Cool down the rhetoric

U.S. President Donald Trump’s accusation against India concerning the Paris Accord that “...the U.S. pays billions of dollars while China, Russia, and India have contributed (to pollution) and will contribute nothing” is inaccurate, misleading and unfair. In fact, India has walked with the U.S. from Stockholm to Paris via Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto and Copenhagen. New Delhi has fought for climate justice, equity and fairness all the way, demanding that developing countries should be entitled to maintain and increase their greenhouse gas emissions for survival and developed countries should mandatorily cut their luxury emissions. At the same time, India has also been sensitive to the constraints of the U.S. and the other industrialised nations in reducing emissions.

Indira Gandhi had exposed the Western efforts to impose environmental colonialism at the Stockholm Conference in 1972 and declared that “poverty is the worst polluter” and demanded that “the polluter must pay”. But she had also conceded that development should be sustainable. India’s Chandrashekhar Dasgupta and U.S.’s Al Gore worked together for the historic agreements in Rio de Janeiro, which led to the signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in 1992.

Grand Rio bargain

The concept of “common, but differentiated responsibilities” led to the identification of Annex I countries, which agreed to mandatory cuts. The idea that developed countries should meet the “incremental costs” of developing countries using environment-friendly technologies was another element in the grand bargain at Rio. Huge commitments were made not only for financial support, but also for technology transfer at concessional prices. The fine balance struck by India and the U.S. culminated in the Agenda 21, raising hopes for a renaissance in the areas of both environment and development.

When the U.S. and other developed countries — particularly Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — began to renege on their commitments and began demanding mandatory cuts from China, India and Brazil during the Berlin negotiations (1995), India did not dismiss their demands out of hand. It accommodated various mechanisms to reduce the burden of the developed world. For this reason, the Kyoto Protocol had a reasonable chance of success, but it was the U.S. that refused to sign it and started to wriggle out of every understanding reached. The whole approach was sought to be changed till the adoption of the Copenhagen Consensus, which was disowned by most of the developing countries. In Copenhagen, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally participated in the new understanding that all commitments would be voluntary and that the UN would only supervise and evaluate their implementation. This incurred the wrath of many developing countries. What remained was only a myth that the Kyoto Protocol was still alive and well and that the Rio spirit was intact.

The much acclaimed Paris Accord was a requiem for Rio and all that the FCCC stood for. The whole value of the accord has been challenged by those who had worked tirelessly for an international consensus to save the planet. James Hansen, formerly the chief climatologist of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was forthright in his assessment: “It is a fraud really, a fake,” he said. “It is just b******* for them to say, ‘we will have a 2° Celsius warming target and try to do a little better every five years’. It is just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuel out there, they will continue to be burned.”

By its very nature, the Paris Accord does not warrant the argument made by Mr. Trump. It contains no financial commitment from the U.S. or any other country except a vague offer of $100 billion after 2020. The Accord deals with the global commitments of countries regarding emissions, mitigation, adaptation and financing from 2020. The allegation that China, Russia and India are only contributing to pollution and not to climate change fund has no basis whatsoever.

The essence of the Paris Accord is only a “strong agreement” to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the “Nationally Determined Contributions” submitted so far make it clear that they will not be able to hold the increase to below 3° Celsius.

The advantage that the U.S. and other developed countries have gained from the Paris Accord is that all economies, including China and India, are being made to take action on climate change without any commensurate guarantees from the former on funding and transfer of technology. The financial commitment that the U.S. has undertaken is only to change to new energy sources. Naturally, the cost of the switch will be more for the U.S. than for China or India and this cannot be considered as a payout. As eleven State Governors have written to President Trump, if the U.S. abandons its investments in climate change, India and China will benefit from the low-carbon leadership they acquire over time. By maintaining the momentum in global efforts, the U.S. will benefit through its own transition to clean energy. India had initially hesitated to ratify the Paris Accord out of fear that it might not be able to invest in clean energy like nuclear power, unless it gains entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Apparently, it ratified the accord on the basis of certain assurances in this regard from former U.S. President Barack Obama.

India was seen as an adversary at the beginning of the Paris Conference, because of its championship of the Kyoto Protocol. It was only after it virtually abandoned Kyoto by saying that the world had to go beyond the failed agreements of the past that its status changed from that of a “challenge” to a “partner” in the eyes of the U.S. The New York Times’s cartoon showing India as the elephant stopping the Paris train in its tracks was not an exaggeration of the Indian position at the time of the beginning of the Paris conference.

India may have eventually embraced the lesser evil of voluntary cuts for everyone rather than mandatory cuts for the main emitters, among which New Delhi itself might have been counted. The U.S. will gain little by turning India into an adversary once again at a time when a whole range of issues in India-U.S. relations are yet to be clarified and taken forward. Walking together on climate change will be beneficial to both.

The writer was the vice-chairman of the Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change from 1992 to 1995 and Chairman of the G-77 at the Berlin Conference in 1995

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 4:56:50 PM |

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