A road map for Paris talks
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 02 May 2015 3 Comments

From Lima, Peru, to Paris, what India’s role will be in the global debate on climate change and emissions


The Union minister for environment and forests, Prakash Javadekar, addressing the first meeting of the environment ministers of BRICS in Moscow, said that India, by launching various campaigns, including, “Fresh Air, My Birthright”, “Save Water, Save Energy”, “Grow More Plants”, and “Urban Green”, wants to lead the developing nations with greater stress on need-based consumption. Later this year, the Paris talks will unfold. It is time to prepare well and do our homework before setting out to the negotiating table. This article examines what are the stakes, who will call the shots, and how India must face up to the unfolding scenario. 


India needs to prepare well for the December 2015 climate talks in Paris or we will end up making “foot-in-the mouth” statements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preoccupied with many other distractions, both national and international, and it would be futile to expect him to produce a road map for Paris. Hopefully, Environment and Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar and his colleagues will put their heads together and come up with a plan that protects Indian interests.


It is worth noting that the United States and China, the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, have agreed to cut emissions, the US by 26-28 per cent in 2025 over its 2005 levels. China will peak its emissions by 2030 and then start cutting but in the meantime, it has committed to producing some 1,000 gigawatts of carbon-free energy. The European Union also proposes to raise its share of renewable sources by 27 per cent in total consumption by 2030.


In Brisbane during the G-20 summit, President Barack Obama said, “If China and the US can agree on this, we can get this done”, and he announced a US $3 billion fund for climate mitigation to the UN-backed Climate Mitigation Fund.


A critical analysis of the agreement shows these assurances do not unambiguously show the contours of a road map for climate mitigation. Secondly, they are voluntary in nature, not binding. Thus, there will be no penalties if either the US or China misses targets.


More disturbingly, Russia, Australia, Canada and Japan are doing far less than they had earlier promised, especially going by the original Kyoto protocol. The 26 to 28 per cent reduction in emission over 2005 the US has promised is less than the 30 per cent promised at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, where both Obama and the Chinese President were present in addition to leaders from Europe. Another disturbing element is that China is allowed unlimited emissions until 2030, though it has set a goal of raising its share of renewable energy use.


According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the two degree Celsius cap route is endorsed by scientists the world over. It would entail emission reductions of 40 to 70 per cent by 2050 over 2010 levels and, hopefully, to zero by 2100. These figures clearly show that the pledges by the three biggest emitters, the US, China and the European Union are insufficient, to say the least.


As things evolved in Copenhagen, Cancun (2010), and now in Lima, the commentators on climate change are shifting the focus to India, the fourth biggest emitter, though per capita levels are low and there is a vast disparity between a poor tribal who scrounges for shrubs and twigs as fuel and the elite in their air-conditioned dwellings and First World energy consumption levels. The big question for Paris is: Should India decline to cut emissions and risk the pain of isolation among the comity of nations, especially the most powerful? Should India remain belligerent or succumb to external pressure?


A look at the statistics says the following: China emits 8,500 gigatons of carbon, the US 5,400, EU 3,800, India 1,900, Russia 1,800 and Japan 1,300. These figures are for 2012. India is the fourth biggest carbon emitter in the world, but it emits about 25 per cent of what China does and about a third of the US figure. Russia emits almost as much as India, yet the focus of China, the US and EU is India, not Russia or Japan. At current levels, India will hopefully cap at 4,000-5000 gigatons by 2030, well below the pledge by the US or China.


So by the yardstick of emissions-cut pledges, there should be no compulsion for India to propose a cut in Paris. Emission calculations are based on fossil fuel use, not renewable energy. The latest global energy reports suggest that increasing the share of renewables will prevent a lock-in on fossil fuel-dependent technology. It is in India’s interest to enhance the share of renewables in the energy mix.


Paris will see pressure on India as the energy superpowers will want pledges of huge cuts. As things stand, there is no need why we should. But this line of argument may cut no ice. So what do we do at Paris?


The following options are available:


1] We insist that there be no reference to reduction until the country achieves economic stabilisation, as the advanced countries and China propose to do. Unlike China, India has a young population and it could expand emissions until or even after 2050, when the urban transition and industrialisation will almost be complete, and carbon emission will stabilise.


2] We could propose to peak emissions by 2050, and commit to a 25-30 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2025, higher than the promised 20-25 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020.


3] We could offer to raise the share of renewable energy to 20 per cent, the same as China’s, in its total energy consumption by 2030. The final report of the NITI Ayog (which is in limbo) has experts saying the contribution of solar, wind, and biomass to electricity supply can realistically increase from the current 6 per cent to 18 per cent by 2030.


One essential rider to this strategy is that the food and agriculture ministry thinks deeply on the extractive type of agriculture called the green revolution, where the energy is still fossil fuel dependent. Organic farming on a very large scale would be the most attractive alternative. Kerala has officially stated that by 2016 it would be completely organic. No other Indian State has come out with such a clear promise.


4] Whatever happens, India must, without being pressured, demand firm timelines and financial commitments from the super rich and super emitters for climate control strategies. This will help the poorer land locked nations and tiny island nations around the country to come closer to India. Lastly, we must relentlessly press the US, China and European Union, the biggest polluters to curb emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050 over the 2010 levels.


This has become necessary because when the curtain was drawn after 14 days of negotiations by 194 countries in Lima, Peru, it left a great deal unsaid and undone, So Paris is where things have to be finalised. There was an unstated irony about the Lima Climate Conference, which left a massive carbon footprint, producing more than 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in those 14 days. This is the largest carbon footprint of any meeting in two decades of climate negotiations. It exceeds the emissions of nations such as Malawi, Sierra Leone and Fiji over the same period. It makes one wonder if Javadekar’s description of Lima 2014 as a success for the developing and least developed world was seriously meant.


In the tug of war between rich and poor nations, Lima turned out to be an exercise with little scientific relevance. The agreement sets out guidelines for the submission of national greenhouse gas (primarily carbon dioxide) pledges by this year. It is obvious that the initial ambitious goals became less so by the day. So, against a backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year on record, governments at the United Nations climate negotiations opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions.


Green Revolution’s role in global warming


There is one point these conferences routinely miss. The world over, climate negotiators harp ad nauseam on carbon dioxide as the principal culprit in global warming, ignoring the potentially more dangerous nitrous oxide, a by-product of chemically intensive agriculture. One gram of nitrous oxide stays put in the atmosphere for about 350 years, trapping radiation and exponentially increasing global warming. The equivalent number for carbon dioxide is 50 years.


This should give an excellent idea of the green revolution’s role in global warming. It is no coincidence that the US is the biggest contributor of nitrous oxide because of its chemically intensive farming practices. But the fertilizer lobby simply looks the other way when knowledgeable people point this out. Our own fertiliser lobby is no exception.


Indian chemically intensive agriculture is also a large contributor as it is based on large-scale use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, copious amounts of water for irrigation and the other nutrients that the “miracle” imported dwarf wheat and rice genotypes demand. For a time the green revolution produced a mountain of food but now the soils in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, “cradle” of the green  revolution, are degraded, aquifers catastrophically overdrawn, and ground water unfit for consumption due to excessive load of nitrates, a by-product of the chemical decomposition of urea fertilisers in soil. The region’s biodiversity has vanished and on vast stretches of land even a blade of grass cannot now be grown. Go to Punjab, and the reader will understand what I say here.


Developing nations and NGOs the world over had hoped Lima would compel the US and the European Union to include information on their pledges on climate adaptation and other financial assistance. They also sought a robust assessment of the aggregate effects of the pledges and a mechanism for ramping up contributions if they were inadequate to meet the United Nations goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the outcome was a disappointment on most of these fronts.


The talks got bogged down early in a fight over “differentiation”: how to divide responsibility for carbon cuts between industrially developed nations and the poor. The US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which is at the forefront, including the fight against genetically modified crop technology promoted by agribusiness behemoths like Monsanto, which is arm twisting countries like India through its native collaborators into accepting these crops, reflected that it did the bare minimum to keep negotiations on the track to Paris.


Rather than strictly imposing a requirement, the final text “urges” parties “to consider including an adaptation component” in their pledges. Similarly, on financial help to developing and least developed nations it “urges” help. Obviously, the rich are not yet prepared to loosen their purse strings.


It is little comfort to poor nations that the new text did “reintroduce” a reference to the much touted “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR for short)”, which had been dropped from earlier drafts. As the final draft says “The package … puts in place a draft of a Paris agreement, without narrowing down on any of the difficult political issues”. To give a push, the rich nations must have detailed plans for meeting a promise to ramp up their climate funding to US $100 billion a year by 2020, as observers noted.


Reactions to the final draft varied, with the EU welcoming the Lima talks. In October last, the EU set its own goals to cut carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020 from 1990 levels. The way things have moved, it will be like asking for the moon. On balance, the Lima talks were long on political expediency but short on concrete measures.


This failure was unexpected as in the run-up to negotiations a rare momentum had built up. Both the US and China, the world’s biggest polluters, effectively agreed to convert their economies to low carbon use. China is the world’s biggest coal user. This had followed the EU undertaking.


Brazil has already placed curbs on deforestation - the biggest source of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere after fossil fuels, apart from the green revolution - by 70 per cent and will halt forest loss by 2030, a development whose effect is equivalent to taking all the cars off all the roads in the world. The UK had even pledged £10 billion in assistance for poor countries. Even the sceptical Tony Abbot, Australian Prime Minister, was shamed into reversing his position and stumping up $105 million.


But this marked acceleration of good intentions ran out of steam once the sclerotic UN climate negotiating system, which has been holding endless and useless “negotiations” for the last 22 years, got into the act. Despite their earlier agreement, both the US and China were at odds over issues like how emission cuts should be shared between rich and poor countries and how national pledges should be monitored and checked.


Ministers and UN officials are busy overstating the “achievements of Lima”, but the truth is that too much has been left for Paris to sort out. Leaving the more thorny issues to be sorted out later reduces the chances of a tangible agreement in the French capital. That was why the plan was to clear them up in Lima itself.


Lima had again shown unequivocally that official negotiators - even environment or energy ministers - are incapable of cracking the big issues. Only heads of state or government can do that. Unlike Copenhagen, no head of state was present in Lima. In Copenhagen, the US president, the British prime minister, the Chinese president, and others present came to the brink of an agreement, but stumbled at the last minute because of the belligerence of African nations and their tales of the “white man’s injustice”. If anything tangible has to happen in Paris, heads of states will be indispensable for an outcome.


Finally, India has to answer this question: To set our own house in order, do we go by the Mahatma’s dictum, “There is everything in this world to meet man’s need but not greed”. Or do we go by what late Deng Xiaoping said in 1980 at the beginning of Chinese “reforms”: “It is glorious to be rich”. The choice is up to the Modi government.  

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