Log In   

December 20, 2007

International Relations|Climate Change

Road from Bali

By Nitin Desai


Ten thousand people, including yours truly, went to Bali in early December in order to save the planet.  In reality the planet’s fate was being determined by a hundred or so negotiators who were more concerned about protecting narrowly defined national interests.  Yet the dynamic of multilateralism is such that something useful finally emerged where everyone gained something and gave up something.


Europe wanted to bring USA into the commitment and quantified emission reduction framework and to provide the negotiating process with a specific goal for emission reductions in the medium term. The USA and its camp followers, Canada and Japan, did not want explicit goals and wanted the large developing country emitters as part of the commitment framework.  China, India and the other big developing countries wanted to stay out of the commitment framework and keep the discussion of their responsibilities separate from the main negotiation on commitments. All of them got the first part of what they wanted but not the second part.  Clearly the Bali outcome is a balanced compromise and the negotiating process over the next two years will continue to be dominated by these three sets of players and Russia. 


The Bali outcome is just the beginning.  Already the noises from Washington suggest that they will try and reinstate in the negotiating process what they could not get in Bali.  India and China and other developing countries will continue to face pressure since they are required by the Bali outcome to undertake “[n]ationally appropriate mitigation actions…in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner”. This language is strikingly similar to that used for the developed countries obligations where the additional element is “commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives”. 


How should India approach these negotiations?  At the outset, we must recognize that an increase in global temperature above 2 will involve huge costs of adaptation and disaster management for us.  Hence it is in our national interest to argue for a long-term global goal for emission reductions that is consistent with this limit. 


The risks of climate change depend on the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rather than the flow of emissions.  Ensuring a 50-50 chance of not exceeding a global temperature increase of 2 degrees centigrade requires us to keep the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases at 450 ppm as against current levels which are around 380 ppm and the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.  The industrial world, which accounts for 70% of the post industrial revolution emissions, has used up much of this ecological space.  The crucial issue before the negotiators is how the little that remains can be shared fairly.  An equally important issue is the sharing of inevitable costs of mitigation and of adaptation to the changes, particularly for small countries that will bear a disproportionate burden of adjustment.


Many activists have focused on the huge differences in per capita emissions. This has now caught on and one of the scenarios that is actively being talked about is contraction of demand by high per capita emitters and a slow rise in the low emitters with ultimate convergence to an ecologically tolerable level of per capita emission


Convergence scenarios tend to focus on the long term goal for emissions.  A 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 is the minimum that is necessary from a precautionary perspective to limit temperature increase to 2oC.  The cuts would have to really deep in the industrial countries to reach this goal.  Hence Europe has been talking about an 60-80% reduction in its emissions by 2050. The new Australian Prime Minister, Rudd announced a goal of 60% reduction in this time frame for Australia. The USA has no national goal but several States, most notably California, are buying into the 80% emission reduction goal.  These goals, if realized would bring per capita emissions in the industrial world somewhere between the levels that prevail now in China and India. Hence it is difficult for these countries to argue for a long term goal for their emissions which is significantly higher than their current level.  This of course does not rule out a path where emissions rise for some time and fall sharply thereafter.


An interesting new proposal has come from some researchers who have sought to address the developmental inequity built into the simple contract and converge scenarios.

They call this the Greenhouse Development Rights framework.  It rests on a distinction between survival and luxury emissions that was advanced by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain way back in 1991 and a development threshold of $9000 per capita as the minimum to which every human has a right to aspire.  The proposers of this framework argue that the exemption on the ground of the development deficit should be applied to individuals not nations. In their calculations they work out the capacity of each country to  contribute to mitigation, which they link to the magnitude of income above the $ 9000 threshold.  This is combined with its responsibility for the problem, which is linked to emissions cumulated from 1990 onwards on the argument that after that the defence of ignorance about impact is not valid.  The answers are quite interesting.  Basically the industrial countries have to aim at emission reductions in excess of 100% presumably by stepping up their actions on carbon sinks or by buying emission rights from others. India gets off lightly with only a 0.3% liability.


The negotiations over the next two years will not be shaped by these abstract principles.  But this discussion of burden-sharing will shape the language of the bazaar bargain that will be the final outcome of the process.  The real danger in this haggling is not just that fairness will be forgotten but that the commitments will be grossly inadequate. 


The Bali Climate Conference went into overtime and completed its work only on the day after it was due to end using a legal technicality called stopping the clock. But we cannot stop the clock for catastrophic climate change and hope to make for lost time later.  We have to act now and act decisively in the small window of opportunity available to us before it is too late.

Comment on this article
Already Registered? Login in to your account