New Delhi: The end of the 1980s saw the breakdown of one great wall and the emergence of what was expected to be a unipolar world but actually presaged the erection of other barriers, fragmenting the globe along unexpectedly different lines.
At the heart of this evolving order was the debate about the environment and what governments and people around the world needed to do to ensure that the earth wasn’t irrevocably damaged by the gases being spewed out by its chimneys, the chemicals leaching into its soil and rivers and the mountains of refuse generated by an increasingly consumerist society.
The argument boiled down to this: Who should bear the blame for wreaking environmental damage? Newly industrializing, emerging economies or developed nations that had grown rich over two centuries and more of factory production.
Now, in the light of the mud-wrestling going on ahead of the United Nations climate change conference, to be held in Copenhagen 7-18 December, it beggars belief that the underdog had its day at Kyoto, Japan, all those years ago.
In 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, the two sides agreed—some of them reluctantly—that the rich north was committed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and the poor south’s pledges depended on the financial resources and technology provided by the wealthier nations.
The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted on 11 December 1997, came into effect on 16 February 2005, with the notable exclusion of the US, the world’s richest country.
Today, phrases such as “technology transfer”, “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “emission cut commitments” seem commonplace. Two decades ago, getting 191 countries on board for such an agreement was an extraordinary achievement.
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“The framework convention is one of the rare agreements on the side of developing countries,” said Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a veteran international negotiator, who has been engaged in climate talks since the 1990s. “It is more difficult now to get an agreement like that. Now you have an agreement, you only have to defend it. To create an agreement was unprecedented.”
Observers and negotiators from the time hold that while political pressures and global alignment were different then, the demands, arguments and counter-arguments, remain more or less the same.
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Dasgupta said pressures were both similar and different.
India played a key agenda-setting role in the Berlin Mandate (1995 to 1997), which led to the Kyoto Protocol.
“A little known fact is that the Berlin Mandate was prepared and floated by India. So the major fight was really at Berlin—that there would be no new commitments from developing countries, that we are talking of developed countries’ commitments only,” Dasgupta said. “Because, till then, there was an attempt to move in the same direction as we are seeing now. So those pressures for taking new commitments were much smaller than now.”
The Berlin Mandate recognized that new reduction targets and timetables were needed for industrialized nations beyond 2000 and no new commitments should be introduced for developing countries.
According to Global Environmental Negotiations, published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Kamal Nath, India’s then environment minister, said at the first CoP (Conference of Parties) in 1995: “Developing countries have no—or negative—responsibility for global warming.”
Increasing importance: A file photo of delegates at the December 1997 climate summit in Kyoto. India’s delegation size has now grown considerably from the one person that was usually sent for the climate change summits in the 1990s, with members drawn from various areas of specialization. Toru Yamanaka/AFP
It was at CoP I that Germany first proposed that larger developing nations such as India and China be singled out to cut emissions as well. This proposal was used by the US and Australia to divert attention from another proposal by Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States), which demanded a 20% cut by 2000 for rich countries. US environmental groups went further to demand a moratorium on foreign assistance for projects that could lead to emissions.
“There was huge pressure on India even then. The Americans in Kyoto were the key problem, (they) wanted India and China to take commitments. It wasn’t said so openly but asked for (just) the same,” said Sunita Narain, director, CSE, who has been observing environmental negotiations. “It was a very tense night and there was tremendous pressure on the Indian delegation. (Saifuddin) Soz was the minister then, who took a strong position.”
India had the first mover advantage not only during the Berlin Mandate, but also when the framework convention was being chalked out, back in June 1991. The first complete text for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as it is known now, was tabled by India.
“I have this bee in my bonnet that the south loses out in multilateral negotiations very frequently because it gets into the act too late because it is left to the north to define the issues, frame the issues,” Dasgupta said. “We should help to frame the issues. We were the first to table the text. And then we negotiated on that. You couldn’t push that aside. It was there.”
Initially, the issue was framed around the idea that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions cause global warming.
“We said no, this is wrong science. It is not caused by CO2 emissions. It is caused by ‘excessive’ levels of CO2 emissions. So all countries are not responsible,” explained Dasgupta. “We helped frame the issues.”
The ideas being aired before Copenhagen are all still the same though the words are different. The US proposal that all countries should make commitments according to their capacities (both developed and advanced developing economies), and those actions should be reviewed internationally, is not new. Japan’s proposal in the 1990s was astonishingly similar and was dubbed “pledge and review”.
The Japanese proposal said that each country should make a public pledge, consisting of its past performance, to limit emissions and these would be subject to periodic reviews by an expert committee.
The broader issues of technology transfer and financial help from the rich for mitigation and adaptation were framed at least 15 years ago.
“Sometimes we are called dinosaurs, which I agree (with), but I say even a dinosaur stands for a pristine environment!” laughed Dasgupta, who has been involved with climate talks for almost two decades.
Between then and now, the mistrust between rich and poor has only escalated, not abated. The recent walkout by African nations during the climate talks in Barcelona is a sign of just how much confidence each bloc has in others.
“I think if the negotiations were going on in good faith, then many of the issues which are still unresolved would have been resolved,” said Raman Mehta, senior manager, policy, ActionAid India. “There are deep political differences where responsibilities of developed countries as perceived by developing countries are not reciprocated and the developed nations are now actually moving back from what they signed in Bali.”
Though the division between rich and poor is sharper than ever, alignments and politics within the negotiating blocs are not the same. The European Union (EU) has played a proactive role in engaging the world on climate change since the beginning, even volunteering an emission cut of 16% for itself.
“The EU was in the vanguard of climate (change). They were making us aware of it. They were sympathetic to developing country needs. But now they realize how tough it is to cut. There is also the new EU— Poland, for instance, a coal-based economy. That’s a big internal dissension. Earlier it was Spain and Greece,” Narain said. “Internal politics and a clear sense that the easy options are over. Now, whatever you do, will impact your economy and your industry—are you prepared to go that route?”
Within India, the idea of climate change was different then. Public awareness and the engagement of political parties have increased, and the science of climate change has advanced. Once dismissed as an obsession of tree huggers, global warming is arguably one of the most studied scientific subjects now.
“The times now are different. In 1995, we didn’t understand the impact of climate change on us. We didn’t understand that we would be real victims of climate change. Today, we must see ourselves as victims, as a country which is worst impacted. Which also means our interests are different, more than 1995. Then, we were pressurizing the Western world to cut because we thought it was the right thing to do. Today, we must do that with more force because it is important for us and our economy. And our survival,” Narain said.
In the past, climate was seen as an ecological negotiation and not an economic debate, she said.
India’s delegation is much bigger now, with members drawn from various areas of specialization, compared with the one person that was usually sent for the climate change summits in the 1990s.
While the country’s place in the global pecking order is much higher than what it used to be, India still negotiates as part of the Group of 77 countries, or G-77, the grouping of developing countries. Experts believe that this is in India’s best interest and that there is strength in numbers.
“You will be completely isolated if you leave the G-77. This is the funny thing, the advocates of this line (disassociating from the G-77) are talking of isolation but nothing will ensure isolation more than this (quitting the group),” Dasgupta said. “Talk of the Chinese pulling support from the G-77 is rubbish right now but will this be the case in 2020? We don’t know.”
Next week, governments will head to Denmark to try and recreate the spirit of consensus that made Kyoto possible, but their needs and aspirations are different from what they used to be. The world needs to find a way of squaring burgeoning energy demands with the need for a cleaner environment while reaching a meaningful common ground between rich and poor.
The burden of expectation may prove too heavy, CSE’s Narain said.
“Berlin at that time had just gone through reunification. There was a lot of excitement. A lot of hope. There was a sense of here is something that is possible. A sense of possibility. The Kyoto Protocol couldn’t be done today. The age of innocence is over.”
Graphics by Yogesh Kumar/Mint and Ahmed Raza Khan/ Mint