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December 17, 2014

International Relations|Climate Change

Exhaustion at LIMA

By Nitin Desai


The latest round of the global negotiations on climate change ended last Sunday in the usual fashion, with the host country, Peru, brokering a decision by exhaustion nearly two days after the scheduled end of the conference.  All those who came with a defensive agenda expressed their satisfaction with the outcome, those with a positive agenda tempered their disappointment with the hope that the outcome left room for improvement in the next round and NGO activists registered their dissatisfaction in a variety of ways, including, this time, the desecration of a heritage site.

This confused outcome reflects the complex fault lines that divide countries on this issue. Apart from the usual North-South divide, there are fault lines within each of these groupings. In the developed world USA, Europe, Australia and Japan have very different agendas on what they expect of each other by way of climate action, though they may be united on what they want from the developing world. Within the developing world too there is unity on what they want from the developed world, but wide differences on their expectations of what their developing country allies must bring to the table. 

The climate negotiations were not a North-South battle when the process began in 1990. At that time the main fault line was between those who were sceptical and those who were convinced about the reality of human induced climate change. The other fault line was between the USA and Europe,which was about burden sharing, but couched in terms of differences in the urgency  for immediate action because US policy was heavily influenced by the presence of a climate sceptic, John Sununu, in the White House as Chief of Staff to Bush the Elder.  The patient scientific consensus building of the IPCC has put this behind us and climate scepticism is restricted to some eccentric conservatives.

There was hardly any demand for action by developing countries at that time in 1992. Nobody at that time anticipated the phenomenal growth in Chinese GDP, resources use and carbon emissions. The Indian economy was on a sick list and did not look like emerging as a major carbon emitter. Most developing countries were only lightly engaged in the climate negotiations. India and Brazil were exceptions, and they played a central role in writing in some crucial principles like common but differentiated responsibility, the role of historical responsibility and the primacy of development requirements, principles that today the developed countries find irksome and whose defence seems to be the principle plank of India's climate diplomacy.

The Convention signed in 1992 remained a framework of aspirations and did not involve any hard obligation to contain carbon emissions. The Europeans then pushed for a protocol to the convention with hard obligations on the developed countries to reduce their emissions.  The mandate for negotiating such a protocol came from the 1995 Berlin meeting of the parties to the Convention, a meeting which was chaired by the then German environment minister, Angela Merkel, and reached fruition at Kyoto in 1997.

The Kyoto Protocol required hard targets for emission reduction by the developed countries.  The 2012 goals on emission reductions for the countries who were to be a party to the protocol came out of a negotiating process that can only be described as a bazaar bargain. They were not rooted in any principle based calculation of who should do how much. The assigned goals only embody what had to be accepted to secure that country's commitment. Thus Russia, for instance, ended up with a carbon quota  they would not use even in 2050 because they refused to sign unless they got that and their adherence to the protocol was necessary if it had to come into force even if the USA did not ratify.

The developing countries were not required to contribute to the mitigation effort.  However indirectly they, especially India and China, did participate in the protocol through the clean development mechanisms which allowed mitigation obligations to be met by buying carbon credits from developing country entities who undertook actions that would reduce carbon emissions below a business as usual base.

The situation changed when the time came to negotiate targets for the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol which was to run from 2012 to 2020. The growth in emissions from China and other developing countries, became the largest element in the current accumulation of greenhouse gases. The developed countries walked into a major economic crisis in 2008 and were increasingly concerned about the growing economic power of China. The USA under Congressional pressure, made participation by China and India a precondition for its participation in any globally negotiated mitigation effort.

Hence at Bali in 2007 and Durban in 2012, the parties to the convention broadened the mandate to rope in the developing countries into the mitigation effort but also agreed to a bottom up and more or less voluntary indication of national action as the basis for the global agreement. 

The moot question is how principles like common but differentiated responsibility can be enforced in such a bottom up voluntary scheme with a very light global review process.  We also need differentiation not just between developed and developing countries but also within the very diverse group of developing countries . We cannot accept the Chinese metric of specifying a peaking year as most calculations suggest that even with a major effort directed at energy efficiency and non-carbon energy sources, our emissions will continue to increase even beyond 2030. But we can make credible commitments on the carbon intensity of growth.

India has to protect its core national interests which include the need for rapid growth, expanding energy access and energy security. But they also include protection from climate change risks as India's development and the well-being of its population  would be seriously affected if the climate negotiations fail to reduce the risk of global warming going much beyond the accepted 2 degree centigrade limit. We have a good story to tell on energy efficiency and renewables. The question we need to ask is whether our stance will force major polluters to also come up with a convincing programme for their contribution to the global mitigation effort or will our negotiators remain satisfied with their defence of principles and the deferral of effective action.

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