After Copenhagen: patchworks won’t do
by Virendra Parekh on 02 Jan 2010 1 Comment

A truly global climate change agreement with some 200 countries signing a single document is always difficult. In that sense, the recent conference on climate change at Copenhagen was destined for failure, and even the successor conference in Mexico City in December 2010 may only yield incremental gains.


The agreement which the world has been waiting for is not going to come any time soon. The reason is clear: The trade-off between long-term benefit (better climate) and short-term costs (lower consumption levels) is as yet unclear. Therefore, no country wants to make a sacrifice, however defined, without knowing what the others are going to do. This is especially true of the big emitters.


The crux of the problem is that the industrialised world needs to cut emissions drastically, and this is neither easy nor cheap. So, it is looking for easy answers and for ways to shift the burden onto developing countries. Therefore, China and India become favourite targets. The fact is that these countries will emit more in the future. There is no way around it. They have growing populations and poor people. They need to provide for development for all.


This is another challenge of climate change: developing countries have the right to pollute. But there is not enough space left in the atmosphere for their emissions. Industrialised countries have disproportionately used up the space.


What an agreement brokered by US President Barack Obama with the BASIC group of China, India, Brazil and South Africa has done is to commit countries to keep negotiating to reach an agreement. This agreement was ‘recognised’ rather than adopted by the delegates at Copenhagen. Unless all 193 members of the UN agree to this, it will have no legal sanctity.


The agreement accords a special place to limiting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius and commits each country to cutting emissions in keeping with domestic protocols and processes, without punitive liability and specific targets. The developed countries have agreed to provide financial resources, technology and capacity-building to support the implementation of adaptation action in developing countries. The agreement offers short-term funding of $30 billion for projects in developing countries, and aspires to a long-term system that would, in principle, provide $100 billion a year for mitigation and adaptation from 2020 onwards. And, outside the world of climate politics, it moves forward the plan for reducing deforestation.


For many environmentalists, the accord’s great deficiency is that it sets no targets for emissions. Indeed, it is feared that the Kyoto Protocol, which committed developed countries to measurable emission cuts by 2012, has been substantially diluted and may be junked at the next global conference.


However, the fact remains that the Kyoto Protocol imposes obligations only on the developed countries that have ratified it. It requires nothing from developing nations, even China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. And it requires nothing of America, which has not ratified it. More importantly, the Kyoto Protocol has not made developed countries cut their emissions as promised. In the absence of effective mechanisms for imposing penalties or resolving disputes, international obligations are hard to enforce. Government commitments to their own national expectations will have far more force. 


In comparison, the Copenhagen Accord brings both into purview, both the US and China – the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters. Both developing and developed countries have moved from entrenched positions. India and China have been persuaded to set and achieve peaking emissions, albeit on principles of historical equity.


For India, the conference will be remembered for diluting its principled stand and ceding considerable ground without getting anything in return. In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, India took on what it called unilateral emission cuts. It has now agreed to international supervision (“consultation and analysis”) of these cuts without securing any guarantees of help with finances and technology. This has left many G-77 members deeply unhappy, although it has obviously pleased the US, whose spokesman declared that the US will now be able to challenge India and China on their actions about emissions reduction.


Environment minister Jairam Ramesh admits there has been a shift in India’s position and justifies it in the name of flexibility. The tone and tenor of his speech in the Parliament and outside suggests that further ‘flexibility’ in Indian position cannot be ruled out. For instance, India could formally de-link its mitigation action from financial and technical support from developed countries. And, it would still have to fight in 2010 to defend itself against intrusive scrutiny of its domestic actions. If this is flexibility, what is surrender?


It is true the Chinese also have made grand commitments to fight climate change. However, they insist on remaining stereotypically inscrutable on vital questions of how and how much, while India as a parliamentary democracy will keep such information transparently in the public domain. India’s international competitiveness would suffer should the Chinese choose to fudge their figures.


India has indeed divorced itself from the G-77 when it matters. It is now much more a G-20 country and is recognised as such. This reflects the emerging reality. However, G-20 is not a homogenous group. India is much less a sinner than China when it comes to global emissions - in absolute terms, in per capita terms, and in relation to GDP. India could and should have separated itself from China at Copenhagen, and adopted the more strategic argument that it will focus on emissions per unit of GDP - which no one can question in principle, and on which India comes up trumps. It can still do so, if it gives up the pretence that the two countries’ interests are aligned.


Whether one approves of this development or not depends fundamentally on whether one thinks any better outcome was possible or whether complete failure at Copenhagen was preferable to the temporary fudge. It is difficult to arrive at a definitive answer, but it is beyond dispute that India has yielded more ground than the US.


Consider the generous sums of money promised by the developed countries for helping the import of clean technologies by developing countries. The UN convention requires that the industrialised countries provide funds and technologies to poor nations and route it through the convention as public funds transfer. But the Copenhagen accord allows rich countries to count private investments, development aid as well as other bilateral funds as part of their obligations under climate change convention.


And as Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling pointed out, the real problem is going to be the formula for sharing the money. This will keep the developing countries fighting with one another just as they did for textile quotas from 1964 to 2005. And more the money, the harder they will fight, which will leave the developed countries to carry on as usual at a very low cost. China has opted out of this fight, which makes it hard for India to remain in it.


What next? Signatory nations have to commit themselves to emissions targets for 2020 by February 1, 2010. Further off, there is the Mexico meet scheduled for December. In terms of actual reduction in emissions, nothing much will happen in the short run. Climate change will retreat to somewhere near the bottom of national agendas because, in governance, the urgent will always take precedence over the important.


All attempts to find small answers to the big problem have been found inadequate. We thought planting bio-fuels was the magic bullet till we learnt that these involved a trade-off when food prices skyrocketed. Increase in fuel-efficiency of vehicles could not help because even as cars became more efficient, people bought more cars and drove more. We pin our faith on technology till we are forced to realise that every liberating advance in technology creates a corresponding dependence.


What the world needs is not so much efficiency of machines as sufficiency of the sentiment. The Industrial Revolution fundamentally altered the relation between Nature and Man. While all other living beings survive by adapting themselves to nature, human beings no longer do so. Western civilization is rooted in the belief - implicit in Genesis, explicit in the works of Aristotle, St Augustine and others - that Nature exists to serve humans and the latter can do anything they like with it.


Global warming is a natural consequence of everything that followed from that belief. The world needs to rediscover its old harmony with Nature and switch from a consumption-oriented to a nature-oriented mode of living. It needs to evolve societies whose technologies and social institutions do not clash with Nature’s ability to sustain Life. We need a cultural change before we could finally tackle climate change.


The author is Executive Editor, Corporate India, and lives in Mumbai

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