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December 17, 2009

International Relations|Climate Change

The Copenhagen Circus

By Nitin Desai


I have just returned after performing at the climate circus in Copenhagen. Like all sensible columnists, I will reserve my remarks on why the outcome was entirely predictable, till after the event! But as I attended this meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the Climate Convention (UNFCCC) after a gap of some six years, a snapshot comparision of then and now may be more useful.


The UNFCCC process started in response to scientific concerns.  But at the political level, the earliest demands for strong action came at the Commonwealth Summit of 1988 and later in the United Nations from the then Presidents of Bangladesh and of Maldives, both countries being very vulnerable to climate change.


When the negotiations started, the high salience of this issue for these vulnerable countries led to the formation of the Association of Small Island States which became a formal part of the process.  But the G-77 remained united and insisted that the primary, almost the sole responsibility for action rested with the developed countries.  At that time there was no great pressure for any sort of serious commitment from the larger developing countries.


In some ways the developing countries were peripheral to the mainstream of the negotiations which remained a battle between Europe and the USA.  The main G-77 concern was to get the developed countries to recognise their historical culpability and primary responsibility.  This was reflected in the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” which has become absolutely central to the negotiating stance of China, India and the other large emerging economies.


The first major change that I noticed was in the positioning of the G-77 in the negotiations now.  It is more central to the process but its  unity is under much greater pressure now. The very vulnerable small islands and low-lying deltaic countries like Bangladesh have made common cause and at Copenhagen the proposals made by Tuvalu called for more stringent goals for carbon abatement and asked the larger developing countries to join in the commitments. 


The focus is on the Gang of Four (China, India, Brazil and South Africa).  Part of the reason for this is the rapid growth in emissions from coal dependent fast growing China. Between 1990 and 2006 China’s emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel use accounted for half the increase in global emissions and China’s per capita emissions are now higher than the world average.  The pressure on the other emerging economies is really a consequence of this concern about Chinese emissions growth.


However both China and India (and some of the other emerging economies) are seen as major competitors in the global marketplace and if they are free from carbon abatement obligations the consequences for competitiveness are a source of concern.  This has led to many demands from the OECD countries for carbon abatement commitments by the emerging economies and even talk of compensatory trade measures. The Gang of Four   defend themselves behind the formidable but threatened bulwark of “common but differentiated responsibility”. But they also recognise that some conciliatory gestures on their part are necessary and all of them have announced unilateral measures for carbon abatement in different forms


In the nineties, Europe, with its access to low carbon gas supplies, saw no threat to its economy from any carbon restriction commitment while the USA did. At that time the US stance was shaped by the oil and coal lobbies and the prejudices of John Sununu, the elder George Bush’s Chief of Staff. Today the Obama administration has taken over and climate skepticism is no longer as potent a force in the USA. But the underlying fear of competitive impact has not gone. Hence the USA is now trying to make common cause with Europe in demanding action from the emerging economies.


The second and, in some ways the most striking change, is in the stance of the corporate lobbyists who, now as then, are present in large numbers.  (I used to tease the Executive Secretary of the Convention that his NGOs came in suits!).  But there is a big difference in their agenda at the meeting.  In the early days many, possibly most, of them came to lobby against what they described as precipitate action.  Their worry was that the agreements reached would pose huge costs of adjustment.  Some also came to lobby for a climate-sceptic point of view, questioning the science on which the convention is based.  Now the lobbying for the skeptical point of view is completely marginalized and there are few in the corporate sector willing to hitch their flag to this mast.  The go-slow lobbyists are still there but not as visible. The real difference is that the corporate presence at the meeting is dominated by the companies who want to project what they are doing or can do for carbon mitigation (and more rarely for adaptation).  Their lobbying is for predictability and clarity in the policy framework so that they can invest and expand with confidence.


This change in the corporate attitudes is also evident in India.  The lobby for an ambitious solar programme now involves the companies engaged in the solar business as much as green NGOs, as indicated by the support that the CII chair Jamshyd Godrej gave to the GOI announcement about a 20-25% improvement in carbon intensity.


The third change is in the centrality of carbon abatement and adaptation to climate change in the dialogue on development strategy.  In the early years climate policies were largely seen in terms of technological fixes or environmental policies.  Now the talk is about “low-carbon development”.  Perhaps “low-carbon” too will pass like “export oriented”, “employment-oriented”, “poor-friendly” and other adjectives that have been in fashion.  But there is a real possibility that it will stay and start affecting other areas like trade and finance.


There is one thing however that has not changed and that is the cumbersome negotiating process for multilateral agreements.  We begin with a confrontation between incompatible national positions.  This leads to a crisis and a fear of negotiations breaking down. Hectic late night activity leads to an untidy compromise which the exhausted negotiators describe as historical and which angry activists denounce as a sell-out. The real change comes from the more subtle impact of the process on governmental and corporate ideas on what it means to be a good global citizen.


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