Breaking the logjam in climate negotiations

29 November 2012

Praful Bidwai in an interview explains the main issues at play in current UN climate negotiations, the role of emerging economies, and suggests ideas on how to create political will for effective action in North and South.

You attended UN climate negotiations last year in Durban and have reported on them for a number of years. What actions have been taken in that time?

Very little.  Since UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, countries have been following a voluntary regime where they choose what offers to put on the table. These together are at least 40% short of what the world needs to avoid catastrophic climate change of 4, 5 or even 6 degrees (over pre-industrial temperatures).

With less than one degree of warming, we are already seeing extreme and strange weather phenomena, and more frequent floods and droughts, with impacts on food and water and displacement of people. Even the globally agreed target of 2 degrees is considered too high by many scientists, who favour a ceiling of 1.5 degrees or less.

Praful Bidwai's book: Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis (2011) can be ordered from TNI.

But we seem to be heading to 4 degree warming very soon. This would be catastrophic. According to Kevin Anderson, one of Britain's premier climate scientists, at 4 degrees the planet will only have capacity to sustain one tenth of humanity. This is of course speculation based on extrapolation, but it gives us an idea of how frightening or mindblogging 4 degree warming will be.

The United Nations Environmental Programme just published its latest estimates on the emissions gap – what is needed compared to what is on offer – and the gap increases year after year: from 5-9 gigatonnes (Gt, billion tonnes) two years ago to as much as 8-13 Gt now.  The latest estimate of current global emissions is 50 gigatonnes a year; we must lower this to 44 Gt by 2020 if global warming is to be restricted to 2 degrees

So we have only 8 years to turn this around, yet so far we are seeing emissions rise ever year by 3 to 6%. We need to remember that many energy projects have 30-year implications so decisions make in next few years will matter a lot. Decisions are being made constantly, but so far in favour of fossil-fuel burning rather than low or zero-carbon development and renewable energy.

What are the main issues that will be discussed at the Doha UN climate negotiations this fortnight?

There are three broad  issues at stake at the UN climate conference in Doha. The first is the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only legally binding climate-related treaty. Its first operational phase, the so-called commitment period, ends in December this year. It is supposed to be followed by a second period.

The Protocol imposes quantitative restrictions on developed industrialised countries, which is crucial as they are responsible for 75% of emissions accumulated in the atmosphere. If they don’t accept their obligation to cut their greenhouse gas emissions drastically and quickly,, we are in big trouble. But there is a lot of resistance by developed countries, particularly the US, Japan and Canada, to negotiating a second commitment period and taking ambitious climate actions.

The second issue concerns the work of the group on 'Long-Term Cooperative Action' (LCA), which covers a wide range of subjects highlighted in the Bali Action Plan of 2007. These include actions to bridge the ‘gigatonne gap’ (the deficit between the pledged emissions reduction offers and what’s needed to avert dangerous climate change), adaptation, finance for the developing countries, technology transfer,etc..

Big promises were made by rich countries. They pledged to  to create a $100-billion Green Climate Fund. They promised three years ago to put $30 billion into “fast-start finance”  by the end of 2012. But very little of this has materialised. This means meagre resources are going to poorer countries for either mitigation (reducing or averting emissions), or adaptation, that is, coping with alterations in the climate system, more cyclones, uncertain rainfall etc that are likely. The poor countries want the unfinished LCA agenda urgently completed; the rich want to close down the working group.

The third issue is implementation of the agreement reached at Durban last year, called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, under which the rich countries demanded and succeeded in getting a commitment to reaching by 2015 a whole new climate agreement which binds all countries, whether rich or poor.

This aims to weaken, even subvert, the crucial principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities that has guided negotiations up to now. This recognises that while all states have a common obligation to fight climate change, the distribution of obligations and responsibilities must be determined according to principles of equity and science.

Rather than cut their emissions and take other effective actions with urgency, the rich countries indulge in divide-and-rule tactics

Basically the principle is that developed countries must act first and quickly. The rich resist this and want Durban Platform talks quickly completed regardless of a Kyoto second period, and the uncertain future of the LCA. The developing countries want these agendas to be addressed first.  

Rather than cut their emissions and take other effective actions with urgency, the rich countries indulge in divide-and-rule tactics: refusing to sign up to binding agreements, encouraging splits in developing country blocs by bribing and bullying vulnerable countries' diplomats, and pointing the finger at everyone else to hide their inaction.

Why do you think there is so little progress given how serious the matter is?

Lack of political will, especially in developed countries. This was the case even before the Great Recession which has further weakened political will and public concern. Progressively each UN climate summit gets less and less coverage which corresponds to the overall lack of political interest and commitment.

The political leadership worldwide is addicted to fossil fuels and does not want to make the necessary efforts to restrict consumption, support renewables, and transit to a low-carbon growth trajectory. We continue to be addicted to growth for growth’s sake. Developed countries should have set an example of what needed to be done but didn't; so developing countries including fast-growing emerging economies also held back.

The irony is that developing countries are making more commitments than industrialised countries.

The irony is that developing countries are making more commitments than industrialised countries. A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute showed that the top seven emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico and South Korea) have made far higher pledges than the top six polluters of the North. China has offered to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP (the amount of carbon dioxide needed to produce a unit of output) by 40-45% by 2020 (over 2005), and India by 20-25%.

These emerging powers could still do a lot more to move to a low-carbon trajectory particularly in regard to emissions from the overconsumption of the rich. These are all very unequal societies where the rich consume at levels of the North while the poor lack even basic services. Nevertheless the onus to act still lies primarily with the North.

You wrote a whole book focused on the role of BASIC countries in climate negotiations. Tell us who they are and what role have they played so far in negotiations?

BASIC was formed as a block in the negotiations in 2009 by Brazil, South Africa and India and China, which were increasingly blamed by countries like the US for climate change. They came to defend themselves and advance their interests, but the new block did not calculate the damage that this block would do to the hitherto main developing country bloc, the G-77 (representing not 77 but more than 130 developing nations).

At the first UN climate summit after this block was formed, in Copenhagen in 2009, these four countries together with the US, constituting the biggest historical, present and future emitters, made a deal in a parallel negotiation that they tried to impose on the rest of the world.  It was called the Copenhagen Accord, but in reality was an empty three-page document, with no targets, dates or commitments. In effect, the BASIC countries sold out the other developing countries, by choosing an empty worthless deal over any moderate progress, in order to avoid making any binding commitments themselves.

In effect, the BASIC countries sold out the other developing countries, by choosing an empty worthless deal over any moderate progress, in order to avoid making any binding commitments themselves.

That doesn't mean the BASIC countries have done nothing, as I noted above. They have had to act because their emissions are rising far more rapidly than rich countries, for example India's emissions only make up 5% of global emissions now, but this will become 10% by 2035 which is huge. The BASIC countries are also very vulnerable to climate change and so have internal pressure to take action. They have now moved towards accepting some climate obligations by agreeing to sign a new deal that includes them in 2020. This is a significant shift politically.

But BASIC’s commitments and actions haven’t prompted the rich countries to make deep and early cuts in emissions. Meanwhile, the developing countries have been divided and weakened considerably in the negotiations. In Durban, BASIC got attacked on both sides: by the rich countries, and also by a new bloc, with the EU lining up behind itself vulnerable groups like  AOSIS (the alliance of small island states) and the Least Developed Countries. BASIC members did not quite stick together in the negotiations.

What guides India's response to climate change – in terms of national policy and the positions they maintain at global forums?

The main impetus for any kind of action, such as India's National Action Plan on Climate Change developed in 2008, has been external. Prompted by dialogues in the G8, Major Economies Forum and the G20, the Action Plan was drawn up in haste with little consultation. It got its mandate from the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, a narrow unrepresentative body. It is made up of 26 people. Only 2 are women, only one from the NGO sector. Twenty five of the 26 are from New Delhi and its suburbs. The plan is full of flaws, only two of the eight 'missions' have value: one is the solar mission to promote photovoltaics and the second is the promotion of energy efficiency in large industry groups (such as iron, steel, cement). These commitments are okay but the missions have still not been made fully operational.

1400 new cars/motorcycles are registered every day in Delhi by the rich and middle classes; yet almost no investment is going into promoting public transport that could benefit everyone.

What has changed though is growing domestic recognition of climate change. It’s a hopeful sign that my book on India and climate change sold out and was read by many in policy circles. MPs have started to debate climate change seriously. More and more reports are coming in particularly from rural areas of changing rain patterns, new dynamics of floods and droughts. That has led to pressure on the 35 regional governments to draw up their own Climate Action plans. There certainly isn't the denial that you see in the US, so I hope it leads to more rounded, holistic plans and real action at the grassroots level.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that India’s overall economic model is still far from being challenged. Policy-makers are tinkering at the margins and need to do much more to rethink the model of development which pampers the rich. To take one example, 1400 new cars/motorcycles are registered every day in Delhi by the rich and middle classes; yet almost no investment is going into promoting public transport that could benefit everyone.

We seem to be stuck in international negotiations. One side excuses inaction with the “right to develop”; the other by blaming China.  How can we break through the logjam?

We clearly need to marry the legitimate components of the two. We are in a different time to 20 years ago when climate negotiations were first undertaken. At that time China was not a major power, now it is the world’s second largest economy; 'developing' countries now account for 55% of global emissions. But we also must recognise historical responsibility and maintain the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.

Yet we also have to act now. Every year that passes locks in more climate change that cannot be undone.  I think we need a like-minded group from both developed and developing countries who get together and show by their own actions that they are serious.

This might mean breaking out of blocs like the EU to give more space to environmentally progressive governments such as Germany and some of the Nordic nations rather than ones like Poland which rely on dirty industries. Germany shows what can be achieved if politicians promote renewable energy: 20% of their primary energy comes from renewables; one day last year wind and solar provided more than half of Germany’s electricity needs. We have to get the good guys together to push the others.

Climate change isn’t something distant, “out there”; it’s happening now and will overwhelm us before we know it

I also think we need a very high-level scientific conference to outline the situation simply and clearly– where the media is invited – to put once again the urgency of action into the public domain. Such initiatives, and popular films, plays and novels that educate the public, are needed if policy-makers and –shapers are to understand that climate change isn’t something distant, “out there”; it’s happening now and will overwhelm us before we know it. That’s why it’s imperative that the Doha talks produce some worthy results which spur long-overdue action.

>Order Praful Bidwai's book: Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis (2011).

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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