Info Service on Climate Change (Nov11/05)
NEW LAMPS FOR OLD
Published in the Telegraph (Calcutta, India), 22 November, 2011
The climate change negotiations are deadlocked because of a basic difference of approach. Developing countries are calling for enhanced implementation of existing agreements, while developed countries are insisting on a new agreement that would shift a large share of their obligations to the shoulders of developing countries, particularly the ‘newly emerging economies’ like India and China. The European Union is calling for negotiations on a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol within the next few years. Japan and Australia want to replace the protocol immediately by a drastically revised version or an altogether new agreement.
As in the case of Aladdin’s lamp, it would be disastrous to replace the older climate change agreement with the new product on offer. The new agreement would not only be inequitable but would retard development and poverty eradication. It would also sanctify a hopelessly inadequate response to the challenge of climate change.
Excessive levels of carbon dioxide emissions are the principal cause of climate change. Carbon dioxide itself is not a pollutant. Indeed, without carbon dioxide, life would not have existed on our planet. However, there is a certain optimum range of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Climate change results if this range is exceeded. Hence there is a need to control emissions on the basis of an equitable allocation of the global atmospheric resource. India’s stand — supported by many developing countries — is that all human beings have an equal right to the atmospheric resource. Developed countries in general have excessively high per capita emission levels and are thus responsible for causing climate change. They should sharply reduce their emissions. Developing countries should ensure that their rising per capita emissions do not exceed those of the developed countries, taking past emissions into account.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recognizes that the per capita emissions of the developing countries are relatively low and that they will inevitably increase to meet the demands of development. These agreements therefore require developed countries to reduce their emissions in an adequate and timely manner but impose no such requirement on developing countries. The developed countries, which are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are also required to contribute financial resources and transfer technology to enable developing countries to slow down the growth of their emissions.
Disregarding their treaty obligations, the developed countries are refusing to take on emission reduction commitments on anything approaching the required scale. Their pledges are not only grossly inadequate but are also, in many cases, hedged with conditions and loopholes. For example, the pledge of the United States of America is subject to the passage of a bill for which there is so little support in the US Congress that it has long been consigned to the back-burner by the Obama administration. The Canadian “commitment” is even stranger; it depends on US legislation! Recent studies by the UN Environment Programme and the Stockholm Environment Institute show the gross inadequacy of the commitments made by developed countries, even under the most optimistic assumptions. The SEI study also demonstrates that the voluntary emission control measures planned by the developing countries amount to more mitigation than the commitments made by the developed countries. It also shows that, unless accounting loopholes are closed, the developed countries will be able to meet their commitments with very little actual mitigation, and possibly with none at all!
The developed countries are now demanding that the developing countries must take on legally binding emission reduction commitments under a new treaty, regardless of the fact that their past and, in most cases, present per capita emissions are a fraction of those of developed countries. After a short grace period, developing countries would have to cap their emissions — at per capita levels much lower than the corresponding figure for developed countries. They are brushing aside India’s call for climate equity in order to transfer a major part of their responsibilities under existing agreements to the developing countries, particularly rising economic powers like India, China and Brazil.
The implications of the demand for a new agreement should be clearly understood. In the first place, a new agreement would implicitly place a seal of approval on the grossly inadequate mitigation commitments that developed countries are offering to implement. Far from promoting climate change mitigation on a more ambitious scale, a new agreement would massively downsize the obligations of the developed countries that are principally responsible for causing climate change. It would be a huge step backward in the global response to climate change.
A new agreement on the proposed lines would be an unjust agreement, violating the principle of equity. Rejection of the principle that all human beings have an equal right to the global atmospheric resource implies that inhabitants of affluent developed countries are entitled to a much larger share of the resource than inhabitants of poorer developing countries, in gross violation of natural justice.
This has hugely important implications, in practical terms. Depriving the developing countries of an equal per capita share of the atmospheric resource would inevitably result in slowing down economic and social development and poverty eradication in poorer countries. If emissions of developing countries are capped at levels that are a small fraction of those of developed countries, their utilization of hydrocarbon energy sources — coal, oil and gas — would also, in effect, be capped at very low per capita levels compared to affluent countries. There is a broad correlation between per capita utilization of hydrocarbon fuels and per capita carbon dioxide emissions. It might be argued that developing countries would still have recourse to renewable energy to meet their development needs but this is a weak argument since renewable energy will remain far more expensive than hydrocarbons for many years to come, with the exception only of some niche applications. Developing countries would thus be compelled to pay much more for energy than affluent countries. A sharp increase in the cost of energy would inevitably retard development and poverty eradication schemes in developing countries. The proposed new climate change treaty regime would negate efforts to close the yawning gap between rich and poor countries.
The climate change negotiations will be resumed in Durban at the end of November. The prospects for a breakthrough are bleak, given the fundamental differences between participants. The conference would do well to focus on deliverables, even if these are of limited scope. A powerful phalanx of developed countries will, however, try to push through their proposal for a new agreement and we must be prepared to face strong pressures to surrender our principled stand on equity and our vital developmental interests. The new minister of environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, has already demonstrated her ability to articulate India’s climate change policy in a clear and unambiguous style. She must stand firm at Durban.
The author is a retired ambassador and former climate change negotiator