Don’t blackball the proposal to clean up carbon

As a country most threatened by the impact of short-lived climate forcers, India must not shy away from newer result-oriented international initiatives

September 25, 2013 01:37 am | Updated June 02, 2016 02:48 pm IST

As it releases its findings at the end of the month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will do more than highlight the man-made increase of global temperatures. Its report will also raise the heat on negotiations concerning the role played by several international bodies in the reduction of climate pollutants.

The release of the previous IPCC report in 2007, for example, provided additional momentum to difficult negotiations on a potential global agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This year, the publication of its findings will once more coincide with an ongoing negotiations cycle towards a new international climate agreement.

Role of other gases

Beyond the stronger than ever recognition of the role of human activities in the climate crisis, the report will also highlight the diversity of pollutants involved in the process. Since the last IPCC report, scientists have increasingly highlighted the importance of targeting action not only at carbon dioxide (CO, the most common greenhouse gas emitted by humans), but also at other gases — including black carbon, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFC). These are labelled “short-lived climate forcers” (SLCF) due to their shorter lifespan in the atmosphere.

While stabilising the increase of temperatures in the long term requires strong measures to reduce CO emissions, cutting SLCF pollution could provide greater immediate benefits for the climate system. If we can believe media coverage based on leaked IPCC drafts, the next IPCC report will thus strengthen arguments for the adoption of a stronger international response to SLCF pollution, as well as raise the question of the choice of the most appropriate international avenues to tackle each of the gases involved.

Picking the right international forum is an eminently political matter as these forums apply different legal principles. Currently, the 1992 Climate Convention and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol constitute the cornerstones of international efforts to mitigate climate change. Under the convention, the principle of common but differentiate responsibility requires that developed countries should take the lead in combating climate change and provide financial support to support the mitigation efforts of developing countries. While the convention does not define which pollutants should be regulated under these principles, the targets set in the Kyoto Protocol for the reduction of the emissions of developed countries encompass emissions of CO, methane, HFCs as well as three additional gases or groups of gases.

Black carbon

In 2009, the state of Micronesia suggested formally that the U.N. Climate Convention should develop a specific work programme to address the issue of black carbon. Concerned about the consequences of such an approach for the country, India’s Environment Minister at that time, Jairam Ramesh, responded that his government would reject bringing this pollutant under the ambit of the convention. Since developing countries are responsible for a large proportion of black carbon emissions (China and India being the largest emitters of those gases), addressing black carbon through the Climate Convention would require important effort from both countries. The proposal by Micronesia has however not moved forward since the original proposal.

Over recent years, developed countries have addressed the SLCF emissions through several other international processes. The Arctic Council has played a key role in the scientific understanding of the impact of SLCF on the climate system. European and North American states also discussed capping the release of SLCF through the regional Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. In both cases, however, these discussions resulted only in the adoption of reporting obligations and fell short of adopting specific caps on emissions. This lack of appetite of developed states for legally binding targets reduces the likelihood that India will ever face renewed pressure to accept the inclusion of SLCF under the U.N. Climate Convention.

Last year, a small group of developed and developing countries led by the U.S. and Canada launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC). This new initiative promotes international cooperation to tackle SLCF pollution. Over the past 18 months, the CCAC attracted the participation of 70 countries and non-state actors. Contrary to the U.N. Climate Convention which is based on legally binding provisions and commitments, the CCAC relies on a results oriented approach supported by short-term voluntary actions.

Neither India nor the other BASIC countries (China, South Africa and Brazil) have yet joined the coalition. Looking at their preferred approach in the U.N. climate negotiations, the approach adopted so far by the CCAC could actually be a good fit for the BASIC group. The four countries have repeatedly emphasised their willingness to take climate action on the basis of their own interest rather than under the recognition of international legal obligations.

Allows freedom

India is the country most threatened by the adverse effects of black carbon. Researchers have highlighted how the pollutant alters the dynamics of the monsoons and accelerates the melting of snow and ice in the Himalayas. The adoption of cost-effective measures to reduce black carbon pollution in India would also result in considerable benefits on health and crop production in the country. Considering that CCAC membership does not preclude any particular action, India would retain the freedom to adopt only those actions proven to be cost-effective.

With its new references to short-lived climate pollutants, the upcoming release of the IPCC report will likely provide new arguments to proponents of an international response to SLCF pollution. India has always remained particularly aware of the implications of the involvement of specific international forums in addressing various climate pollutants. In the case of black carbon, joining the CCAC could actually benefit the country rather than threaten its interests — while demonstrating India’s commitment to international climate action.

(Sébastien Duyck is an environmental governance researcher at the University of Lapland.)

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