to spur low-carbon technology development; and of ambitious action by the fast-growing large southern countries to limit their emissions below business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios. The total global commitments made so far add up to only one-half of the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to a tolerable level.

The accord became possible only because powerful Northern countries succeeded in splitting the G-77+China bloc of developing countries – defending whose unity was a solemn commitment made by BASIC’s (and India’s) leaders. The accord was opposed strongly by Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan on both substantive and procedural grounds. In the event, it could not be adapted, accepted or endorsed by the Conference of the Parties, which proceeds by consensus. The CoP only “took note” of it. It has no U.N. status.

True, the accord does not put an end to future negotiations. Indeed, negotiators are meant to continue on the “two tracks” agreed at Bali: on Long-Term Cooperative Action and the Kyoto Protocol. But the accord goes some way towards blurring the principle of differentiation of responsibility between the North and the South. The North insisted on weakening this at the pre-Copenhagen talks in Bangkok through the voluntary national “schedules” approach proposed by Australia and vehemently rejected by the G-77+China. In effect, the accord will encourage the developed countries to lower their sights and targets. The European Union has already announced that it will not move towards the more ambitious commitment to cut its emissions by 30 per cent by 2020, as distinct from the unilateral unconditional 20 per cent commitment it has already made.

The accord will significantly lower the bar in climate negotiations and give respectability to abysmally low targets such as the 4-7 per cent reduction offered by the U.S. for 2020 (over 1990). A poor, weak and singularly unambitious deal, it is unlikely to enthuse any country to act with the urgency and seriousness that the climate issue deserves. There is a danger that the accord will facilitate future negotiations along a single track, further weakening the principle of differentiation, which India swears by.

At Copenhagen, the Northern countries indulged in manipulation, bribery and blackmail and resisted all pressure to raise their offers to reduce emissions by 2020 (over 1990), which are estimated at only 6-14 per cent (excluding forestry credits). The offers are paltry in relation to the 25-40 per cent cut recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. They compare even more poorly with the 40-50 per cent reduction demanded by many experts and activists in the light of recent developments in climate science.

These developments suggest that the global climate system is changing much more rapidly than estimated earlier, thanks to the feedback effects of the melting and thinning of polar ice-sheets, thawing of permafrost and rapid recession of glaciers. It is a shameful comment on the North’s rich nations that their commitments do not even match the pledges made by the South, which add up to a deviation of roughly 15-30 per cent from BAU.

Clearly, the South, BASIC included, failed to pin the world’s greatest historical emitters down to their obligations to cut emissions and pay reparations or compensation to the South, whose underprivileged people have suffered disproportionately as a result of climate change caused primarily by the North. The U.S.’ chief climate negotiator Todd Stern acknowledged the North’s historical role but contemptuously rejected the notion of culpability and reparation. Despite Southern protests, Stern seems to have prevailed.

Evidently, however, the U.S. is not the sole villain of the piece. The BASIC group is also culpable for sealing a deal that is likely to raise emissions and double atmospheric greenhouse concentrations to over 700 parts per million (ppm). Global temperatures will almost certainly rise well above the 1.5°C to 2°C tolerable range – 3.9°C, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, and as high as 4.5°C, the upper estimate put out by Climate Action Tracker. The leaders of BASIC, in particular, India, let down their own people by signing an agreement that expands the carbon space available to their consumption-addicted elite but works against poor and underprivileged people who bear the consequences of climate change, which will be further aggravated by a bad deal.

The sole positive aspect of the Copenhagen Accord is that it acknowledges the special vulnerability of the small island states and least developed countries and pledges $10 billion a year in assistance to the South for three years, raising this to $100 billion annually by 2020. These amounts are not only a far cry from the 0.5-1.0 per cent of the North’s gross domestic product (GDP) demanded by China and India on the South’s behalf. They are also meagre in relation to the $100-200 billion considered necessary for adaptation to climate change, besides a similar amount for mitigation.

It is far from clear if the North will not recycle a part of its existing Official Development Assistance as climate-related financing. Also left unresolved is the vexed issue of who will administer and disburse the funds and in what proportion. The North is loath to cede control of funds to a genuinely multilateral body and would prefer to put the World Bank in charge, thus evading true international accountability.

“Good deal” for India?

 It is thus altogether astounding that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh claims that the Copenhagen Accord is a “good deal” for India; India conceded very little and did not allow any of the three “Red Lines” to be crossed: no quantifiable emissions reductions, no commitment to a year by which India’s emissions should peak, and no international scrutiny or verification of domestic mitigation actions not supported by external assistance.

The first two “Red Lines” are open to question – unless India’s rejection of targets is demonstrably linked to a larger social objective than dualistic, high GDP growth and based on a rounded notion of equity. Such rejection cannot be for an indefinitely long time. Things are not quite black and white even on the third count. India agreed to “international consultations and analysis” of its domestic actions, but Ramesh claims that this does not mean scrutiny or verification of India’s domestic mitigation actions. The U.S. clearly has a different interpretation and believes that it can even “challenge” India on its domestic actions. This could become a bone of contention over “sovereignty” in the future.

However, this is a relatively minor lapse in relation to the sacrifice of real sovereignty that is vested in the people, whose survival-related interests will be compromised by the weak, ineffective and iniquitous accord. It is India’s poor majority that will bear the brunt of the burden imposed by accelerated climate change. The Indian leadership’s culpability stands magnified in the light of reports that it went along with China in excising all the relevant numbers, including the North’s own commitments and offers, from the accord’s text. If the motive was to preempt reference to any future quantitative deviations from BAU or emissions reductions for the fast-growing Southern countries whose emissions are rapidly rising, then that too is less than honourable. At any rate, BASIC let the North off the quantitative emissions-reduction hook.

Fundamental flaws

India’s anomalous stand at Copenhagen derives from fundamental flaws in its climate policy. As I argue in my just-released book, An India That Can Say Yes: A Climate-Responsible Development Agenda for Copenhagen and Beyond, published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Delhi, India’s climate policy has been made in small, cloistered circles, which exclude independent experts and representatives of civil society, leave alone those liable to be most affected by climate change.

The policy is shaped by a handful of serving and former bureaucrats and diplomats, who see climate change not as an issue of equity, environmental effectiveness or development, but as a geopolitical threat to limit the Indian elite’s freedom to consume by maintaining high emissions-intensive GDP growth. This has little to do with the interests of the majority of the Indian people, for whom accelerated climate change spells hunger, food insecurity, floods, cyclones and inundation, and more droughts – and so displacement, disease and destruction of livelihoods.

Globally, this means that India becomes complicit in an unequal, environmentally unsustainable climate order. Domestically, it means that India will not act with the urgency necessary on saving energy, curtailing luxury consumption, taking voluntary steps for mitigation or adaptation, and developing low-carbon alternatives in a range of fields, including energy generation, industry, housing, transportation, water, agriculture, and restoring forests and the Himalayan ecosystem.

Thus, India continues to be agnostic about or in flagrant denial of the rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers, on which some of its greatest river systems, including the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, are dependent. Tackling glacier melting will entail acting on the problem of Black Carbon – (soot and other products of the incomplete combustion of diesel, coal and biomass, in particular wood, vegetable waste and animal dung burnt by three-fourths of all households in inefficient, smoky and polluting cookstoves). Similarly, a sensible water policy must effectively prohibit the rampant overexploitation of groundwater, which is leading to a dangerous rise in sea levels, besides depleting an invaluable resource.

India’s climate policy cries out for reform. This can only happen if the government treats climate change not as a diplomacy issue but as a development and equity question, pays heed to the needs of India’s underprivileged and poor, reconstitutes the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, and involves non-governmental experts and civil society representatives in policymaking.

To start with, it must alter the composition of the Council, 25 of whose 26 members are based in Delhi or its suburbs, and redraft the National Action Plan on Climate Change and its eight Missions. Externally, it must pursue the UNFCCC negotiations to drive a strong, equitable and effective bargain to combat climate change.

Despite the Copenhagen Accord, not all is lost. There is till scope for the early conclusion of an ambitious, legally binding and equitable treaty that protects the poor. India’s growing power and influence in the world must be used to that end and not to advance the parochial, narrow interests of its consumerist elite.

Copyright © 2010 Frontline.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.  

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