It is too soon even to second-guess the outcome of the Copenhagen climate summit. The re-set goal is to produce an ‘operationally binding political agreement’ on how and under what terms the actions needed to prevent dangerous global warming will be distributed globally, across 192 countries. The hope is that such an arrangement, which needs to be a major advance on the Kyoto protocol within the parameters set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will eventually lead to a fair, just, and workable legal instrument. Unfortunately, the signs and indications from the first few days of Copenhagen have not been auspicious.

What needs to be done was succinctly presented in the common editorial published on December 7 by 56 newspapers, including The Hindu, in 45 countries. To reiterate its key argument: Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone. The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. At the deal’s heart must be a settlement between the rich world and the developing world covering how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided.

It stands to reason that the key principle that should guide the settlement must be the UNFCCC formulation of “common and differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” The majority of developing nations continue to push for a legally binding agreement in which the developed nations would lead with drastic emission reductions (25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020) and significant efforts to provide financial assistance (well above the $10 billion a year that is on offer) and technology transfer to the developing nations. But the prospects of such an agreement do not seem bright at all. There is frustration over the experience of the past two years, when developed nations focussed substantially on shifting an unjust share of the global mitigation burden to the developing countries. The major developing economies have sought to meet, at least partially, the legitimate concerns of developed nations. Several, including India, have announced voluntary mitigation actions with quantified targets in the form of significant deviations from business-as-usual growth rates in emissions or as reductions in the emission intensity of their economies.

There are however indications that the developed nations, instead of reaching across the trust divide, are contemplating the imposition, through political arm-twisting, of a solution that safeguards their key interests while overriding developing country concerns. Faced with an impasse in the negotiations, the developed nations, in a move initiated by the United States, have begun working towards an operationally binding political agreement that has the potential to be converted into a legally binding agreement at an unspecified future date. Promoted ostensibly as a means to ensure some kind of positive outcome at Copenhagen, the move has also been justified by arguments that global climate action need not await the ratification of U.S. commitments by their domestic legislative process. Media leaks of the contours of such an agreement, known to be promoted by the Danish Prime Minister, suggest that the idea is to saddle developing countries with legally binding obligations through conditionalities on climate finance and to leave developed nations with no comparable legal commitments. The parallel process, also initiated by the host nation, to ensure the presence of a large number of world leaders at Copenhagen in the final ministerial phase has come under a cloud. Given the prospect of no agreed text emerging from the hard-nosed negotiations, the stage would be set for the introduction of new texts at the political level. Such a move, based on formulations that have not been vetted by experienced negotiators or discussed in broad consultations, could set the stage for the extraction of substantial concessions to the detriment of developing country interests.

The major developing economies have done well to anticipate such a biased outcome while adopting a forward-looking attitude themselves. The draft text agreed to by China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and other developing nations gives them a reasonably strong negotiating hand. India, which in the Bush years used to be comfortable about bringing up the rear in the international debate and action on climate change, went through a phase of confusion during the run-up to Copenhagen. The policy disarray that framed the government’s announcement of a projected cut in emission intensity by 2020 suggested political unpreparedness and uncertainty. Crucially, sections of the government did not seem to grasp the fact that if there was ‘flexibility’ in the emission reduction targets for developed countries, the burden of mitigation action on developing countries would increase significantly and inequitably. In the climate arena, it is coordinated, not unilateral, action that holds the key to the realisation of the global common good. Smaller nations do and can influence the course of the negotiations but a great deal will depend on the kind of role the U.S., the European Union, China, and India end up playing in the negotiations and the high-level political parleys. President Obama especially needs to walk his climate talk with a new multilateral vision. Whatever be the Copenhagen outcome, India’s climate policy must do what a country with the world’s second largest population needs to do: reorient itself towards a green path of economic growth in a much more earnest, ambitious, and internally equitable way than the National Action Plan on Climate Change envisages.

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