A checklist for success in Paris

Most people who are following the progress of meetings and processes leading up to the Paris Conference of Parties (COP-21) in early December would agree that there are a few basic elements that need to be part of the final agreement to deem the meeting a success. These would be: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction plans that can keep the world well below a safe level of warming compared with pre-industrial times; considerations of equity where both stock (historical) and flow (annual) emissions are reflected; support from rich countries to developing countries through finance, technology and capacity building; and support for loss and damage. Still, what different groups or nations might regard as a win on each of these elements could vary a lot.

Small islands, for example, are keen on GHG emissions reductions to levels that warm the planet by only 1.5 degrees, not 2 degrees Celsius, which is what is generally accepted; theirs is an existential crisis. Annex-1 countries are keen on commitments that are not conditional from large developing countries, and they want little, if any, conversation on historical emissions. According to a New Scientist article, which quotes the scientist Damon Matthews, each person who lives in the U.S. and Australia has accumulated a debt between 1990 and 2013 of more than $12,000. This is an emission’s (emissions) debt based on the “polluter pays” environmental principle because the atmosphere is a shared space with a limited carbon budget. Some countries view loss and damage as the third rail due to the issue of liability and compensation. Nevertheless, according to Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. based group, “there has to be some reference to loss and damage for developing countries, but no mention of compensation or liability, otherwise the U.S. and developed states won’t be happy.” Whether funding under the Green Climate Fund would be kept separate from development aid is yet another issue that has not been sorted out.

Bottom up or race to the bottom?

Even perspectives on the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) differ. A recent Synthesis Report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has aggregated the INDCs from various countries. Based on its findings, assuming that countries would keep their promises, temperature rise could be around 3 degrees Celsius, which is well above where the world needs to be. The hope is that countries will continue to modify their INDCs and become more ambitious as time goes on. But this “bottom up” approach, as some like to refer to it, has been in many cases a race to the bottom and has not served everyone well. According to a report, “Fair Shares: A civil society equity review of INDCs”, commitments by the major developed countries fall well short of their fair shares, which ought to be 24.2 Gt. of CO2 equivalent, but the ambition gap is 15.2 Gt. Further, most developing countries have made mitigation pledges that are over and above their fair share, but they also have a mitigation potential that exceeds their pledges and fair share.

These ideas underline the real fight at Paris, which is, who will have access to the remaining carbon (emissions) space in the planet? Will rich countries keep going along their trajectories as they have, and take up the remaining carbon space? Or will they leave it for the least developed and developing countries?

Where does all this leave us?

At a recent public event in Bengaluru, the discussion moved to the observation that the climate is viewed by countries as a diplomatic problem, whereas it is a planetary challenge about its boundaries, ecosystems and biodiversity. It should, therefore, be about what we need for development, carrying capacity of ecosystems, market economies and whether they are serving us, poverty and other dimensions of life on the planet. But the diplomatic view is unlikely to shift anytime soon. Even the conversation among climate experts is about trade-offs between climate and development, and these offer false choices suitable only for the near term.

There is a similarly misleading fallacy regarding what countries should do within their borders and in the international arena. Should poor countries declare that we would reduce inequality and poverty within the country while we accuse rich countries of being inequitable? Do scientists and others not have to speak up about ‘hiding behind the poor’ unless the timing is right or as denizens of the planet?

There is little room for enlightened self-interest among negotiators. What may help is greater action by future generations who are among us today. In this regard, movements such as fossil fuel divestment, which is persuading governments, universities, pension funds and charitable organisations to move their money out of fossil fuels, are making progress. But it needs to gather far more momentum to become a driver for change. Similarly, initiatives to reduce consumption and keep track of personal carbon emissions are also a good starting point, but are not making sufficient headway. Other than these, major disasters may also cause people to act, but it may always be difficult to estimate the specific contribution of climate change to any natural disaster.

What might be needed and is not happening is a clear sharp understanding and articulation of the struggle in Paris as a struggle for development. Developing countries do not want to take up a head-on challenge with rich countries and many politicians do not yet realise that the international climate regime as it stands today is a fight for development space. This is short-sighted and may turn out to be devastating, especially for the poor.

(Sujatha Byravan is Principal Research Scientist at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology & Policy, Bengaluru.)

Developing countries do not want to take up a head-on challenge with rich countries and many politicians do not realise that the international climate regime today is a fight for development space