India and climate talks imperatives

India needs an early agreement, and also adequate atmospheric “space” in terms of allowed carbon emissions to pursue its development goals. It needs to take a proactive stance on this

November 18, 2013 12:08 am | Updated May 28, 2016 06:30 am IST

By all accounts, no dramatic developments are to be expected from the 19th edition of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that started in Warsaw last week. But it is generally acknowledged that the key issue at Warsaw, even if there are many other significant subjects on the agenda, centres around moving forward the negotiations on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (DPA) initiated at COP 17 two years ago.

It is widely understood that the Durban Platform was a game-changer, setting the stage for decisive climate action based on clear commitments to emissions reduction from all nations. Subsequently, the discussions in the Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP) have resulted in demanding timeline for achieving its aims, including a draft text to be produced by the COP in 2014, a global meeting of heads of states of all nations to be convened by the United Nations Secretary General to push forward such an agreement, and a final agreement to be reached by COP 21 in 2015.

While it is not a foregone conclusion that the DPA will achieve its stated goals by 2015, there are now additional factors conducive to reaching a global agreement. Even if no individual extreme climate event can be attributed exclusively to increased global warming, increasing awareness of the impact of climate-driven disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan and the Uttarakhand flash floods, is contributing to a global recognition of the urgency of a climate deal, among governments as well as civil society. Significantly, the release of the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) over the next several months, culminating in the release of the final synthesis report of all its findings next year, will add to the sense of urgency.

At the UNFCCC, the European Union has been the most active in pushing forward the agenda of the Durban Platform, laying out in increasing detail the framework and broad outlines of its content and a methodology for securing commitments that would ensure an effective treaty. It has been joined in this effort by many African nations, especially South Africa, and have the strong support of the island-states of the world — support that was vociferously expressed at Durban in 2011. The United States has pursued a two-track policy with respect to the DPA. On the one hand, the U.S. insists that it would undertake only such emissions reductions as it deems feasible, a strategy that is referred to as the “bottom up” approach in the global climate discourse. On the other hand, it has not hesitated to support the European Union, the Africa Group and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in their efforts to have a binding climate agreement with assigned commitments to all nations, especially when such commitments are to be imposed on China and India.

India’s interests

Where do India’s interests lie in the matter of a global climate agreement? There can be no doubt that India needs an early climate agreement, for two reasons. On the one hand, there is increasing evidence that unchecked global warming would lead to increasingly severe effects in several sectors, especially agriculture and water, apart from the increased frequency of extreme climate events. The enhanced climate variability that accompanies global warming will have serious impacts on Indian farmers, the bulk of whom are small-holders who even today suffer the consequences of weather and climate shocks, before the effects of global warming have risen to more alarming levels. An early climate agreement with the potential to restrict global average temperature rise to at least 2 degrees Centigrade, if not lower, is certainly a necessity. An early and effective limit on greenhouse gas emissions will also contribute to lowering the need, and associated costs, for climate change adaptation, which otherwise could be considerable.

At the same time, India needs adequate atmospheric “space” in terms of allowed carbon emissions to pursue its development. Even in a highly optimistic scenario in which renewable energy rapidly takes up the bulk of the requirements for sectors such as domestic lighting and heating, agriculture, and all energy needs of small-scale establishments, India will still need fossil fuels for a considerable time until reliable sources of clean energy become available for large-scale use in the expansion of industry, transportation and the like, all of which are needed for development. Even infrastructure needs for adaptation will require such emissions.

The IPCC’s AR5 report has brought to the centre-stage of discussion the notion of a global carbon budget, referring to the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, from the beginning of the industrial era till the end of the 21st century, that are permissible, if the global temperature rise is to be kept below 2 degrees C. For a 66 per cent probability of keeping the rise in global average temperature below this limit, the world is allowed approximately 1000 billion tonnes of carbon emissions (taking account solely of carbon dioxide). But the nub of the issue is the equitable distribution of this space. In per capita terms, or indeed by several other measures of equitable distribution as well, the developed countries have already substantially exceeded their fair share of this global budget. As a consequence, a large number of developing countries, including China but especially India, will have to make do with less than their fair share of the global carbon space as their national carbon budgets for the future, if indeed global warming has to be kept in check.

‘Top-down’ agreement

To maximise the developing countries’ access to the global carbon budget, an early “top-down” agreement to impose constraints on the developed nations’ consumption of carbon “space” in the atmosphere is an obvious necessity. Even more obviously, an approach based on “voluntary” commitments to emissions reduction by developed and developing countries would not address India’s needs.

In view of these considerations, it is surprising that New Delhi’s guidelines for its Warsaw delegation should set aside India’s long-standing commitment to treating the atmosphere as a global commons, to be shared equitably by all nations, and instead back the “voluntary commitments” approach. Predictably, even before this approach has been articulated, it has run into rough weather. The EU is of course fully aware of the global carbon budget and hence demands that the gap between the sum of all voluntary commitments and the allowed global budget has to made up by further emissions reductions that all nations have to agree to. This demand, as well as India’s response that the gap must be made up by the developed nations based on historical responsibility for emissions, brings us back to what is indeed a “top-down” approach.

At the heart of the Government of India’s current confusion lies its unwillingness to acknowledge that in an eventual global agreement, all countries have to shoulder some part of the burden, even while any such burden-sharing must be based on equity and climate justice in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. New Delhi’s view currently is that developing countries will have no binding commitments whatsoever even into the future, a view that will increasingly isolate India from even others in the ranks of the G-77. The inadequacy of official India’s unhappy approach is brought out by the fact that it has allowed the term “equity reference framework” in the context of the ADP negotiations to be hijacked by other nations, including nations of the African Group as well as the EU. India and its like-minded friends are left in the unenviable position of opposing this term, claiming that developing nations will never undertake any binding commitment.

For too long, India’s official climate policy has portrayed the absence of a proactive stance on a climate agreement as a strategy to protect the country’s interests. Climate science as well as good climate politics demand that India shift to making clear to the world its commitment, in concrete terms, both to securing its developmental future as well as preserving the global environment.

(Dr. T. Jayaraman is Dean of the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai)

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