New Delhi needs to proactively help lead the way to an early global climate agreement, as it will put the brakes on developed-country emissions sooner rather than later.

Driven by its over-emphasis on evading a “legally binding” commitment, India signed on at Durban to a key agreement that has not even a pro forma reference to equity and sets aside differentiation explicitly.

South Africa will undoubtedly be satisfied that the 17th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) marked the inauguration of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the venue of the meeting attaching its name to a compact, among all nations, to produce a climate agreement applicable to all countries. However, despite the critical role that the South African Presidency, in the person of its Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, played in persuading the nations towards eventual agreement on a package of decisions including the critical one on the Durban Platform, the honours at COP 17 clearly belonged to the European Union. The EU succeeded in gathering a large number of developing countries behind its agenda, transforming its image from a camp-follower of the United States to the global climate leader and pushing on to the back foot, and eventually isolating, both China and India.

Significant shift

Durban's key outcome, the resolution on the “Establishment of an Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” (available at http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/durban_nov_2011/decisions/application/pdf/cop17_durbanplatform.pdf), an agreement to deliver a climate agreement covering all Parties by the year 2015, that would come into force by 2020, marks a significant shift in the climate negotiations. It has serious consequences for India in the future. India's intense negotiation over the characterisation of the future agreement has been portrayed in heroic terms by sections of the media. However, the final ambiguous wording that describes it as a “protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties,” will offer little relief in practice as the global climate negotiations move decisively to begin work on an agreement that will be legally binding on all.

In its overriding emphasis on evading the term “legally binding,” India has signed on, for the first time perhaps, to a key agreement that contains not even a pro forma reference to equity or to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. In the view of informed commentators, this absence was at the insistence of the U.S., which despite some initial resistance, came on board with the EU once it was clear that its cherished goal of symmetry between the developed countries and China and India was being realised. Instead of differentiation, Article 7 of the Durban Platform resolution calls for a “range of actions to close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties.” Even if equity may be the subject of a workshop next year under the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Co-operative Action (AWG-LCA), this negotiating track itself is scheduled to be wound up the same year by the terms of the Durban Platform.

‘Durban package'

The Platform was one half of a widely-discussed deal that the EU brought to the negotiations. As a November 24 press release from Brussels spelt it out: “The United Nations climate change conference starting on 28 November in Durban, South Africa, must agree on a roadmap and deadline for finalising an ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding global framework for climate action by all major economies. Agreement on this roadmap is one of the reassurances the European Union requires for entering into a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” There were other elements of the final “Durban package” of decisions that were not inconsequential, but the “roadmap” in exchange for the Kyoto Protocol was the crux of the EU offer.

Cancun effort

It is worth recalling that the EU had been part of a related effort at Cancun, at the COP 16 negotiations a year ago, to commit all nations to adopt a climate agreement in some specified time-frame. But the difference at Durban clearly lay in the explicit linkage with the initiation of a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. India and China had taken the lead at Cancun in opposing this move, arguing, quite reasonably, that they could not be expected to agree without clarity on the question of what the content of the eventual agreement would be. In addition, the then Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, had sought to defuse the pressure by recognising in his Ministerial address to the meeting that all countries would eventually have to undertake some form of legal commitment. But the sharp domestic reaction to this statement and accusations, from both the polity and influential climate policy analysts, that he had violated the “red lines” set out by the Union Cabinet and had committed India to a legally binding agreement presaged the inflexibility that would mark India's position at Durban.

In retrospect, a statement such as the one made at Cancun, would not have sufficed at Durban. In countering the EU move, India broadly had two choices. One option was to accept the EU deal in general terms, keeping in mind the momentum building up behind its offer, while seeking to insert elements that would preserve India's core concerns on the basic principles framing a future climate agreement. The other option would have been for India to retain its opposition to the “deal to have a deal” but to put greater effort into explicating its views, especially in providing more operational content to its demand for equity. This would have given greater reassurance to the world community, especially to the most vulnerable nations, that India was cognisant of the results of climate science and was clear on its own long-term responsibilities. Such a position could importantly have included pre-conditions, for instance appropriate ambitious mitigation targets for the developed countries, essential for these commitments to be realised. However, mounting the second strategy would not have been easy, as India has not brought these considerations explicitly to the fore in the negotiations, even if it has occasionally presented some details on equity in side-events and technical workshops under the UNFCCC. It has also been slow-footed in pursuing these issues in discussions with other developing countries.

It is clear that India painted itself into something of a corner with its inflexibility on the Durban Platform, effectively losing the opportunity to drive the negotiating process, and allowing the EU to carry through an agenda that is both scientifically unambitious and directed at passing the buck to the large developing countries. Even if the EU did sign on to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, along with some other developed countries, the extent of their commitment (unlikely to be ambitious) and the exact time period will only be decided during negotiations in 2012.

India needs to proactively help lead the way to an early global climate agreement. Given the vulnerability of the majority of its 1.2 billion population, an early climate agreement is as much in India's interest as those of the island-states and least developed nations. Even from the perspective of adequate access to global atmospheric space, an early agreement will benefit India as it will put the brakes on developed-country emissions sooner rather than later, which is entirely in India's interest. This is in contrast to China, which has used a substantial part of its fair share of atmospheric space and, despite its best efforts, will take time to slow down its emissions. In the event, the Durban Platform allows the country with way and ahead the world's largest carbon footprint, namely the United States, to delay any serious mitigation till 2020.

‘Equity' or ‘legally binding?'

Regrettably, influential sections of the climate policy community and civil society have developed an unhealthy obsession with the term “legally binding” to the exclusion of all else in the arena of climate negotiations. Fortunately they are not the sole voices on the climate issue. But a fundamental question raised by Durban, that policymakers as well as public opinion need to face up to, is this: where should the fundamental red line in Indian climate policy lie? Should it be with “equity” or should it be with the term “legally binding”? India has its work cut out in the years to come in defending its rightful interests in the climate arena. But a clear answer to the previous question will be critical in determining whether we succeed in this task or not.

(Dr. T. Jayaraman is Dean, School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views expressed are his own.)

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