As nations >prepare to meet in Paris to strike a long-term climate deal, the gap between what the science demands that nations do and the actions that they are prepared to undertake has never been starker. The parties to the climate convention are still arguing about what they can afford to do, rather than doing what it takes to deal with the problem.
What is the amount left for the future? The Synthesis Report of the AR5 provides two values for different probabilities. For a less than 33 per cent chance of a global temperature increase of 2 C, the cumulative emissions between 2011 and 2100 of carbon dioxide specifically must stay below 1,000 billion tonnes. For a less than 50 per cent chance of crossing 2 C, the corresponding figure is 1,300 billion tonnes. There may be a little more room for flexibility. However, the estimate based on AR5 is that between now and the end of the century, if we take account of non-carbon dioxide gases too, the total emissions lie within 1,192 to 2,000 billion tonnes for the same range of probabilities, though the higher end is unlikely to find much favour among the most vulnerable countries.
Fair and equitable distribution Faced with limits of this kind, one would have thought the appropriate response would be to find a fair and equitable distribution (on a per capita basis but with possibly other indicators included) of this global carbon budget among all nations. After all, the atmosphere is a global commons that should be shared equitably. But due to the adamant refusal of the developed countries, led by the U.S., and backed by academics spinning tales of pragmatism (read preserving the status quo), we have today the exact opposite. Every country has been allowed to declare what it will do, irrespective of whether the sum total would enable us to stay within this global cumulative limit.
Indeed, in grim counter-point, the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has estimated that the total carbon dioxide emissions expected after the reduction from these commitments (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) amounts to 750 billion tonnes until 2030. In other words, if the budget for the future is 1,000 billion tonnes for the next 80 years, 75 per cent would be consumed in only the first 15. What must be added to this story is that the developed countries, in any reckoning, based on equity and climate justice, would have disproportionately contributed to this exhaustion. This is over and above their gross overdrawal from the global carbon budget in the past. In per capita terms, the developed nations’ cumulative emissions so far is approximately 1.8 times what they can rightfully claim, and including other indicators only worsens this inequity.
In this situation, India, like a majority of the developing nations, with perhaps the exception of China and a few oil-producers, is in a double bind. On the one hand, an early agreement — based on a reasonably safe level of the global carbon budget that would ensure that the burden of adaptation does not become onerous for the bulk of the Indian population, and indeed that of the world — is a necessity. Currently, the negotiations do not seem headed in this direction at all. On the other hand, without adequate access to an equitable share of the global carbon budget, India’s developmental efforts would be faced with energy costs that would have no previous parallel in human history. Carbon space that is once used up cannot be recovered, since greenhouse gases once emitted persist in the atmosphere-land-surface ocean system for at least a millennium. The INDCs of the developed countries constitute a carbon grab on this scarce resource, and a weak climate deal would only sanctify this strategic loss to India and other developing nations.
India’s strategy What should India’s strategy be?
First, the so-called “red line,” of the United Progressive Alliance dispensation, that India would accept no limits whatsoever on its emissions, even in the long-term, is outdated and must be discarded. Nor can India attempt, as it has happened in the past, to steam along in the wake of the strategy of inaction of countries like the U.S. Even if it appears like a limit, India needs to stake a claim on a fair and reasonable share of the global carbon budget (even unilaterally, as South Africa has actually announced in its INDC). India also needs to frontally confront the perception in the West, and among many environmentalists, that this is a demand for the unrestricted use of coal. Even with a fair share of what remains of global carbon space, developing countries, especially in South Asia and Africa, would have their work cut out to meet the energy requirements of development — not just for subsistence, but for reasonable well-being within thriving economies. Coal is indispensable as the last resort energy source in this pursuit.
Second, India must step forward to operationalise the concept of equity in climate negotiations and not simply use it in defensive mode. It is possible that the current operational definition of differentiation in the UNFCCC of the so-called Annex-I and non-Annex-I nations may have to be eventually given up. China’s declared INDC has already opened the door in this direction. But the concept of a fair share of the global carbon budget that ensures the principle of equity and common, but differentiated, responsibilities on a continuous scale of differentiation will provide a good benchmark for negotiations. Third, with an adequate benchmark for equity, India and developing countries can adequately engage with any process of the periodic review of commitments that would emerge from the negotiations.
There is no reason India should not continue to insist on a balanced and comprehensive agreement that includes adequacy in technology transfer and finance. On technology, India could provide greater specificity, denoting broad technology areas where access must be guaranteed. On finance, if indeed private equity is to be the major source, then one needs to argue for revising the figure of $100 billion sharply upwards, ensuring suitably lower cost for capital. India must firmly avoid the temptation in Paris to view negotiations solely through the lens of realpolitik. Climate is not the World Trade Organisation, and the ethical and moral dimensions of the climate challenge have a resonance in the global discourse amongst states and in civil society, that preclude a purely nay-saying strategy. Securing a part of India and the developing countries’ developmental future within the framework of global environmental sustainability is the challenge, and India cannot afford to drop the ball at this juncture.
(T. Jayaraman works on climate policy at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)