United Nations (UN) climate change talks in Paris
- They arrive at United Nations (UN) climate change talks in Paris armed with promises and accompanied by high expectations. After decades of struggling negotiations marked by the failure of a previous summit in Copenhagen six years ago, some form of landmark agreement appears all but assured by mid-December.
- Most scientists say failure to agree on strong measures in Paris would doom the world to ever-hotter average temperatures, bringing with them deadlier storms, more frequent droughts and rising sea levels as polar ice caps melt.
- Facing such alarming projections, the leaders of more than 150 countries responsible for about 90% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have come bearing pledges to reduce their national carbon output, though by different degrees.
- Achieving an international agreement committing both rich and developing nations to the fight against global warming would mean “we can have confidence that we’re doing right by future generations,” US President Barack Obama said earlier this month.
Smoothing the bumps
- .The last attempt to get a global deal collapsed in chaos and acrimony in Copenhagen in 2009. It ended with Obama forcing his way on the gathering’s last day into a closed meeting of China and other countries, emerging with a modest concession to limit rising emissions until 2020 that they attempted to impose on the rest of the world.
- Anxious to avoid a re-run of the Copenhagen disaster, major powers have tried this time to smooth some of the bumps in the way of an agreement before they arrive.
- For one thing, the presidents, prime ministers and princes will make their cameo appearances at the outset of the conference rather than swooping in at the end.
- The goal is to build momentum for consensus and avoid the messiness of past talks when diplomats put off the hard political choices until their bosses arrived.
But there are other significant changes in approach.
- The old goal of seeking a legally binding international treaty, certain to be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled US Congress, has been replaced by a system of national pledges to reduce emissions, some presented as best intentions, others legally enforced by domestic laws and regulations.
- The biggest difference may be the partnership between the US and China. The world’s two biggest carbon emitters, once on opposite sides on climate issues, agreed in 2014 to jointly kick-start a transition away from fossil fuels, each at their own speed and in their own way.
- That partnership has been a balm for the main source of tension that characterised previous talks, in which the developing world argued that countries which grew rich by industrialising on fossil fuels should pay the cost of shifting all economies to a renewable energy future.
- Now even China, once a leading voice of that club, has agreed to contribute to an internationally administered Green Climate Fund that hopes to dispense $100 billion a year after 2020 as a way to finance the developing world’s shift towards renewables.
- If emerging with a signed deal now appears likely, so too is the prospect that it will not be enough to prevent the world’s average temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That is widely viewed as a threshold for dangerous and potentially catastrophic changes in the planet’s climate system.
- Instead, the summit will produce a “long-term framework” for additional reductions down the road, Obama said, with “targets set by each nation, but transparent enough to be verified by other nations.”
- How and when nations should review their goals—and then set higher, more ambitious ones—must still be hammered out.
- One sign of optimism: Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi, a key player because of his country’s size and its heavy dependence on coal, planned to use his appearance on Monday to announce an international solar alliance of more than 100 sun-kissed countries, with the aim of raising India’s profile on solar power.
While India should not hesitate to defend its interests at the climate negotiations, it should be careful to not paint itself into a corner.
- The Paris climate negotiations are a pivotal moment for global climate policy and carry huge implications for India’s developmental future.
- The Paris outcome could affect the extent to which India faces dangerous impacts from climate change, which will magnify its development challenges. But it could also impact whether India faces undue global pressure to prematurely cap its emissions or limit its use of fossil fuels for development. Put differently, India faces the challenge of ensuring dual and seemingly contradictory objectives coming out of Paris. It has to make sure that the global community takes serious action against climate change. But it also has to make sure that the mechanisms built at Paris to do so are consistent with principles of equity, allow India to contribute in a manner consistent with its development needs, and do not burden the country prematurely.
- There is a second, more political, objective to be met at Paris. Too often in past negotiations, India has been blamed for climate negotiation deadlocks and painted as a naysayer. While it should not hesitate to defend its interests, it should be careful to not paint itself into a corner.
- As a highly vulnerable country, with relatively high energy efficiency, low per capita carbon emissions, and a respectable track record of domestic initiatives, India has a good hand. But it has to play it well.
Substantive and political objectives
- There are several components to this strategy. First, India needs to join the gathering consensus that the 2015 agreement will take the form of a legally binding treaty. A treaty signals the highest expression of political will, generates accountability and predictability in implementation, and typically survives national political changes.
- A treaty, however, does not necessarily imply that each country’s carbon-cutting pledge will lend them to enforcement; this depends on the nature of the commitment (procedural or substantive, obligation of effort or result) and the precise language used.
- Instead, the agreement will commit countries to a process for the future. To address its concerns about safeguarding development options within a legally binding treaty, India can and should negotiate for flexibility, procedural obligations and obligations of effort for itself.
Developing countries such as India face the difficult path
- Bringing millions of people out of poverty without significantly increasing their carbon emissions. India also has to adapt to the severe consequences of changing climate, such as catastrophic droughts and storms, damage to agriculture, loss of biodiversity and harm to human health.
- In Paris, the negotiations revolve around a target of further maximum rise in global temperatures of only 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. This goal imposes a ceiling on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere by all countries put together, which is about 1,000 billion tonnes. Without radical decarbonisation measures, this carbon budget would be exhausted in less than two decades according to some estimates.
- In recent years, the richer half of the world has been demanding that developing nations with high rates of economic growth, including India, accept legally binding emissions cuts. This approach does not meet the test of fairness and equity, since those who are not responsible for the problem are being asked to share the burden equally.
- The principle of differentiated responsibilities was fundamental to the Kyoto Protocol, and there is no cause to review that for a new agreement.
- Instead, the focus must be on the absence of working arrangements to substantially fund mitigation of emissions and to help vulnerable countries adapt to the effects of climate change.
- A $100 billion annual fund to be available from 2020 has made no great leap, having received only pledges of aid.
A tailored approach to differentiation
- This tailored approach to differentiation will need to build on the notion of ‘self-differentiation,’ in which countries implicitly place themselves along a spectrum of actions through their climate pledges.
- The ‘progression principle’ that each country moves over time to ever more ambitious pledges — to argue that progression should be based on current starting points which reflect developed and developing countries’ differences.
- We could also call for the idea of progression to apply not only to mitigation but also to obligations related to support (finance and technology), as this will ensure that developing countries have increasing levels of support as they take on more ambitious efforts.