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October 30, 2022

International Relations|Climate Change

Climate responsibility

By Nitin Desai


Climate responsibility

Nitin Desai

India should assert the principles of liability and fairness as the basis for climate action 

A few days from now the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place in Sharm-al-Sheikh, a pleasant sea resort in Egypt. Two issues may play an important role in COP27 — further commitments on global responsibility for loss and damage compensation and some acceleration of commitments on mitigation actions that have already been announced.

The key lies in the term “common but differentiated responsibility”, enshrined in the UNFCCC. The word “responsibility” can be understood in this context in two ways. The first is responsibility as liability for the damage inflicted on others, an interpretation that is most relevant for the dialogue on loss and damage. The second meaning relevant in the climate action context is responsibility as duty. Since climate change affects every country in the world, all have a duty to act and the global agreement has to focus on a fair way of assigning this duty.

The loss and damage, which is relevant for responsibility as liability, involves the impacts of climate change that are not avoided by mitigation, adaptation, and other measures such as disaster-risk management. It includes, for instance, extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods, which will arise even if mitigation targets are achieved and if adaptation and resilience changes are made. Another example is an unavoidable process such as the sea-level rise, which may require substantial expenditure on protective measures by poor countries.

Some small steps have already been taken in the UNFCCC on loss and damage. This includes the Santiago Network on technical assistance and an agreement at COP26 in Glasgow to have a dialogue process on the issue. What has been avoided so far is a discussion on how the cost of coping with unavoidable loss and damage will be financed. This is an area where the notion of responsibility as liability requires that the cost be distributed among countries in accordance with their responsibility for climate change.

The primary determinant of climate change is the cumulative carbon emissions. Hence one way of assigning financial responsibility should be the cumulative emissions of carbon by each country till the net zero date. Taking 1990, when the threat of climate change was formally recognised and the UNFCCC process launched, as the starting point, the global total of cumulative carbon emissions would be around 1.8 trillion tonnes. A very rough estimate of the cost of coping with loss and damage management is $1- 1.8 trillion. So one can assume that at present it appears that the liability for loss and damage compensation could be $.5-1 per tonne of carbon emission. This liability is quite distinct from the agreed commitment, which at present is grossly inadequate to provide finance for mitigation and adaptation. In fact, given the recent assessment that we are on a temperature-growth track, which will take us beyond the agreed goals, it suggests that the financing of loss and damage is even more important than support for mitigation and adaptation.

Given the uncertainty about the cost estimates and the fact that much of the loss and damage will take place well into the future, the aim at present should be an agreement to assign financing responsibility for loss and damage with the understanding that actual payments would be required only when the actions to manage loss and damage have to be undertaken. It may also require a separation of relief measures for unpredicted adverse weather events and steady funding for measures to cope with threats like the sea-level rise.

Responsibility as duty is relevant for mitigation commitments by countries. In the early stages of the climate negotiation, this was seen essentially as the duty of the developed countries. The first Conference of Parties at Berlin in 1995 aimed at mandatory requirements for developed countries and exempted developing countries from this on the grounds that “the per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs”. By the start of the millennium, the large increase in emissions from a fast-growing China changed the dynamics of climate diplomacy. Two major modifications took place and have been reflected in the Paris Agreement. First, the distinction between developed and developing countries was diluted and, second, globally negotiated commitments gave way to voluntary pledges.

Unfortunately, there is no standard set for how substantial these voluntary pledges should be. Attempts at relating them to each country’s historical emissions have not been accepted. Yet the duty of each country should at least be to leave enough space for others, given what cumulative emissions can be to stay within the globally agreed temperature goal of 1.5 degree centigrade.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated the carbon emissions from 2020 to global net zero should be limited to 500 billion tonnes for a 50:50 chance of staying below a temperature increase of 1.5 degree centigrade, after taking into account the likely emission of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Taking into account the number of person years of global population during these three decades, the permissible average per capita per year emission over this period is 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This should be the goal of emission-reduction plans of major emitters.

The pace of reduction will depend on the announced targets for 2030, and beyond that it will depend on the rate at which decarbonisation initiatives like renewable and nuclear energy, electrification of transport or its conversion into green hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage are implemented. The actuals will tend to be in between two guesstimates — one based on equal absolute reductions and the other on equal percentage reductions from 2030 to the target net-zero date. On this basis, as against the desirable average level of 1.8 tonnes per capita per year, the emissions of the USA will amount to five-seven tonnes, of China four-six tonnes, of the EU and the UK two-three tonnes, of Russia five-eight tonnes, and of Japan four-five tonnes. India is rather better placed to meet the just goal because its average per capita per year emissions will be 1.5-2.3 tonnes.

The estimates clearly demonstrate the gross inadequacy of the commitments by the major emitters other than India. But in the present economic and geopolitical environment, the combination of responsibility as liability for loss and damage and responsibility as duty to leave enough room for others will not be readily accepted by the major emitters. But India can assert it and ensure it remains on the UNFCCC agenda and provides a basis for bringing together the vast majority of countries that are mainly victims rather than perpetrators of climate risks.


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