Home >Opinion >The rocky road to Paris

The Lima climate talks have ended inconclusively, making the road to Paris in December 2015 that much more difficult. The bilateral accord signed between the US and China last month had certainly generated considerable optimism that Lima may actually see some progress, but clearly, that has not happened. Now, the attention shifts to Paris, where 193 countries (plus three observers) are supposed to finalize a new global agreement to combat global warming, an agreement in which all major emitters of greenhouse gases take on meaningful commitments in keeping with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" that forms the bedrock of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Unfortunately, at Lima, India lost another opportunity to provide bold new leadership and emerge yet again as a deal-maker as it had done at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010. It repeated its standard rhetoric of “India has not caused global warming and therefore cannot be expected to provide a solution", of “India’s emissions will need to grow for the next few decades given its objectives of poverty eradication and economic growth" and of “India needs international finance and technology at liberal terms if it is expected to take significant mitigation steps". Not only this, but India also gave notice that it was not averse to being the last man standing like it was recently at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Of course, a government that is about to dismantle the entire edifice of environmental laws and regulations at home could hardly be expected to carry credibility and conviction abroad, the circulation of a so-called book on climate change authored by the Prime Minister himself notwithstanding.

The next few months will be crucial. There is still time for India to stand up and be counted not just to get international acclaim, but, more importantly, because it is in its enlightened self-interest to do so. This is because of its multiple vulnerabilities to climate change. Constructive engagement, not outdated bravado, is called for. Five specific actions suggest themselves to give India a distinctive positive niche for itself in keeping with its desire to be acknowledged as a global power.

First, India announced a National Action Plan on Climate Change six years back and some states have also announced similar plans. To deepen domestic efforts to address climate change concerns, India must pass comprehensive legislation in which initiatives, such as a trading system for meeting energy efficiency targets, mandatory fuel efficiency standards, improving quality of forest cover, establishment of concentration standards where they do not exist for emissions from power plants like for sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, etc., are embedded. The confidence level of the global community in the seriousness, credibility and continuity of India’s actions will also increase if such a domestic law is enacted. Executive actions must be backed by legislative pledges that are then subject to periodic monitoring not just by parliamentary bodies, but also by civil society groups. Five years back, India announced an emissions intensity target for 2020. It must now announce quantitative goals for 2025 and 2030 as well.

Second, India must push for a hybrid architecture for the 2015 agreement. In this hybrid model, certain elements can be bottom-up like mitigation commitments and certain other elements can be top-down like transparency provisions. A pure bottom-up approach will not meet environmental objectives while a pure top-down approach will simply not be politically feasible, especially if we are to bring the US and China into the mainstream of any agreement. India must support an option that gives countries flexibility to set their goals, which are reviewed every five years and against which the commitments by made by individual countries are analysed from time to time. In this respect, therefore, Paris is not a final destination, but the beginning point of a long journey.

Third, India must take the lead in designing a non-intrusive, non-punitive system of international monitoring, reporting and verification much along the lines of international consultations and analysis for countries such as China and India contained in the Copenhagen Declaration and international assessment and review contained in the Cancun Agreement for countries like the US and other developed nations. Such a system will work on the basis of technical reports submitted by the countries themselves (unlike as in the case of International Monetary Fund and WTO consultations) to an existing or new international body that would provide a forum for discussion of what countries have promised and what they have actually accomplished.

Fourth, India must revisit and rework its articulation of equity and differentiation. Differentiation is definitely needed to reflect equity considerations in the architecture of any agreement. But while a new agreement should not become an excuse to wipe out past obligations, it must also not become an opportunity to reaffirm stratifications of the past that have ceased to have much relevance. India must lead the way to determine new criteria for differentiation that reflects current and future realities. A better and more realistic metric of equity and differentiation is required. Per capita electricity consumption is a better measure to fight for than the traditional Indian fixation on per capita emissions, which connotes an automatic “right to pollute" just because we have been unable to control population growth.

Finally, China’s announcement of a peaking year for emissions of 2030 has certainly put the focus on India whose consumption of coal is expected to double by the end of this decade. The very word peaking has been taboo, but rightly so. But to deal with the new situation caused by the Sino-US accord, why not India start speaking of a peaking plateau after it has ensured a decent level of electricity consumption to its population?

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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