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Road to Paris

As the United Nations (UN)-mandated climate change talks got under way and crossed the midpoint of its two-week marathon session of  195 countries across the globe wrestling to craft a legally binding agreement on emissions standards, plenty of hot air to further muddy the planetary balance is evident. It is little wonder that Lord Stern of Brentford, author of the UK government report on the 
economics of climate change, said that the Paris agreement, due to be signed up most probably in the absence of last-minute glitches, could commit nations to new emission targets but would not require governments to stick to them. 

Without mincing words, Lord Stern, a venerable votary of planetary stability, deplored that there were no credible sanctions for countries which reneged on their targets, implying that there was little point in making them legally binding in a global treaty. It needs to be noted that while the United States, the number two polluter after China, did not sign the  last global warming treaty of 1997 famously called the Kyoto Protocol, major countries such as Canada, Russia and Japan, relinquished their commitments midway without suffering either contrition or sanctions. The US is also in an invidious spot as it cannot cotton on the whole deal being legally binding because it would be well-nigh impossible to get it through the Republican controlled Congress which has a corporate constituency to boot.

The twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP-21) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has a fixed objective of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels of 1900.  One need not stretch one’s wits to know the altering carbon content of the global blanket we consider as the atmosphere is the crux of this warming. Without carbon dioxide to treat heat, average temperature would centre on minus 10C. With an extra 30 billion tonne of carbon dioxide each year compared to 1900, scientific models prognosticate a further  average increase between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees by the end of the century. Interestingly, despite all tall talks of ushering in green energy and de-carbonised drive for development, fossil fuel carbon-laden coal continues to provide 41 per cent of the world’s electricity. 

In 2012, India’s annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions were just 1.6 times per person compared with 16.4 tonnes per person for the US and 7.1 tonnes per person for China. By 2030, India’s emissions would still amount to only about five tonnes per person per year. New Delhi is in no denial mode about the obvious fact that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would escalate dramatically in absolute terms – from the 1.48 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide already in 2005 to more than seven billion tones in 2030 – but contends that this is owing to a burgeoning population and the need to 
provide electricity to the 300 million Indians lacking it now and the requirement for new coal-fired power plants to supplement other sources of electricity. 

Half of India’s extra emissions are likely to supervene from dirty-coal even as the country is struggling to switch over to alternatives like clean coal, renewable, nuclear and natural gas energy, even as the latter releases half as much carbon per unit of energy as coal. But the harsh fact remains the alternative to cheaper coal is costly sources of both conventional and non-conventional energy which a country of India’s competing demands on slender resources finds difficulty to fix. 

It does not therefore challenge the intelligence of even the naive when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in an op-ed piece in the prestigious London-daily Financial Times on November 30 thus: “Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow. The life styles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder”. India’s repeated pleas for invoking Article 3 of the Convention that alludes to “the common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) are either silenced or sidetracked by the US and a few influential leaders in Europe, with the focus now shifting to asking all countries to develop bottom-up commitments to cut their emissions. 

This way, any differentiation among countries – be it rich or poor – is eliminated. In spite of this direct assault on the developing world for being late-comers to the league of progress, the COP-16 in Cancun (Mexico) six years ago devised a financial mechanism for developing countries on projects related to climate change, mainly for mitigation and adaptation. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) with a corpus of $100 billion annually by 2020 is implicitly understood as an unrequited onus of the rich world and part of the process through which they would pay for and underpin developing world to cut their emissions and better adapt to grueling climate change that has now become new normal year after year. 

Meanwhile, the inter-governmental think tank of rich countries’ club, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report recently putting that $62 billion had been marshaled last year from private and public sources, up from the $52 billion in 2013. New Delhi and other countries took objections to this estimate, contending that funding purported for development assistance to various countries has also been included in these numbers, depriving the GCF as a stand-alone fund for exclusive use in climate change related cases. 

Like any other global gatherings, where the divide and hiatus between the haves and have-not get sharper as each one refuses to budge from its steadfast stance, the Paris talks too witnessed the blast of verbal artillery from the developing world. On the fourth day of the Conference, the developing country bloc of G77 and China launched a blistering attack on the rich world for trying to amend the Convention by tying conditionalities to the financing in the draft agreement.  

With the meandering talks getting past the midway, the resources to be marshaled for keeping the GCF afloat after 2020 has become a raging controversy with rich world demanding the pound from even major emitters such as emerging economies and other developing nations. Interestingly, the US President Barack Obama confirmed at a press conference that the US was happy for one critical part of the deal to be legally binding-the need for each country’s reduction target to be periodically reviewed. It is another issue whether countries like India would let itself be subject to review its emission standards performance by outside agencies.  

With the negotiators observing that the initial talks  being “bumpy”, the road ahead is rocky and riddled with deep discord over thousands of points. Their duty is to hone the 50-plus document for final text before handing over the running of the talks to the French Presidency for the ultimate critical week that has already begun on December 7. 
G Srinivasan

G Srinivasan

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