Finding common ground
Intensifying 21st Century climate crisis requires a coordinated international effort based on differentiated responsibility in order to stem the environmental onslaught
In the UN conference on Human Environment, also called the "Earth Summit", convened in Stockholm in 1972, Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India said," Poverty is the worst kind of pollution and that developed states should not use environmental arguments to stymie the development aspirations of poor and post-colonial states. It should be the responsibility for all to ensure that countries can continue to make economic progress without irreversibly destroying the environment". The most important legacy of this memorable speech by Indira Gandhi was that environment was firmly placed on the international agenda and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established to debate and deliberate how the international community should respond moving ahead, to strike a balance between development and ecology. The conference that had its theme, "Only one Earth", even though boycotted by the Warsaw Pact countries, had a profound impact on international politics. The environment became a global concern. It was Indira Gandhi who first put forward the idea of sustainable development in the world forum.
In later years, the international law of the sea and notions of the common heritage of mankind highlighted concerns about environmental matters to cover the oceans as well as terrestrial, outer space and atmosphere. Research into the possibilities of nuclear winter in the event of a nuclear war between superpowers suggested that fatalities from nuclear detonations would be followed by a dramatic fall in global temperatures due to dust and smoke in the atmosphere. These ominous forecasts once again linked climate to the central concerns of international relations and made it clear that human activity was capable of changing the basic geophysics of the planetary atmosphere. The World Commission on Environment and Development released a publication, 'Our Common Frontier', in 1987. 'The Brundtland Report', as it is often called, set the stage for the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was launched. Despite all the hype about saving the world and dealing with development issues, it was apprehended that rich and powerful states and corporations would remain primarily concerned with business and development of capitalism as usual rather than dealing with poverty or new modes of economic activity that would make the future sustainable for marginal peoples and places. The apprehensions have remained true even to this day.
UNFCCC entered into force in March 1994. The objective of UNFCCC was to "stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". The framework set non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries without any enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the framework outlined how specific international treaties, protocols or agreements, may be negotiated to specify further actions towards the objective of the UNFCCC. The convention enjoyed broad legitimacy largely due to its nearly universal membership.
The Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty that extended the 1992 UNFCCC. The Protocol committed state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on the scientific consensus that (a) global warming was occurring and (b) it was extremely likely that human-made CO2 emissions had predominantly caused it. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997 and entered into force in February 2006. It was based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. It acknowledged that individual countries had different capabilities in combating climate changes due to different levels of economic development and therefore put the obligation to reduce emissions on developed countries on the basis that they were historically responsible for the high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There are currently 192 parties that have ratified the Protocol. Canada withdrew from the Protocol in 2012 and the USA has not ratified it. Those 36 countries that were given binding targets to reduce emissions by 2012 complied with the Protocol. Observers pointed out that the compliance was easy because the financial crisis of 2007-08 and disintegration of Soviet Union had the salutary effect of already reducing emissions to a considerable extent in the USA and the countries of the Soviet Union.
In 2012, came Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol in which 37 countries were given binding targets. Finding the targets difficult to achieve, countries under European Union, Australia, Belarus, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, Ukraine and several others had expressed their desire to withdraw either from Kyoto Protocol or not ratify the Doha amendment. Doha amendment has not been entered into force as yet due to lack of numbers. As on January 2020, only 136 state parties have accepted the amendment against the minimum requirement of 144 states. Whether the Doha amendment will come to fruition is a big question mark.
State sovereignty is the principle of world order. But the environment does not respect national borders. States cannot isolate their borders from the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. This is explained by the term 'Anthropocene' to emphasise that the rich and powerful parts of humanity are causing extensive damage to the planet Earth while transforming numerous facets of the biosphere. Campaigns to tackle climate change are taking shape in many parts of the world, tied into protests against the depredations of mines, forest clearing, dam building and other extractivist projects. These protest campaigns are once again raising questions about the locus of authority in the global system. Droughts due to environmental degradation have created refugees resulting in tensions in societies receiving them. To this day, environmental refugees are not protected under the UNHCR mandate.
Given the speed and scale of global transformation now in motion and failures to integrate ecology into larger concerns with peace, development and human rights, the old question, "Who speaks for the earth?", is an ever more pressing issue for international relations. The most important question is how to end the fossil fuel era and facilitate a transition to much more sustainable patterns of life. The 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) are part of a plan to target extreme poverty and tyranny through development, all the while taking planet Earth into greater consideration. These SDGs represent benchmarks for a better world and environment for everyone. They call for urgent action by all countries in global partnership and cooperation. The SDGs set in motion in 2015 are intended to be achieved by 2030. SDGs (2016-2030) replaced the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015). India persisted with this theme and its role in this matter is exemplary. India and China are now the key players in the global politics of the environment.
There was a time when the environment was seen as an issue of low politics. Among the western powers and developed nations, it was not a matter of national interest as it did not become an existential threat to these countries. This mental orientation has changed. More and more people are now seeing it for what it is: a costly human-made disaster unfolding before their eyes. A wave of increasingly destructive hurricanes, heat spells and forest fires have ravaged many communities across USA, Europe and Australia. Both scientists and citizens are now able to connect these extreme events to climate change. It is not too late to solve the global climate crisis. Countries should cooperate on rules for meeting emission reduction commitments without affecting the aspirations of developing countries. This is a hard task. Hard does not mean impossible. The transformative power of human ingenuity offers endless potential.
The writer is a former central civil service officer who retired from the Ministry of Defence. He has dedicated this article to Dr RK Pachauri, former Director-General of TERI who passed away on February 13, 2020. Views expressed are strictly personal