Climate Change

Missed opportunity

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Smoke billows from chimneys at a chemical factory in Hefei, Anhui province, China, in this March 2010 photograph. The emissions in developed countries fell to 43 per cent in 2012 mainly because they shifted manufacturing to the developing world. Photo: JIANAN YU/REUTERS

The U.N. Climate Summit in New York could extract no binding promises, especially from the rich countries, regarding emission reduction.

THE United Nations Climate Summit in New York on September 23 kindled much hope and excitement. The extraordinary meeting, convened and hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was the largest high-level meeting on climate since 2009: it had 120 countries participating, and President Barack Obama of the United States and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom were among the speakers. Above all, the goals were high-minded, with Ban Ki-moon saying he hoped “to mobilise political will” for a new global climate agreement and “to catalyse ambitious action on the ground” in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The expectation was that the 120 member-states would do the groundwork for a comprehensive new global climate treaty at the talks in Paris in December next year. But the reality was different—the meeting exposed the divide between rich and poor countries and also the divide on critical issues such as carbon pollution and loss of forests.

As anticipated, countries were reticent and did not make any new promises. The key issues were to make new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to contribute a significant amount of climate finance to developing countries.

Briefly, here is what transpired. Obama claimed the U.S. had cut carbon pollution more than any other country during his term. Cameron said he led his country’s “greenest government”. China, which now has more emissions than the U.S., promised to cut carbon dioxide (CO) emissions “as soon as possible”. China, like India, did not send its highest authority to the talks. The Chinese Vice Premier claimed his country would achieve the promised carbon reduction of 40 per cent from 2005 levels by the target date of 2020. European Union nations said they would be approving in October a plan that would cut greenhouse gases to 40 per cent (below 1990 levels) by 2030. The U.S. said it would publicise its new emission targets early next year. Seventy-three countries supported carbon pricing but the U.S. did not. India, represented by the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar, kept a low profile.

As far as contributions to the climate finance fund went, France gave $1 billion, Switzerland and South Korea $100 million each, Denmark $70 million, Norway $33 million and Mexico pledged $10 million. The total of $2.3 billion fell short of the required $10 billion to $15 billion. The Green Climate Fund was founded in 2010. The finances, which were to come from rich countries, would enable poor countries to cope with climate change by gradually shifting to cleaner energy sources.

On the relatively positive side, more than 400 companies from 60 countries pledged to carbon pricing. In a first-time deadline, about 150 countries and some of the world’s biggest paper and palm oil companies said they would stop destructive logging by 2030. Brazil refused to sign on the grounds that the issues of indigenous forest dwellers were not being looked at. Norway offered $350 million for forest protection in Peru and $100 million for Liberian forests. All this pleased Ban Ki-moon, who said he had “asked for bold announcements from governments, business, finance and civil society [and] the summit delivered”. But a look at the history of climate change decisions takes some of the sheen off the summit.

History of climate change decisions

There is one accepted fact in the climate change debate: that solutions will be driven by economic considerations. At a recent seminar on climate change organised by the U.N. Information Centre for India and Bhutan and the Federation of Environmental Journalists in India, Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment said: “Climate change is not about the ecology. It is about the economy and economic growth.”

From 1992, when the very first U.N. Convention on Climate Change was held, there has only been a 5 per cent reduction in emissions by the developed world. The 1992 convention is based on the principle that industrialised countries have created the problem of climate change. So they have to reduce their emissions first so that less developed countries can catch up in their economic growth. While this is good in principle, the reality continues to be unfair.

In 1992, developed countries accounted for 70 per cent of the annual emissions. In 2012, this fell to 43 per cent. A dramatic drop, but any smugness on their part is demolished by the fact that this was because they shifted manufacturing to the developing world and not because they consumed less. And even though manufacturing fell, their energy and transport use soared.

The poor have been either ignored or blamed in the climate change debate, but Ban Ki-moon has categorically stated: “We cannot eradicate extreme poverty without fighting climate change.” In complete agreement, Sunita Narain says a fair and effective climate agreement will include “the poor since it is they who allow us to breathe because they contribute so little to climate change. Climate change is about socialism working in the real world. It is about the rich reducing their intake so that the poor can grow.”

Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of the independent policy think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water, agrees: “The climate change problem is not merely a grave environmental one. It is a problem born out of injustice. The denial of equitable access to sustainable development is at the core of this injustice.” A quantification of the present situation shows that consumption by one U.S. citizen is equal to that by 107 Bangladeshis or 19 Indians.

So what is the way forward to secure ecological space for growth? There are two ways forward. One is the current bottom-up process in which countries make pledges. This has not worked. Here is how it functions. The baseline for measuring emissions was from 1990. This was conveniently changed to 2005 because this was the year in which emissions in the U.S. peaked. So, if this is used as a baseline, then everything ahead is hunky-dory because emissions cannot go any higher and so whatever the U.S. does to cut emissions will be simple for them. The U.S. had pledged to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below the 2005 level. This is roughly 0-3 per cent below the 1990 level, so the U.S. is way behind in its actual emission reduction. Sunita Narain says: “A country like the U.S. needs to reduce at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels.”

So the only way forward is to employ the target approach: to set a budget for the world and then divide it on the basis of responsibility. At the current rate of global development, Sunita Narain says, the expected rise in temperature could be between 2.5° and 5° Celsius. Emissions have to be cut so that the temperature rise is below 2° C. “The world needs to live below a two tonnes per capita limit,” says Sunita Narain. “That’s the amount of natural cleansing ability the world has. We’re already at four tonnes per capita per annum.” The challenge lies in shifting to cleaner energy sources and this is where the climate finance fund is relevant. (See how much each country should reduce at

Sunita Narain believes India should demand the right to development at climate talks. She says: “India cannot be told to disengage with coal and fossil fuel while the rest of the world continues to use it…. If the rich emitted yesterday, the emerging rich world will do so today and tomorrow.”

For close to three decades, Arunabha Ghosh says, climate talks have been a “war of values” with no meeting ground. The New York summit was yet another chance to resolve them but it sadly fell below expectations.

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