How to avoid Copenhagen in Paris

CREATING HISTORY: "U.S. President Barack Obama was the first American President to visit the Arctic region to promote his so-called Clean Power plan." Picture shows the President holidng a salmon as he meets traditional fishermen on the shore of the Nushagak River in Dillingham, Alaska.  

As the much-awaited >United Nations Climate Change Conference slated to be held in Paris this December comes closer, questions on how to first and foremost avoid a repeat of the disaster that was the Copenhagen climate summit of 2009 seem to have already taken centre stage.

Both China and India took home much of the blame for the failures in Denmark. Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, a few months later, reported that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had an emotional outburst hours before the summit was deemed a failure. This was after Europe committed up to 80 per cent cuts in its carbon emissions.

“With all due respect to China… China, which will soon be the biggest economic power, says to the world: Commitment applies to you but not us. This is utterly unacceptable!” Mr. Sarkozy had reportedly retorted in a room full of top diplomats and heads of state.

Ground zero

The Arctic polar ice melt is often seen as the ground zero of >climate change debate. It is a region where climate change can be physically quantified through graphs, pictures and visible data, all of which give life to scientific jargon. Recently, National Geographic confirmed that for the tenth edition of their celebrated ‘Atlas of the World’ series, the shrinking of ice caps forced them to make the biggest change in their atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart. U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted this point when he became the first American President to visit Alaska’s Arctic regions to promote his so-called Clean Power Plan. Ironically, Mr. Obama’s visit to the Alaskan Arctic came just after giving oil and gas giant Shell permission to drill in the sensitive ecology. This highlights the global fight to find a balance between environment protection and industrialisation. (Shell has now abandoned its drilling operations in the region).

Since Copenhagen, some significant events have taken place that could add optimism to the Paris conference. In late 2014, China and the U.S. agreed on a bilateral deal on carbon emissions that arguably gave some leverage to Beijing on its emission cut plans till 2030 over the U.S. Currently China emits more CO than the U.S. and Canada put together, with emission levels up by 171 per cent since 2000. In the same period, India has become the third biggest emitter. However, in terms of per capita emissions, India’s is only 1.75 tonnes of CO per capita compared to 4 (world average) or 10+ (developed country average).

The above numbers are one of the major reasons why India and China are now more relevant to multilateral forums around the world, irrespective of geographic proximity or political interests. Both China and India are also observing members of the Arctic Council, which has its secretariat in Tromsø, Norway. As one of the top three polluters in the world, New Delhi is under significant pressure to commit to legally binding emission cuts. What is expected of India and China, as part of the multilateral negotiations, is loosely highlighted in the skeleton document for the Paris conference, released during a preparatory summit in Bonn, Germany, in August.

Olav Schram Stokke, Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo, in his work titled ‘Asian Stakes and Arctic Governance’, believes that Asian stakeholders today are major contributors to the representations of climate change visible in the region, which explains why the likes of India, China, Japan and others have been incorporated into the Arctic Council as observers. However, as Prof. Stokke highlights, the intensity with which Asian observers take part in the affairs of the Arctic Council and associated organisations, such as the International Maritime Organization, is modest. The reasons behind his observations could range from the relatively ambiguous understanding of what the observer’s role is — a conundrum that at least India seems to face — to a general watered-down importance of such regional multilateral forums mixed with an already stressed deployable diplomatic capital and expertise in India’s Foreign Ministry.

Sustainable development

It is also important to remember that Arctic states such as Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the U.S. are not ignorant to the commercial opportunities that climate change in the region brings with it. The idea of ‘sustainable development’ is also a very active and pursued policy. Along with environmental protection, energy (mostly oil and gas), natural resources such as fish, and commercial shipping are also on the Arctic states’ top agenda. Countries such as Norway and Russia depend heavily on revenues from their large oil and gas sectors, which include exploration and production activities in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, both on and off shore. According to Statistics Norway, oil and gas is the country’s largest export market, worth more than USD$60.5 billion annually. In 2012, the petroleum sector represented more than 23 per cent of the country’s total value creation, crucial for its sovereign wealth fund, which is the largest of its kind and valued at almost $900 billion. While countries such as Norway may not be big consumers of oil themselves and, in fact, are pioneers in renewable energy, a significant portion of their wealth is still based on the sale of hydrocarbon products.

The Copenhagen summit’s failure gave countries such as India the option of developing Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), or, in other words, voluntary national targets for controlling carbon emissions. These are rumoured to be only legally binding for developed nations, and not the developing. This allows Delhi to attempt to reach targets on CO emissions that it can set itself, giving it control, and allowing it perhaps to rely more on realism, navigating the big moral pressures of national climate change policies.

While the acceptance of INDCs is a much-criticised policy by Europe, it offers India security. India needs to control the fate of its developing economy, which, for example, has challenges such as providing more than 300 million people with electricity. The INDC route, probably more importantly, allows India time to build systems at home to implement a legally binding climate framework in the future, systems it currently does not have. Unless such systems are first developed, an international legally binding climate treaty could become hugely problematic for the country’s economy.

(Kabir Taneja specialises in South Asian foreign affairs, energy security and defence, and is currently a Visiting Researcher with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, Norway.)

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 5:23:49 PM |

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