Durban challenge

Published : Dec 16, 2011 00:00 IST

India faces the onerous task of balancing equity and environmental efficacy in the climate talks. It must not repeat the blunder that led to the Copenhagen disaster.

THE climate conference in Durban, South Africa, could not have met at a worse or more worrying time. Rigorous scientific work has just been published, which shows that humankind has only a narrow window of opportunity to take climate actions so that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak by 2020 and fall sharply thereafter.

Or, even the conservatively defined safe limit for global warming, 2 Celsius (over pre-industrial levels), endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its last report four years ago, will slip out of the globe's reach forever.

If the more stringent warming threshold of 1.5C, recommended by a growing number of climate scientists, and endorsed by over 100 governments, is not to be crossed, global emissions must peak within the next two years. This is not about to happen. Last year, the world's carbon dioxide emissions rose by a high 6 per cent over 2009, faster than its gross domestic product (GDP). They are unlikely to stabilise anytime soon because the world is still building high-carbon infrastructure, which is locking it into a high-emissions trajectory.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), with 28 industrialised countries as its members, has developed what it calls the 450 Scenario in which GHG emissions stabilise at 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2-equivalent, corresponding to 2C global warming.

Its latest report says: Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permitted up to 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already locked-in by existing capital stock, including power stations, buildings and factories. Without further action by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place would generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035. That means that how the world builds its infrastructure in the next five years will be critically important for the fate of the earth.

At its present rate of emissions, and the paltry pledges to cut them made by most countries after the last climate summit at Cancun, Mexico, the world is inexorably moving towards atmospheric warming of 3C to 4C, perhaps even 5C. At 4C warming, estimates Kevin Anderson, deputy director of Britain's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, only about 10 per cent of the world's population will survive. Although this is speculation, based on scientific extrapolation, the very idea that the survival of billions of people could be endangered should trigger alarm and corrective action.

It has not. A huge gigatonne gap stares the globe in its face. This is the difference between the maximum level of GHG emissions (in billions of tonnes) compatible with climate stabilisation (44 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2020) and the likely result of the sum-total of national emissions reduction pledges made so far (49 to 53 Gt).

To avert a climate catastrophe, the world must reach a fair, ambitious, and (legally) binding (FAB) agreement which captures the global public good and adopts an emergency programme to reduce emissions drastically. The industrialised countries of the Global North, which are responsible for three-fourths of the CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere, must take the lead and reduce their 1990-level emissions by 40-45 per cent by 2020.

Most of them refuse to do so and are shifting the burden of climate remediation on to the developing countries of the South, whose peoples are the worst victims of climate change. Through bullying, cajoling and bribing, they have extracted emissions reduction pledges from the South which are higher than their own pledges.

The North's pledges range from almost nothing to a maximum of 3.8 Gt by 2020, depending on the level of ambition expressed, the conditions it is hedged with, and the leniency with which accounting rules are applied. By contrast, the Southern countries' pledges range from 3.6 to 5.2 Gt. At the higher end, the South collectively pledges 37 per cent deeper emissions cuts than the North.

China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico and South Korea have together made far higher pledges than the top six Northern polluters, including the United States, the European Union, Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia. The difference ranges from about 40 per cent to 300-per cent plus. The developed countries, called Annex 1 in the Climate Convention, have not all even lived up to their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, in force since 2005, which mandates a modest 5 per cent average reduction from their 1990 emissions by 2008-12. The U.S. never ratified Kyoto. Japan, Canada, France, Spain, Australia and the Netherlands are likely to miss their Kyoto targets, some by margins of 30 per cent. Many rich countries will meet their targets by hiding behind the former Eastern bloc countries, also part of Annex 1, whose economies and emissions contracted after 1991. Others have shown compliance with Kyoto through dubious carbon trading.

That is not all. It is doubtful if the political conditions exist to complete a FAB deal at Durban. The dreadful legacy of Copenhagen and Cancun hangs heavy over the climate talks. The legacy's most toxic feature is the shift from binding emissions reduction targets, based on science and equity in particular, the common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) principle of the Climate Convention to arbitrary, unambitious, and even paltry, pledges by individual countries, representing their easiest and cheapest options. The U.S. and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) group collusively engineered this shift at Copenhagen in 2009 to avoid taking on enforceable and ambitious obligations, and then imposed the so-called Copenhagen Accord upon more than 100 countries. Shamefully, India colluded, while crossing its stated red lines. Although the accord was never adopted or endorsed by the Copenhagen conference, the pledge and review approach, originally advocated by the U.S., prevailed at Cancun. The result is there for all to see.

Sadly, there does not yet exist a critical mass of countries which are seriously committed to a 2C or lower global emissions pathway. True, the Group of 20 largest economies, the Major Economies Forum, and BASIC, have all called for or endorsed a 2C limit, but these calls have not translated into national policies or plans.

On life support

Meanwhile, the world's sole legally binding climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, is on life support. Its first commitment period (legally effective early phase) expires in 2012. Japan, Russia and Canada oppose a second commitment period (CP2) for it. Winning a CP2 has become a matter of iconic importance for many developing countries, which see the protocol as the capstone of the climate regime and the only expression of the developed countries' acceptance of their prime responsibility for climate change.

The likeliest issue on which the Durban summit could flounder is Kyoto. But it is not the only one. Other issues include the North's failure to commit the funds it promised $30 billion by 2012 in fast-start finance to the Global South, and a $100-billion Green Climate Fund new obligations on the South's fast-growing emerging economies, and insistence on international scrutiny of the South's climate actions even when unsupported by the North. The U.S' chief climate negotiator has ruled out a legally binding agreement at Durban. The U.S' willingness and ability to engage in negotiations for a high-ambition agreement will remain virtually non-existent at least until after the presidential elections of November 2012. President Barack Obama lacks the political capital needed even for a modest domestic climate law, leave alone an international agreement.

The U.S. has exploited its status as the world's biggest emitter cumulatively, and until recently, in current terms too by manipulating the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process to suit its parochial concerns. To accommodate the U.S., the world has eroded the gains made through multilateral legally enforceable climate-related commitments. But the U.S. is no closer to participating in an effective climate agreement. It still remains the main likely blocker of a worthy climate deal.

The European Union, the least climate-unfriendly and largest developed-country bloc, is preoccupied with domestic economic difficulties and foreign policy issues and is reluctant to formulate strong climate policies. The E.U. could achieve a 30 per cent reduction in its 1990 emissions by 2020 (instead of the 20 per cent it pledges unilaterally) without straining itself excessively. But its leadership will not commit itself to this. Besides, elections are due in 2012 in France and Spain, and in 2013 in Italy and Germany.

Some E.U. countries such as Germany are investing seriously in renewable energy and energy efficiency. But many E.U. governments are loath to make a bold departure from the fossil fuel-based consumption pattern in which they remain trapped. Globally, the E.U. is no longer as strongly climate-proactive as earlier although it is the largest bloc that accepts mandatory emissions cuts and defends the Kyoto Protocol, at least in theory.

The E.U. could still play a positive role in the climate negotiations, as it did earlier, by throwing its weight behind a Kyoto CP2, building a tactical alliance with BASIC, and using its considerable political-diplomatic clout to get Russia, Japan and Canada to mute their opposition to a Kyoto CP2, while neutralising the U.S.

However, the E.U. is now making its support for a Kyoto CP2 conditional upon an agreement at Durban to negotiate a new climate deal in which all but the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) whose very existence is threatened by a high likely rise in sea levels and the African countries accept binding climate obligations. This, too, is a potential deal-breaker. It is likely to tempt the BASIC countries to join hands with the U.S., the Big Bad Boy in the climate drama. This became apparent in recent Minister-level talks in Cape Town, South Africa, and other informal discussions. This move might see BASIC repeating the blunder it made at Copenhagen in forming what has been called the Coalition of the Unwilling to draft an accord that lets the biggest culprits off the hook and paves the way for a climate disaster through laughably low pledges to reduce emissions. The BASIC grouping would be ill-advised to join the U.S. camp. Although an unambitious, climate-ineffectual deal with weak obligations might meet the BASIC countries' short-term interests and allow them to emit more GHGs, it will work against their own people's interests in the not-so-long run, besides making a global catastrophe inevitable.

The BASIC bloc is right in holding that the primary responsibility for climate remediation lies with the North, but mistaken in refusing a distinction between itself and the rest of the developing world. The truth is that BASIC's emissions are rising much faster than the world's. Last year, for instance, China's emissions rose 10 per cent over 2009, and India's 9 per cent, well above the world's 6 per cent.

Between 1990 and 2009, according to IEA estimates, global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion rose by 37.2 per cent, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries' by 8.2 per cent and the non-OECD group's by 69.3 per cent. But India's emissions increased by 175.9 per cent and China's by 196.8 per cent. Brazil's emissions grew slightly slower, by 68.4 per cent, and South Africa's by 53.7 per cent.

True, China has pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 40-45 per cent by 2020 over 2005, and India is committed to lowering the emissions intensity of its economy barring agriculture by 20-25 per cent by 2020. But many states, including the LDCs and the AOSIS and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal expect more from emerging economic giants like China and India, in keeping with their growing responsibility for emissions and capacity for climate actions. The general Western perception is that the world order is in a profound state of flux; wealth and power are moving from the North and the West to the East and the South and the old order dominated by the U.S. and Europe is giving way to one increasingly shared with non-Western rising states. This does not translate into prosperity for our people given the appalling quality of India's growth and the emissions-intensive elite consumption that drives it. But perceptions matter.

The CBDR was incorporated into the Climate Convention in 1992. Since then a great deal has changed, with China's economy and emissions growing at breakneck speed and India following more slowly. India's per capita emissions are still low, 1.5 tonnes of CO2. So are Brazil's (2.2 tonnes). But China's are of the same order (6.8 tonnes) as those of the E.U.'s 15 original Western members (7.9), and South Africa's even higher.

The South's smaller countries, especially the LDCs and the AOSIS, no longer feel the sense of solidarity with the big emerging countries that they earlier did. They know that BASIC has graduated to another league and expect it to take on significant climate obligations. Northern countries, especially the U.S., have also been egging them on to make that demand, as became evident at Cancun.

North-South division

Thus, it will be practically difficult to sustain the black-and-white North-South division contained in the CBDR principle especially a rigid interpretation of it. Some gradation and nuance will have to be introduced to take into account intra-South differentiation and unequal capabilities. BASIC will soon have to discuss what obligations the emerging economies should accept, which demarcate them from both the North and the rest of the South, and what should be their legal form. It is unclear if BASIC can agree on a tightly defined coherent common position, given the economic and political divergences within the group. Unlike China and India, South Africa and Brazil do not oppose binding climate commitments if finance is made available. South Africa is under pressure to go soft as the chair of the Durban conference and ensure its success. Brazil is more concerned with being rewarded for preventing deforestation than with working for a FAB deal. The differences were reconciled to an extent at the recent BASIC meeting in China. But they may crop up yet again.

India will face tough choices at Durban and beyond under a new Environment Minister largely unfamiliar as yet with the intricacies of the crisis-ridden global negotiations, who reports to a Prime Minister who is both staunchly pro-U.S. and favours a weak climate deal. India is called upon to play a dual role as a leading member of the G-77+China developing-country bloc, and as a BASIC state, while upholding the principles of climate equity. A pivotal equity issue is how the North can be made to vacate the excessive space it occupies in the global atmospheric commons at the expense of the South's poor people. As I argue in my just-released book, The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future (Orient BlackSwan), the responsibility for climate stabilisation must and can be distributed justly across and within nations on many criteria, not just equal per capita emissions.

The Indian government has emphasised some aspects of equity in its additional agenda points for Durban, along with intellectual property right and trade barriers. But it did that before Copenhagen and Cancun too. It must resist the temptation to support a weak, ineffective climate agreement rather than a FAB deal simply because the former would impose no or light obligations on it, while the latter might eventually impose more obligations at a later stage. Having no agreement at Durban would be far better than a greenwash outcome, which locks the world into 4C-plus global warming and inflicts irreversible damage on the climate system. India must not become a party to such an outcome.

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