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Breaking the climate deadlock

Written By Gopal Krishna on Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 7:37 AM

India’s new strategy should accept capping of its emissions to 75 per cent of projected emissions by 2030 in exchange for deep emission cuts by industrialised nations without any offsets

Today, international climate change negotiations appear to have reached a deadlock. The run-up to the Copenhagen conference in December 2009 is producing little of substance even as an impressive body of evidence indicates that time is running out for averting irreversible climate change.

The central fault-line in the climate change debate is the issue of equity. Despite the acknowledgment of equity issues in the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the formulation of “common but differentiated responsibilities” of all nations, it has proved extraordinarily hard to concretise this principle in practice. But translating this into national and international strategies has come up against the interests of the rich, both between and within nations.

Developed countries, responsible for over three-quarters of accumulated greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, have taken little serious action to reduce their emissions. Despite the passage of the Kyoto Protocol requiring the so-called Annex-I advanced countries to reduce their emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2005, emissions of Annex-I countries have actually increased by 17 per cent since 1992. The United States, until very recently the biggest emitter of GHGs in absolute terms and even now the highest emitter in per capita terms, despite the Obama Presidency, has made no commitment to binding emission reduction targets.

The Kyoto Protocol diluted the climate equity and justice perspective of the UNFCCC by sanctioning market-driven mechanisms for reducing emissions. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allowed polluters in developed countries to buy carbon credits from developing countries that implemented carbon “sinks” or from their industries that implemented lower emission technologies. These “offsets” reduced the meagre 5 per cent Kyoto target to an effective 2 per cent approximately. The European Union introduced its own emission permits and carbon markets for its existing polluters. No penalties for failing to meet emission reduction targets or violating permits have been prescribed in any of the above mechanisms. Not surprisingly, these measures have not led to any meaningful reduction of emissions from either the Annex I countries, or indeed the world as a whole.

Consequently, of the various scenarios of rising GHG emissions modelled by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are now on the worst-case trajectory. There are also worrying signs that the EU may backtrack from its earlier acceptance of deep cuts in emissions by industrialised countries. Further, industrialised nations continue to regard the financing of low-carbon emitting technologies in the developing world as an opportunity for foreign direct investment with all attendant benefits, and not as a climate change equity issue.

The advanced industrialised nations, particularly the U.S., are attempting to shift the burden of cuts in emissions on to the developing countries. They insist that China and India be also brought within the ambit of binding emission cuts, contrary to the Kyoto principle of “differentiated responsibility.” This amounts to legitimising the appropriation by the advanced countries of the global atmospheric “commons” in which their current stock of accumulated emissions constitute more than 75 per cent.

In per capita terms, developing countries’ emissions are far below those of the industrialised nations. India’s GHG emissions are about one-fourth that of China’s and less than a fifteenth of the U.S. The large mass of India’s poor consumes very little energy. As poverty reduces, India’s emissions will rise, and it cannot negotiate away its environmental “space” to do so.

The Indian and Chinese stand rejecting emission cuts therefore has obvious legitimacy. However the discussion of the international climate negotiations cannot be left here. Already more than half the current flow of GHGs being added to the atmosphere comes from developing countries, especially from large ones such as China and India. This proportion is expected to go up to around 75 per cent by 2050. China is already the highest GHG emitter, having overtaken the U.S. this year. While India is not yet in the same league, it is nevertheless the world’s fourth largest emitter. Both China and India being large economies with relatively high growth rates, their contribution of GHG emissions will only rise in the decades to come.

An on-going independent modelling study (undertaken by the Delhi Science Forum in collaboration with the All India Peoples Science Network and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences) makes clear that even the modest goal of stabilising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at around 450 ppmv (parts per million by volume) — compared to present levels of around 390 ppmv — cannot be met only through cuts, however deep, by the developed countries alone. The 450 ppmv target can be achieved only if China and India — along with other emerging economies — reduce current emission growth rates, and further, start reducing absolute emissions in roughly two decades. This has to run alongside deep cuts by Annex-I countries.

How do we then square the circle of equitable sharing of the atmospheric commons while ensuring that the world as we know it does not perish due to uncontrolled GHG emissions? We believe that meeting this challenge provides a new opportunity for India to seize the initiative on the climate change issue.

We suggest that India announce a non-binding but self-declared cut in projected emissions by 2030. India would therefore effectively implement a reduction in emission growth rates till 2030 rather than an absolute cut in emissions, conditional upon the U.S. and other Annex-I developed countries undertaking deep emission cuts. India could be joined by other emerging economies with similar targets.

On the international plane, this proposal would send out a powerful message that India and other developing countries are conscious of their responsibilities, particularly to the world’s poor and most vulnerable. It combines legitimate demands based on equitable sharing of the atmospheric commons, with substantive quantitative commitments. It also signals to low-emission least developing countries and small island states that India is not joining the rich in their game of obduracy.

At the national level, India needs to commit itself to equitable development in concrete terms, particularly on the energy question, beyond the generalities of India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The differential between the rural poor and the urban middle-class in energy consumption and GHG emissions is as wide as that between India and the U.S. India must also recognise that the Kyoto cap-and-trade policies have failed. It cannot argue against quantitative emission restrictions for itself on the grounds of equity and climate justice and yet be a party to “trading” pollution for money. India could adopt the following strategy in the current international negotiations leading up to Copenhagen in December 2009.

(i) India would declare non-binding targets to restrict emissions to 25 per cent below projected emission levels in 2030 adhering to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” conditional upon (ii), (iii) and (iv) below.

(ii) Annex-I countries including the U.S. verifiably meet binding targets of reducing emissions by 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 90 per cent by 2050, these targets being for actual emissions reductions not discounted through any offsets or trading measures.

(iii) Annex-I countries pay into a Climate Fund under UNFCCC a sum equivalent to the UNFCCC-determined carbon value of any deficits in target achievement.

(iv) All emission reduction technologies be placed in the public domain.

Such a proposal would enable India to lead again from the front on climate change issues and would provide a fresh impetus to break the current deadlock in international climate negotiations.

D. Raghunandan, Prabir Purkayastha & T. Jayaraman

(The first two authors are with the Delhi Science Forum and the third is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Email at mail.dsf@gmail.com or tjayaraman@tiss.edu.)
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