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Earth heats up, world cold to deal

No definitive deal was clinched at the global climate change talks that concluded in Peru recently.

Earth heats up, world cold to deal

The 20th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Lima in Peru saw the 190-plus countries agreeing to disagree, and leaving the hurdles for 2015 Paris Summit. Reuters

Vibha Sharma

No definitive deal was clinched at the global climate change talks that concluded in Peru recently. There wasn’t supposed to be one. The Lima Call for Climate Action can at the very best be seen as a “statement of good intentions”. For whose good remains the hotly contested point of negotiation in the quest to not let the earth get warmer and prevent extreme weather patterns.

The 20th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference mainly had a two-point agenda: to come up with a blueprint for a hopeful Paris Agreement next year and finalise the form and content of INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, to be submitted by early 2015. Put simply, on how much each country, rich or poor, is willing to reduce carbon emissions — which was agreed to at the Warsaw talks in 2013. Both aspects remained undecided.

So, there is no agreement as of now on the emission cut target for each country based on its past contribution to the depletion of the ozone layer. Or who will do what — mitigation or adaptation? Or about the financial assistance to developing nations for technology that enables cleaner production and a shift to renewable sources of energy. Broadly, everything was postponed for the next time.

When Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar commented that “we got we wanted” after the Lima talks, he wasn’t off the mark. India, along with the rest of the developing world, has since the commencement of the climate change negotiations in 1988 been consistent in its stand that the major industrial polluters — the 37 developed countries — take the responsibility to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

The principle of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), which New Delhi firmly stands by, highlights the developing countries’ need for sustainable development, poverty eradication, and energy access and how the developed world must recognise such fundamentals while asking for emission cuts.

The Lima plan, however, has no direct reference to equity, so arriving at an international consensus on climate equity in Paris may be difficult to achieve.

 The reactions from environmentalists on the outcome of the talks have varied from “hopeful” to “makes-no-difference” to ominous warnings about the future.

 Environmental group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) terms the Lima statement a “major setback” to climate change talks, forewarning that it “will not result” in a deal next year. And that if there is a deal, it will be so weak that countries will not do much till 2030.

CSE head Sunita Narain is more direct: “By 2030, the big polluters would have appropriated most of the available carbon space, leaving nothing for most developing countries, including India.”

How? “Because a weak climate deal in Paris,” she reasons, “means that in 2030, the US and China will have per capita emissions of 12 tonne – four times more than India. After 2030, countries like India will be asked to go in for an emergency emission reduction plan, which will be highly detrimental to the economic development of the nation.”

She says the Lima “agreement” will further erode the differentiation between the developed and the developing countries. “The burden of tackling climate change will decisively shift to developing countries, making their efforts towards poverty reduction and sustainable development difficult and expensive.”

Her colleague Chandra Bhushan, who attended the conference, adds: “It is bad for India, it is bad for the world. Lima will be remembered for bad process, non-transparency and non-inclusiveness. It has further widened the trust gap between the developed and developing countries. The final agreement only postpones the inevitable—a big fight next year in the run-up to the Paris meeting and eventually, a weak deal that will take the world to a 3-4 degrees Celsius temperature rise, risking the lives and livelihoods of billions of poor people across the world.”

Environmentalists say they are worried because the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility stands further “diluted and compromised at Lima”. This leads the way for developed countries to continue their high emissions.

However, Prodipto Ghosh, who has been part of several negotiations as the environment secretary and a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, remains hopeful about the world’s intentions.

“At Lima, all countries agreed that they would reveal their goals and plans for greenhouse gas mitigation (to the UN by March 31), why they think their contribution is fair, and if they wish, their plans for climate change adaptation,” he says.

 “These will not be subject to any outside review,” Ghosh points out, adding that these would be considered in the Paris negotiations, “when hopefully some kind of international outcome on climate change in the post-2020 period would emerge.” Soumya Dutta, convener of the Climate and Energy Group, has a problem with that. After the Kyoto Protocol’s legally binding commitment of the developed countries to reduce (though by very small amounts of 5-8 per cent) their emissions in a time-bound manner, the Lima text now accepts Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, with the focus on intended, he says.

“This means that each country will decide how much they will reduce based on national circumstances and of course intentions. Even these ‘do-as-you-please’ reduction and mitigation commitments will not be binding,” he points out.

The INDCs will also be for all countries in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol that wanted rich countries to do the mitigation responsible for more emissions. 

What’s more, the UN will review the carbon emission commitments, but with no effect on the countries if these fall short of the required reduction.

Lima, Prodipto Ghosh says, produced a 43-page negotiating text for next year. “The important outcome from India’s standpoint is that it would enable us to preserve the emissions space that we require for our development,” adds Ghosh, taking a different line from Sunita Narain.

The views may be conflicting, but climate change remains the centrepiece of debate. A report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in November in Copenhagen warns of catastrophic impacts if decisive actions to limit global warming below 2 degrees Celsius are not taken quickly.

Amid a whole lot of scepticism regarding Paris, there is a general agreement that climate change meetings have served some purpose—setting significant milestones and encouraging countries to go in for voluntary checks and balances (see box for India’s efforts).

“Though the developed countries like US, Australia, Japan and Canada have shown scant regard for this multilateralism, most other countries have benefited from these kinds of engagements. Small economies will otherwise be not even heard,” feels Soumya Dutta.  

“In 1992, the developed countries contributed 70 per cent of the emissions and by 2014, they are down to 40. The space is filled and now there is little left for the future growth of all. This is where climate change negotiations are stuck,” Sunita Narain rounds off the debate.

“The old rich want the differentiation between the past polluters and the current and future ones to go. They want to divide the carbon cake afresh. They remind developing countries that the present is different—China, for instance, has overtaken the US as the world’s largest contributor on an annual basis. But they forget conveniently that on a per capita basis, there is still a vast difference between the US and China,” she says.

But then, she adds, there is no reason to lose hope. “It is in our interest to demand that the US and China reduce emissions at the scale and pace needed. It is in our interest to demand that we will all accept limits, but based on equity.”

Global economics of climate change
Several environmentalists may discount it, but climate change negotiations are not actually about climate or environment. The entire concept is more about economics and foreign policies of nations, with climate objectives perhaps being the third and last part.

“You safeguard your economic interest and your foreign policy. Only after that has been achieved you think about how to save the earth. Even if we cut down emissions to zero, the effect will be observed only after 50 or 100 years. Today’s problems are not because of today’s emissions. Today’s problems are because of what happened 50 years back. So what we do today will not have any effect today,” says a government functionary.

As an issue, climate change requires a complete re-orientation of a country’s economy. “Unless and until a country develops to a certain level, it cannot cut emissions. You need money and technology to do that. So, in a way, it becomes a cyclical argument. If I develop, I emit, if I don’t emit, then I don’t develop at all. It requires money for investments in renewables and clean technologies.” 

Present pledges and commitments, he adds, are far short of the minimum requirement to keep the global temperature from rising. “Countries know this, but do not seem to be willing to act positively to close the emission gap, as they fear it will harm their economies.”

In any case, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Council on Climate Change, is clear: India’s climate change policy must be based on its national compulsions and not the exigencies of international negotiations. “We can and should adopt measures to curb emissions wherever this is possible without slowing down inclusive development,” he says. 

Voluntary  cuts
Over the years, India has built its international stance on fighting climate change while keeping in mind domestic obligations of development needs enshrined in the CBDR principle.

Its proactive submissions to the UN on various issues are in line with the Kyoto Protocol — that India is a developing country, will only do adaptation and to expect mitigation targets is not correct.

At Copenhagen, India announced to cut its carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of GDP — by between 20 and 25 per cent by 2020 compared with a baseline of 2005.

India being a developing nation, the Kyoto Protocol did not demand from it to cut down emissions at least till 2012 — the first period of commitment. But the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh “unilaterally announced that India will reduce its economy-wide energy intensity”, inviting flak back home from Opposition parties for “compromising India’s position”.  

“Actually this was neither difficult, nor bad. It was not required from us but we did it in good faith and our energy efficiency  actually improved,” says Soumya Dutta.

Meanwhile, this is what we can do

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a member of Prime Minister’s  Council on Climate Change, warns of changes in monsoon patterns. His prescription:

  • Climate-proofing agriculture by improving water storage, reducing water consumption and shifting to drought-resistant crop varieties
  • Creating new infrastructure on a vast scale to protect coastal cities from sea-level rise and increasing frequency of typhoons and other extreme events
  • Raising disaster relief preparedness to new levels to cope with climate change impacts
  • Raising education levels to enable people to effectively adopt new technologies. In short, building capacity to adapt to climate change

Looking at Paris

  • The Paris summit in 2015, environmentalists believe, will yield “a loose, diluted agreement”
  • The essential difference between Kyoto Protocol and the new deal at Paris will be a dilution of nature of agreement from legally binding to ‘with legal force’
  • Kyoto Protocol was mitigation centric, with legally binding commitments only for developed countries. The Paris outcome is likely to have some mitigation goals for developing countries as well

US-China deal

On November 12, 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a joint plan to reduce greenhouse gas  emissions. The deal came as a surprise since the US is the world's biggest historical polluter and China the biggest current polluter. CSE head Sunita Narain says the deal is unequal because the remaining carbon budget of roughly 1,000 billion tonne (between 2012-2100) will be completely exhausted by 2030.

Energy-saving methods introduced in India

  • Emission intensity is the measure of emissions relative to economic output produced
  • Officials say India’s emission intensity declined by 17.6 per cent between 1990 and 2005, while its energy intensity has been decreasing since 1980s. It is already in the same range as that of the least energy intensive countries
  • It is estimated that India’s per capita emissions in 2031 will be lower than the per capita global emission in 2005
  • Initiatives taken by the government on a voluntary basis include scaling of installation of solar power capacity from 20,000 MW to 1 lakh MW, doubling Clean Energy Cess to Rs100 per tonne to fund research on clean energy technologies and for cross-subsidising renewable energies
  • National Mission on Himalayan Studies and National Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem been launched
  • National Air Quality Index introduced

Silver linings

On December 8, the first global standard to measure greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from cities was launched, according to CSE. Called the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC), the standard will help cities voluntarily report their emissions, compare it with the emissions from other cities, help them create targeted action plans to reduce the emissions level and consistently track performance.

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