Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Climate change: moving talks to action

With the 40-year-old environmental law framework no longer acceptable, do we need a new one?

With scientific clarity on the catastrophic adverse effects of climate change, and those responsible reneging on their promises, do we need a new framework for human well-being within global ecological limits?

Developed countries, with one-fifth the population, are responsible for half of global emissions. Their refusal to share technologies and financial resources, and the US, with 5% of the population responsible for 20% of emissions, pushing for similar obligations under the Paris treaty of 2015 creates an existential crisis for other countries.

Unfortunately, the information flowing to the public deals with the symptoms, not the causes of the problem. The United Nations is focusing on the “emissions gap", urging countries collectively to do more, skirting the key issue of who should do what, when and how. Researchers are more nuanced, acknowledging that India and China are doing more than their fair share, yet shying away from highlighting why the US and the EU are not doing more. NGOs are fixated on keeping the rise in global temperature limited to 1.5-2°C, ignoring that energy- and emissions-intensive infrastructure are essential for dealing with adverse effects. Unravelling politics from science is not easy because of the way the issue was framed.

Climate change first came onto the global policy agenda in the 1980s when Europe organized conferences on global environmental impacts of energy use. The US reshaped the talks by establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988, linking it to the World Meteorological Organization and the atmospheric sciences, and not to the United Nations Environment Programme. It reframed the problem in terms of temperature increase and brought in developing countries. This strategic thinking also effectively kept out the social sciences and issues of distribution. Consequently, peaking of global emissions focused on developing countries’ use of coal rather than sharp reductions in developed countries’ much larger and still growing transport emissions.

The defining feature of climate negotiations has been steady dilution of commitments of developed countries legitimized through multilateral negotiations, reflecting the global political and economic power balance. In 1992, when the climate treaty was being negotiated, the US insisted on three conditions. First, it would not accept any notion of “responsibility" and developing countries, including India, diluted the agreed principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities" by adding “respective capabilities". Second, per-capita emissions would not be a benchmark as it focused on lifestyles, which are not up for negotiation. Third, there will be no commitments for transfer of financial resources and technology. In the current negotiations, developing countries will again “compromise" to keep the treaty alive, as developed countries are not moving forward on providing the agreed upon finance and technology.

Multilateral environmental cooperation is based on trust as these treaties do not have a dispute settlement mechanism. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997, despite self-determined targets, led to the US’ pull-out and its second commitment period is yet to come into force with the EU dragging its feet. The Paris Agreement ended differentiation as a principle but the compromises led to retention of elements, including provision of finance and technology, as a trade-off to developing countries agreeing to reduce emissions. Developed countries’ continuing opposition to include these items in the rules raises questions on their commitment to multilateral cooperation. The re-emergence of China led to the first modification in the framework with a deal between the US and China, enabling the Paris Agreement. China balanced others’ historical emissions with its growth in emissions till 2030. By then, China will be a moderately well-off society with per-capita emissions near that of the US. The deal brought comparable standards of living into the centre of global climate policy.
 Climate change is best understood in terms of levels of well-being, not thermal physics of the planet and climate models. With urbanization, once infrastructure reaches saturation levels, transport emissions rise to 40% of total emissions and buildings consume more than industry. Focus on global temperature limits and annual emissions reduction central in the climate pact ignores the trajectory of emissions, energy use patterns and their link with well-being in ecological limits. By 2050, to achieve comparable levels of well-being, India’s GDP will rise seven times and emissions more than double from current levels, which are now below the global average. Climate change is unique because human activity has socioeconomic implications of sharing a scarce global atmospheric resource, but there is no discussion on the allocation principles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold attempt to reframe the global concern in terms of “climate justice" is included in the preamble of the Paris Agreement, but is not binding. It is now time to push research, policies and diplomatic interventions to ensure that equity will be reflected as part of the deliberations not as a stand-alone, and meaningless, side discussion.

With the 40-year-old environmental law framework no longer acceptable, even to its proponents, putting inclusive, equitable sustainable development as the conceptual basis of the emerging world order will give India the leadership role the global challenge is crying out for.

Mukul Sanwal is former head, division of pollution control, government of India, and director, UNFCC.

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