December 06, 2015

Paris Climate Summit: Contradictions And Moving Goalposts


SO COP 21 (Conference of Parties) is finally here and fingers are crossed all over the world that the summit will deliver a definitive outcome. Problem is that nobody is particularly optimistic about how effective that outcome will be in terms of dealing with the clear, present and immediate danger posed by climate change. At the same time, almost everybody is sure that COP21 will end with some concrete agreement, probably named after Paris much like the Kyoto Protocol that it will replace, that will be greeted with applause and hailed as a success. However, those who have followed the tortuous course of the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations and the real-politik maneuvering over the years know full well that the end result at Paris will be far from what is required to ward off the climate crisis, will be deeply inequitable and favour industrialised countries over developing nations, will actually represent only a marker for the beginning of a prolonged and profound political-economic and ideological struggle over the future course of human development.




The summit began as usual by high-sounding speeches by heads of government, more than a hundred of whom had turned up in Paris for the opening day. This new approach compared to earlier summits was supposed to demonstrate the full backing for national leaderships to a climate deal and conveying a clear, public mandate to their negotiators to clinch it, rather than leaders descending on the COP on the closing days as at the disastrous Copenhagen summit, where a fundamentally flawed deal was agreed upon through back-room maneuvers and parachuted into the COP to the disgust of most participants and observers. Again though, the reality is quite different, as everyone realizes that despite these resounding speeches, next two weeks will be marked by tough negotiations over substance and drafting language, as well as hard-ball lobbying, backroom deals, arm twisting and clever media management.         

For all that, broad contours of the deal likely to emerge from COP 21 are slowly becoming clear, emerging over the past few months through the many preparatory negotiating meets and various bilateral and multi-lateral meetings and statements. Speeches by powerful world leaders at the inaugural of the Summit also provide important clues as to the probable direction in which negotiations may move.

Together these reveal that (a) total global emission reductions resulting from a likely COP21 agreement are most likely to be considerably lower than what the science calls for to keep temperature rise below the globally agreed goal of 2 degrees C; (b) what would qualify as “success” at the summit depends very much on differing national perspectives, especially from vantage points in the global North or South; (c) that the basic architecture of a post-Paris global emissions control regime would be very different from that under the Kyoto Protocol and would virtually upturn basic tenets of the Convention especially as regards common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities (CBDR&RC) of developed and developing countries, particularly regarding principles of equity and financial and technology transfers from North to South; and (d) this significant shifting of goalposts, including several moves likely during the summit itself, is being masked by spin and Machiavellian manipulation of information and messaging by the US and allies.




As required by decisions of earlier COPs, about 180 countries including India, and also the US – which had been refusing to take on any obligations under the Kyoto framework of binding cuts by Industrialised Countries (ICs or so-called Annex-1 nations) without any such obligations by Developing Countries (DCs or non-Annex-I nations) –have formally submitted to the UNFCCC their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or voluntary emission reduction pledges in the run-up to the Paris Summit. These national pledges, covering over 90 percent of global emissions, have put forward emission reductions by 2025 or 2030 from different base years, with emission reductions being defined differently as absolute cuts, reductions below business-as-usual (BAU) trajectories, reduction in emissions intensity of GDP etc.

 In a report prepared for consideration of the summit, the UNFCCC Secretariat estimates that all these emission reduction pledges together would not keep temperature rise to under 2 degrees C. Without higher emission cuts, other reliable scientific assessments put likely temperature rise at 3 to 3.5 degrees C.  With current pledges, global emissions are likely to rise to 56.7 Giga tons CO2-eq (billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent) by 2030 compared to current levels of around 50 Gt, quite some way away from peaking and starting to reduce well before that time as required, although rate of increase of emissions has already slowed and would slow down substantially from present rates. Global emissions in 2030 would fall short of the 2 degrees requirement by around 15 Gt CO2- eq or around 35 percent higher than they should be.

Climate change is already causing substantial impacts that are clearly set to get far worse. Any new agreement at Paris is expected to kick in only in 2020, and there is still the open question about implementation by different countries. No wonder 106 out of the 195 country parties to the convention, including 44 small island developing nations, have come together in Paris to form a new grouping called the “Climate Vulnerable Forum” (CVF) calling for deeper cuts that would ensure not 2 degrees C but keeping global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees C. These countries feel so strongly about what they perceive as the current low targets that they have broken away from the G77 grouping with the CVF’s spokesman, Saleemul Huq of Bangladesh, saying, “We are the majority… but there is no democracy here. It’s a power game and the powerful are not on our side. We accept it is not realistic, but it is the right thing to do.”

Unfortunately, voluntary pledges by big powers, a concept driven by the US and other industrialised countries, are the only game in town, with the idea of setting targets and fixing national targets accordingly having been unceremoniously dumped in favour of a supposedly more pragmatic approach with greater chance of securing an agreement. But towards what end?

There is much talk in Paris about periodic upward revision of these pledges after 2020 based on review of performance, and US President Obama expressed much optimism about getting closer to the goal this way than through targets. But there are no frameworks for such “ratcheting up” of ambition, no concrete suggestions about weighing all pledges against adequacy in meeting the 2 degree goal.

It is a pity indeed that all large, powerful and high-emission countries including India have decided to go down this collusive path, with no country questioning the other about its low ambitions despite the full knowledge that the vaunted 2 degree goal is openly being flouted. Can the CVF mount enough pressure at COP 21? Will India or any other major power join in an attempt such a test of adequacy on the floor of the summit in Paris and demand revised pledges especially by developed countries such that the 2 degree goal is secured?   




What is even more tragic about this collusion between ICs and large, powerful developing countries is that the US and other ICs have been allowed to get away with a naked grab of atmospheric carbon space and perpetuating the same over future decades, in flagrant violation of the principles of equity and CBDR which underpin the convention. While India has been putting up some little resistance, if not as regards emission reduction pledges, at least as regards these principles, the US has been vigorously resisting, calling upon India to not keep harping on the convention, and is back to its old games of diverting attention from itself and turning it back on India by raising the bogie of India’s reliance on coal-based electricity, even though the US and many major EU countries continue to rely to a substantial extent on coal and petroleum-based power!

One way to understand this capture of carbon space by the US and the other ICs is through the idea of carbon budgets, long advocated in these columns as being the most scientific metric to assess human-induced climate change and the most ethical indicator by which emission quotas or targets could be apportioned among countries.

                As discussed in these columns earlier, the Fifth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC/AR5) has put the idea of carbon budgets up front and centre. Essentially, the atmosphere can only hold a finite amount of carbon dioxide (or its equivalent of other greenhouse gases) if temperature rise is not to cross 2 degrees C. This amounts to around 3000 Gt since the dawn of industrialisation of which about 2000 Gt has already been used up, about 75 percent by developed countries, leaving only around 1000 Gt for the future. This is the amount of cumulative or total emissions left that has to be apportioned among all countries. The truly “fair share” of countries would be if the total carbon budget is divided among all nations on per capita basis and, subtracting what has already been emitted, divide up the remaining budget among countries in proportion to their populations. Even if this is not used for actually determining quotas, it can certainly be used as an indicator to assess and show how far away we are from an equitable burden sharing arrangements.

Out of the 1000 Gt, the UNFCCC Secretariat’s report on the current pledges or INDCs states that around 750 Gt would be accounted for by 2030, leaving only around 250Gt for all countries after that. This effectively means that the US and other ICs have preserved their high GDP and living standards acquired by past emissions, and have left little atmospheric space for developing countries such as India with which to tackle poverty and lift the human development of its people, and thus constraining its future development. This is commons-grab pure and simple.  




By all accounts, COP21 will yield some agreement because nobody wants to declare failure once again after Copenhagen. But the emission cuts agreed upon will not be adequate to meet the 2 degree goal and will shift maximum possible burden on to developing countries. Already, emission reductions pledged by developing countries exceed those of ICs almost two to one. In particular, all accounting of past emissions has been shelved, thereby denying developing nations including India anything even close to their fair share of development space and the atmospheric commons. The UNFCCC and its equity principles of CBDR&RC are likely to be all but abandoned in substantive terms, possible even formally, replaced by the US favourite of a single framework for all countries.

The US and other developed countries are also evading any way by which past emissions could be discounted against financial assistance to developing nations. The much-touted USD 100 billion per year to meet adaptation and mitigation costs is nowhere to be seen and only about USD 10 bn is visible so far with a lot of noise being made by some multi-billionaire industrialists pledging another USD 10 bn, and there is virtually no talk heard in Paris about compensating vulnerable nations for loss and damage incurred due to climate change. Similarly, no progress is expected on technology transfer free of intellectual property encumbrances.

Another contentious issue is whether the Paris agreement is going to be legally binding or not. It is evident that it will not be a treaty, for the sole reason that the US Congress will not ratify it, even as it continues to virtually deny the reality of climate change and resist efforts the federal administration may make, prompting Obama to acknowledge in Paris the seriousness of the climate crisis but promise to only “try his best” to help tackle it! Imagine what would happen if China’s President Xi were to say he cannot do more because his Polit Bureau will not allow him, or if PM Modi says he cannot pledge anything because he lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha! But such is the entrenched inequality in world affairs, even when it comes to humanity’s worst crisis.

India is, at least this time, making some good headlines, despite strenuous US efforts to highlight India’s coal-based power, its 3rd ranking among the world’s largest emitters ignoring that its per capita emissions are still about a third of the world average and a tenth of the US. India’s position has certainly been bolstered by the substantial, even if moderate, emission reduction pledge in its INDCs, something these columns have been championing for long for precisely these reasons. India is said to be pressing for references to these and to CBDR&RC in the final text. But would this be a genuine push, risking serious push-back from the US? Would India build appropriate alliances, especially with CVF and G77, to make a serious issue of it? Would there be an effort made to ‘ratchet-up’ the emission pledges by the US and other developed countries not in the distant future but on the summit floor at Paris itself?

Portents from Paris, especially given the record on the major players including India, are not good. Addressing the Paris COP, President Obama exhorted the delegates to arrive at a “global, assertive and flexible agreement,” and PM Modi advocated a “comprehensive, equitable and durable” agreement. Neither mentioned an effective, adequate or even ambitious agreement under the UNFCCC. That’s bad news.