Breaking the Global Climate Impasse

India should seize the moment!
06 November 2009
Article

It would be better for India to walk out of the talks then “greenwash” a deal that lets the North shirk its responsibility for climate change and pass on a good portion of its burden on to the South’s underprivileged people.

A yawning rift has opened up in the climate negotiations just ahead of the Copenhagen conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning on December 7. It centres on the twin issues of responsibility for climate change—unfolding through extreme weather events, rising sea-levels and rapid melting of ice-sheets and glaciers—, and sharing the burden to remedy it. Going by climate science, the responsibility rests primarily with the industrialised Global North for its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The North accounts for more than three-fourths of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.

However, going by the brutal logic of power, the picture is different. The North is trying to shirk its responsibility and pass on a good portion of its burden on to the South’s underprivileged people. This is doubly unjust: it’s the South’s poor who are most vulnerable to climate change. They’re already suffering its consequences through more frequent and ferocious cyclones, erratic rainfall, increased water scarcity, and growing destruction, devastation and death.

The UNFCCC negotiations are deadlocked not just over the percentages by which the North must reduce its GHG emissions, or its financial obligation to compensate the South. There’s an impasse on fundamentals—the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” enshrined in the Convention, and a clear distinction between the North’s legally binding obligations and the South’s voluntary Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), for which it must be paid.

These distinctions were written into the UNFCCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2007 Bali Action Plan after protracted debate. Kyoto mandated the Northern countries, called Annex 1, to cut their emissions from their 1990 levels by a modest 5.2 percent during the “first commitment period” ending 2012. The target will be missed. In the European Union, “the good boy in the climate cast”, only Germany, Britain and Sweden will achieve their targets. The worst culprit is the United States, which refused to ratify Kyoto, and has raised its emissions by 14 percent.

The US under President Obama says it’ll return to the UNFCCC process, but at a price: dismantle the Kyoto Protocol, abolish the principle of North-South (or any other) differentiation, and negotiate an altogether new agreement, which sets ineffective, sub-critical targets. Australia has developed such a draft with national “schedules” but no internationally binding commitments. If it prevails, there’ll be no Kyoto, no differentiated North-South burden-sharing, no stringent compliance or penalties. Such a single, artificially homogenous and paltry agreement won’t prevent dangerous, irreversible climate change.

No deal would be clearly preferable to such a bad deal. But so desperate are most Northern countries to bring the US on board at any cost that they’re prepared to renege on their own past commitments, including each rich country’s “comparable effort” at mitigating climate change in proportion to its responsibility and financial-technological capacity.
This poses a conundrum. The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect; in fact, it’s full of flaws, including low emission reduction targets which aren’t firmly linked to GHG concentrations and temperatures; omission of aviation and shipping; and lack of compliance requirements and penalties. Kyoto promotes the Clean Development Mechanism under which polluting Northern corporations get generous emissions quotas. If they exceed them, they needn’t cut emissions, as would be logical. Instead, they can buy cheap carbon credits from Southern projects, which supposedly cut or avert emissions.

Most CDM projects do nothing of the sort. For instance, two-thirds of Indian credits are earned by two companies which first produce a GHG refrigerant called HFC-23, and then destroy it! Most of the dams for which credits are claimed worldwide were already under construction or completed before applying for CDM. The Corrupt Destructive Mechanism lets the North buy its way out of emissions cuts—and buy it cheap.

Kyoto needs reform.  But it does have a rational kernel. That lies in its acknowledgement of the rich countries’ historical responsibility for climate change. Kyoto imposes quantifiable emissions reduction obligations on them. It’s the only legally binding climate agreement the world has, with time-bound targets. It would be dangerous to abandon it for a loose unenforceable deal. The US wants to do just that.

The Southern countries, represented by the G-77+China bloc, have strongly defended the Protocol as “an international and legally binding treaty and the most important instrument embedding the commitment of Annex 1 parties”, collectively and individually. The proposed new agreement would “drastically water down” their commitments. Most Northern countries’ rationale for supporting it is that it might be able to include the US. However, says the G-77, going out of a binding protocol with collective and individual targets into a new agreement without internationally binding targets means “taking the international climate regime many steps backwards”. Besides, the US may not even sign the agreement.

The developed countries indeed want to dilute their commitments. Instead of the 25-40 percent emissions reductions by 2020 (over 1990), recommended by climate scientists in 2007, and the 40-45 percent needed in the light of recent scientific developments, they have only made reduction pledges of 16-23 percent, excluding the US. If the US climate bill’s target is included, the figure falls to 11-18 percent and 10-23 percent, according to different estimates. Such reductions won’t stabilise the climate. The G-77+China is right in criticising these measly offers as a breach of trust. The Climate Convention was a grand bargain, under which the North would lead in emissions reductions as part of a global cooperative effort.

India must stiffly oppose the North’s attempt to renege on that bargain. Yet, certain lobbies want India to dump the G-77 for more exclusive groupings. The G-77 represents 130-odd Southern countries, the bulk of them poor and backward, as are most of India’s people. But these lobbies want India to join the world’s High Table by signing a bad climate deal that pleases the North. Most Indian diplomats privately speak of the developing countries and Non-Alignment with contempt and antipathy. Some want India aligned with the US in the climate talks.

That’s the crux of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s leaked letter to Prime Minister Singh, in which he explicitly asks that India should “not stick with G-77 but be embedded in G-20 …” Mr Ramesh also writes: “If the Australian proposal … maintains this basic distinction … of differential obligations we should have no great theological objections.” But the Australian proposal demolishes the distinction.

This is a recipe for a confused, unprincipled climate stand, which is unworthy of a nation that aspires to global leadership. Its advocates are only concerned with the narrow interests of the Indian elite, barely one-tenth of the population, which is addicted to high-consumption lifestyles and rising emissions. The elite doesn’t want a strong climate deal because that’ll restrain its consumption. A majority of Indians, by contrast, have a stake in a strong deal because the burden of climate change which falls disproportionately on them will grow under a weak deal.

A principled approach to the climate negotiations must put the poor at the centre and acknowledge that the climate crisis and the developmental crisis—which perpetuates poverty—are integrally linked. Climate change will aggravate poverty and exacerbate inequality, undoing the right of the poor to fulfil their basic human needs and live with dignity. It’s imperative to combine developmental equity and poverty eradication with climate effectiveness. A defining criterion of a strong climate deal is that it reduces the burden on the underprivileged.

India will face hard choices at Copenhagen, where several scenarios are conceivable—from optimistic to middling outcomes, to complete collapse. The best scenario is one where the North makes deep, early emissions cuts (40 percent by 2020); the bigger Southern countries agree to 15-25 percent voluntary cuts (NAMAs); and there’s adequate funding. Under a middling scenario, there’ll be a strong agreement on fundamentals, but not on emissions cuts and finances; nevertheless, all agree to negotiate numbers within a time-bound period.

Of course, the talks may collapse because there’s no agreement on anything and some countries walk out. This would be unfortunate. But the truly nightmarish scenario is one which “greenwashes” a bad agreement: the North agrees to low and paltry cuts such as 7-15 percent by 2020, with no compliance or penalties, and only a fraction of the funding needed materialises. Such a deal will fail to stabilise the climate, but lock the world into an emissions-intensive trajectory that aggravates both climate change and the developmental crisis.

India should walk out of the talks rather than agree to such “greenwash”. In the few weeks left before Copenhagen, India should do its utmost to consolidate the G-77+China position, lobby Northern governments, including the US, when Dr Singh meets President Obama late this month, and make voluntary commitments to show that it’s more serious about combating climate change than appears—thanks to its ambivalence on Himalayan glacier melting and its lip service to poverty eradication, even while practising elitist policies. India must be flexible on transparency and generous on delivering modern energy services to its poor. But it should be hardnosed about holding the North’s feet to the fire. There must be no compromise here.