The fight for equity

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Prakash Javdekar, Minister for Environment and Forests (second from right), joins hands with (from left) Francisco Gaetani, Brazil's Deputy Minister for Environment; Edna Molewa, South Africa's Environment Minister; and Xie Zhenhua, Vice-Chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, during the 18th BASIC Ministerial Meeting on Climate Change in New Delhi on August 18. Photo: PTI

A chemical factory discharging fumes in Mumbai. A file picture. Photo: Bloomberg

India must engage with as many countries as possible to evolve a common strategy for advancing the idea of equity, as a legally binding instrument is likely to be the outcome of COP-2015.

IN December 2015, the world will know which way it is headed in terms of climate change and what the fate of the earth will be, particularly humanity, in the years beyond 2050. The year marks the deadline that was set in 2011 at the 17th climate summit in Durban, under what is known as the Durban Platform, for the world community to arrive at a binding international agreement on limiting carbon emissions so that the average global surface temperature does not overshoot the “guard rail” of 2° Celsius—or even a more ambitious limit of 1.5° C—above pre-industrial levels. The annual climate summits are called the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was negotiated in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The convention’s stated objective (Article 2) is “stabilisation of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would stop dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

Equity is an important principle, indeed the cornerstone, of the UNFCCC, which is articulated (Article 3.1) as: “The parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities” (emphasis added).

It must be emphasised, as T. Jayaraman and colleagues at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, did in their 2011 paper that the term “equity” , however it may be interpreted in the context of a binding international agreement, should not be confused or equated with “CBDR”. Every country has an additional common climate obligation towards emission reductions individually, but these responsibilities would be differentiated according to their historical actions, respective current capacities and capabilities.

The science of climate change tells us that the temperature increase beyond 2° C could be disastrous for the world, with its consequences likely to pose a threat to the very survival of vulnerable populations in developing and least developed countries, and island nations. According to the latest (Fifth) Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the increase in temperature between 1880 and 2012 is already 0.85° C ( Frontline, November 1, 2013).

The metric of 2° C as the target for constraining climate change is already being questioned, with the current emissions indicating a temperature increase beyond 2° C in the 21st century. So it is imperative for all countries to cut carbon emissions if the earth must remain sustainable.

At COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the participating countries, after failing to conclude a legally binding treaty in accordance with the UNFCCC principles, pledged to work towards an agreement that would prevent global warming from exceeding 2° C. The crucial COP-21, expected to herald the making or breaking of a climate resilient world, will be held in Paris. At COP-20, to be held in Lima in December 2014, it is widely expected that the nature of the emergent universal agreement should become clear. A draft text is expected to be tabled for discussions at the summit.

In preparation for that, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders from government, finance, business and civil society to attend a special U.N. Climate Summit 2014 (as against the annual UNFCCC summit) on September 23 in New York. He has urged the leaders to bring to the summit bold announcements and actions “that will reduce emissions, strengthen climate resistance and mobilise political will for a meaningful legal agreement in 2015”. Significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, will not be present at the September summit.

The nature of the legal agreement was left pretty much vague at the Durban summit. The Durban decision was that it could be a protocol, another legal instrument or “an agreed outcome with legal force”. The phrase “an agreed outcome with legal force”, whose meaning is not quite clear, was incorporated after prolonged wrangling as a compromise to India for which the use of the words “legally binding” in the earlier formulation was anathema to its negotiating position.

In the past 22 years of climate negotiations, two approaches to address the impending climate crisis have emerged. The first was the Kyoto Protocol of 2005, a top-down (prescriptive) solution whose architecture reflected the CBDR. The Kyoto Protocol now stands virtually dismantled. In accordance with the respective historical responsibilities, it required only the developed or Annex 1 countries to take on assigned targets for emission reductions over their 1990 levels based on the simple “polluter pays” principle. Their carbon emissions since industrialisation began in the mid-19th century account for about 70 per cent of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere (stock), constituting the major cause for the current global warming and climate change.

The First Commitment Period (FCP) of the Kyoto Protocol ended in December 2012. After much acrimonious negotiations at Durban, the Second Commitment Period (SCP) was agreed upon. This will expire in December 2020, when the new globally binding post-2015 agreement will take effect. During the FCP, industrialised countries committed to reducing GHG emissions by an average of 5 per cent below 1990 levels. During the SCP, the commitment is to reduce emissions relative to 1990 levels by 18 per cent.

On the other hand, the non-Annex 1 countries, which account for about 80 per cent of the world population, are not required to meet any assigned targets. This premise has not been acceptable to some developed countries. The United States, for instance, opted out of the Kyoto Protocol right from the start even though until recently it was the biggest carbon emitter in the world. These countries want emerging economies such as India and China, whose emissions are increasing as a result of the ongoing development and economic growth, to take on binding commitments as well. Post-2012, Canada, too, withdrew from the Kyoto process. Russia, Japan and New Zealand have not accepted any reduction commitments for the SCP for the same reason. Effectively, therefore, the SCP puts reduction targets only on 15 per cent of world emissions.

Thus, the Kyoto process today stands greatly undermined. The U.S. has all along favoured a single framework ( Frontline, December 18, 2009) on the basis of a bottom-up approach premised on unilateral emission reduction commitments by all countries which would include India and China as well—commitments that are measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV). A back-room manoeuvre engineered by the U.S. and its allies towards this objective resulted at Copenhagen failing to reach a binding agreement with assigned emission reduction targets, and the unilateral “pledge-and-review” approach began to gain ground.

A quasi-formalisation of this process occurred at COP-16 in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010 when the Cancun agreements included a list of pledges by individual countries, with nothing said about the “review” process that should go with it. “All countries must accept binding commitments in some appropriate legal form,” the then Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, famously said at Cancun. This marked crossing the Lakshman rekha of not accepting any legally binding targets, which, therefore, rankled many commentators and analysts back home. And the Indian stand at Cancun was seen as buckling under American pressure. It was this backlash that probably led to the hard stance taken by his successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, at Durban for incorporating the phrase “an agreed outcome with legal force”.

Arguing that India must be seen to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, Ramesh overruled the negotiators and declared at Cancun that India would reduce its emission intensity by 20-25 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020 from the 2005 levels as the Indian pledge in the new globally binding bottom-up approach. This target was the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (NAMA) that it had communicated to the UNFCCC in 2009 under the Bali Action Plan of COP-13 as a voluntary measure and not as a binding target. For the record, the sum total of official emission reduction pledges from all countries have, however, so far amounted to only around 60 per cent of what is needed to limit the temperature increase to 2° C. Clearly, this calls for much more ambitious and bold pledges particularly from the developed countries.

So, what is India likely to bring to the table as the climate negotiations move towards Paris through Lima? If there is some strategy in the works, it is not evident in the open. The Minister of Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, has made some general statements which, despite their rhetorical nature, do indicate the current thinking within the government. In his (videotaped) inaugural address at the recent conference at TISS on “Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Equity and Post-2015 Challenge”, Javadekar said: “Towards 2015 COP at Paris, India has decided to strengthen its negotiating team, its negotiating efforts, taking other countries along with us… we have eight missions; we may add one or two more…. The issue is that the world must recognise that India needs to grow…. So we will seek a window up to say 2050. Then our scenario may plateau and then come down….”

This is a throwback to the pre-Ramesh negotiating stance of India not being prepared to undertake any binding emission cuts. Indeed, this was the burden of India’s submission to the UNFCCC on the work plan for the Durban Platform. It said: “The responsibilities/obligations of developing countries in a post-2020 arrangement will clearly need to be built on the principles of equity and CBDR. Irrespective of the legal form of the final arrangements, the developing country targets under such arrangements cannot be binding until the principle of differentiation based on equity is defined and the conditions implicit in such definition of equity are met…. Developing country targets under these arrangements will be determined on the basis of voluntary choice and with a guarantee that there will be no punitive consequences of shortfall in these domestic targets even if they are inscribed in an international document.”

“Our approach to the [climate change] issue,” said Ramesh, during a panel discussion at the TISS conference, “has been defensive, argumentative and moralistic and based not on any enlightened self-interest, or hard calculations, about what is good for us but dictated by the traditional Indian negotiating strategy of saying ‘No’ to the point till everybody says ‘Yes’ and then India joins the bandwagon…. India has fallen into this trap because the negotiators have led the negotiations; the political dimension has been completely absent. They have decided what is good for India.”

Green economy

The pragmatic stance adopted by him at Cancun, Ramesh claimed, had changed India’s image internationally from being a “naysayer” to a country willing to participate actively in the search for a solution. Attacking in no uncertain terms the negotiators, and the successive administrations at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he said: “All the gains that were made from 2009 to 2011 on the international front have been negated by India going back to its ostrich-like position. The achievement at Copenhagen and Cancun was because of India’s intervention. But, subsequently, India has gone back to its moralistic inflexible position and the net result of that today [is that] India may well be the last man standing in Paris.” India, he said, could well become the reason for not having an agreement at Paris and if there was no agreement, the country that was going to pay the heaviest price would be India. “India is on a disastrous route as far as the international dimension is concerned and on a dangerous route as far as the domestic dimension is concerned.”

The reference to the domestic dimension was the increasing evidence of environmental issues being projected as the prime reason for the slowdown in growth in the past four years. He drew attention to the Planning Commission report on “Low Carbon Strategy for Inclusive Growth”, which showed that it was possible to have a low carbon approach to equitable energy access and economic growth, and the Twelfth Plan document’s stated objective of “faster, inclusive and sustainable growth”.

Twenty-five years ago, he said, India was ahead of China in renewable energy (solar, biomass and wind). “Today, we are importing solar cells from China, China has outstripped India in its wind energy capacity, and China and Indonesia have moved ahead in biomass energy,” he stated. He argued that India should have an aggressive investment strategy in the green economy because of the co-benefits that it has in the areas of public health, employment, and climate change, among other things.

But as Jayaraman pointed out in response to Ramesh’s green economy argument, China was ahead in green energy because of the importance it has given to domestic manufacturing. However, in India, he said, green growth had become a mantra with a tendency to project manufacturing and industrial growth as antithesis to green economy. At the conference, Jayaraman and his associates also presented case studies on the Kudankulam nuclear power project and the Western Ghats to point out how the country required a balanced approach to environment and socio-economic development and how the two could coexist.

D. Raghunandan, president of the All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), echoed Ramesh’s view and said that domestic policies did not factor in the impacts of climate change. “In its negotiating position abroad and in its domestic formulation of policies,” he said, “the government does not seem to take this global risk as a major parameter. This is one of the key reasons India stands isolated in the international negotiations because other nations, particularly the Africa Group, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the small island states (SISs) which are closer to India in terms of per capita income, human development indicators and vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change, are astonished at India not being concerned about the impacts of climate change to itself. If it had been as concerned as these countries about the existential threat that climate change poses, India’s stance internationally would have been different.”

India, he said, had always seen climate negotiations as power play and taken a stance that is aimed more at balancing its foreign policy interests than ensuring environmentally sustainable development and a climate resilient growth. “I believe that it is in India’s national interests to secure an effective and urgent international climate solution. If that is not achieved, it poses a survival threat. I think this is not sufficiently appreciated or internalised in the Indian negotiating position,” he said.

One of the reasons for domestic policies not being predicated upon climate change imperatives is a lack of detailed State or regional level impact assessments and vulnerability maps on factors such as agricultural productivity, monsoon variability and sea-level rise, to appropriately tailor the State-level policies and the State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs). These policies are now largely based on gross assessments rather than micro-level studies. The Planning Commission was one organ that could have undertaken nationwide studies, but now that it is to be dismantled it is not clear who will have that kind of capacity and expertise to do so.

Also from a domestic policy perspective, while the Minister did mention the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and the associated missions, it should be noted that the Advisory Council to the Prime Minister on Climate Change has not met since January 2011. In fact, it was supposed to review the performances of the missions on a quarterly basis. So there is no evaluation or audit in the public domain of how well the missions have performed. For example, the impact of climate change on agriculture is an important issue for the country and there is a National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). But, according to B. Venkateswarlu, an expert on dry-land agriculture who was earlier with the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and is currently Vice-Chancellor of Vasantrao Naik Krishi Vidyapeeth, Parbhani, the NMSA was not formulated properly and should be revised, particularly from the dry-land agriculture perspective.

While Ramesh’s criticism of the lack of bold initiatives on the part of India and his emphasis on the need to move towards a green economy are well taken, his preference for a bottom-up solution, just because that is the only approach that is likely to be accepted by all, needs to be looked at a little more critically. For, it is not clear how equity can be naturally built into a “pledge-and-review” framework without any clarity on its structure and implementation.

The Indian approach to equity in climate negotiations has always been premised on the basis of per capita emissions (PCE) per year, which is about 1.7 tonnes (ranked 127th) as compared to China’s 6.2 tonnes (ranked 55th) and the U.S.’ 16.4 tonnes (ranked eighth). In terms of gross emissions, they account respectively for 6.41 per cent (the fourth biggest emitter), 26.43 per cent (the biggest emitter) and 17.33 per cent (the second biggest). The scientific basis for this approach is that atmosphere is a global commons. But global warming restricts the available carbon space (the amount of GHG that can be emitted without breaching the 2° C ceiling or the “carbon budget”) for humanity as a whole. Equity in a climate change agreement implies right of equitable access to this carbon space and operationalisation of these rights (at a national level).

The per capita approach means that this available carbon space be apportioned equally across all individuals of the world. This implies equity between nations as part of an international agreement and equity within nations through domestic actions. The thrust of the UNFCCC equity principle and the Indian approach to equity is that “historical emissions” of industrialised nations have greatly shrunk the available sink capacity of the atmosphere for future carbon emissions necessary for the growth of developing countries. Thus, these historically accumulated stocks, and not flows, of carbon emissions must form the basis for assigning equitable access to available carbon space. It is the relative contribution of GHG emission stocks that would determine the used up carbon space by various nations and how much of it remains for use by all nations in the future. According to one recent study, given the current rate of emissions, the available “carbon budget” would already be exhausted by 2040.

“We are the only country in the world,” argued Ramesh, at the conference, “that uses per capita as the metric for equity. The other BASIC [Brazil, South Africa, India & China] countries have abandoned us. Nobody is willing to buy this argument.” It had become a convenient argument, and as the denominator is 1.24 billion, growing by 12 million every year, per capita in India would be the lowest for anything, he argued. “So what is this profound point that we are making by saying that by per capita we are low?” he asked. Lavanya Rajamani of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, too, has argued that India used equity as a defensive mechanism in negotiations. While agreeing that equity was being used as a negotiating tactic, Raghunandan favoured the per capita approach but with the caveat that it would be more effective internationally if India were to address this issue domestically in its developmental policies, in terms of energy and resources access, linked with environment and sustainability issues, which unfortunately was not happening.

Case for equity

In an effective counter to Ramesh’s argument, Jayaraman said: “If demography is the problem, who among us should not exist? Is slowing the population growth rate a necessary condition for achieving equity or is the ability to lower the population growth rate a consequence of some sense of equity with regard to human development and the provision of some level of well-being to the population at large? Demography will remain a problem if you are providing services, goods and the needs of the people in the manner you are doing today. You must have a vision to change that and demography cannot be seen independent of this.”

With available carbon space becoming highly constrained, from the perspective of developing countries, equity should be non-negotiable and should form the basis of any global agreement post-2015. However, the equity principle is yet to become central to the negotiations despite there being several formulations of it. The problem is, as Jayaraman pointed out, which among these different formulations, which appear similar and comparable, should be picked.

The Indian negotiating team should, therefore, engage with as many countries as possible to evolve a common strategy for advancing the idea of equity and arrive at a formulation of equity that would be acceptable to as many countries as possible. It is becoming increasingly clear that a “pledge-and-review” kind of agreement is likely to be the outcome at Paris. The question then is: What kind of a structure should it have so that equity could become an integral part of it?

Besides the BASIC group, India has also used the forum of Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) to formulate a common stand on climate change. But, as Raghunandan pointed out, India should try and win over countries of the Africa Group, the LDCs and SISs as well to create a much larger common front to address questions such as “What are the overarching terms that an agreement should have?”, “What kind of agreement is desirable?”, “What would such an agreement mean in the short- and the long-term?”, “What strategy should be adopted to face up to the pressures of having a decision at Paris?” But, besides the written submission in 2012 to the UNFCCC on behalf of the LMDCs, there is no evidence of India proactively engaging with different countries to evolve a common negotiating front and strategy. December 2015 is not far away.

According to Lavanya Rajamani, going by the negotiations and outcome at COP-19 in Warsaw, the 2015 agreement is likely to be a hybrid architecture combining nationally determined pledges with top-down elements such as rules on transparency and accounting, as well as an assessment/consultative process. A legally binding instrument is likely to be part of the Paris package. There is least common ground among parties on the crucial issues of differentiation and equity, she says.

As Dileep Ahuja of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore, pointed out, one cannot hope to get an optimal solution in 2015 itself. There will be future revisions. Clearly, the Indian strategy should aim at getting the best out of even a bad bargain.

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