Ever since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, not a year has elapsed without rich and poor countries sparring with each other on the issue of climate change. These divisions were evident last week in Panama, where talks proved fruitless. India has, after signalling its willingness to bear its responsibilities, once again hardened its position.
The divisions are pretty clear: rich countries want a binding agreement to limit climate change and don’t want to bear any responsibility for historic emissions. Developing countries—India included—want a measure of equity in the proceedings. Two vital elements in this context are access to expensive clean environmental technologies and some measure of differentiated responsibility when it comes to emissions. It seems unlikely that there will be any substantial progress in time for the meeting of the Conference of Parties under the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change at Durban in December.
In the talks at Panama, India submitted a proposal seeking an intellectual property rights regime that would, among other things, not allow unfair trade practices in the name of climate change mitigation. This is a clear hint that the European Union’s plan to tax airlines under an emission trading system will cause friction at Durban.
After the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, there has never been a meeting of minds on the subject. If anything, positions have continuously hardened. Developed countries don’t want another variant of the Kyoto Protocol without ensuring that the fast-growing economies such as India and China are made to bear equal responsibility.
The stumbling block in resolving this complex issue is organizational. While responsibility for curbing emissions (and that of emissions historically) is limited by national boundaries, the solution being sought is multilateral. Within the global system since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, it is perhaps the biggest such effort, involving not many, but all the nations in the world. Nothing similar in scope and ambition has been seen in history. The tools and the political system required for this goal are quite mismatched. When the stakes are so high—the economic future and the existence of countries—clearly, no easy solution is within reach. These frictions will persist.
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