Home / Opinion / Views /  Kerry: Climate change evangelist or USA’s pragmatic deal maker?

My abiding memory, not too pleasant, is of a John Kerry, then Chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee, hectoring a group of Climate Change negotiators, which included me, at a meeting hosted by him in 2009. We were in Washington for a session of the Major Economies’ Forum to try and reach a broad consensus on the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change summit scheduled in December that year. The US was pushing for an agreement that would erase the difference between developed and developing economies and instead introduce a distinction between major and not-so-major greenhouse gas emitters. In addition, there would be a common template to assess Climate Change actions by various countries, rejecting the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities(CBDR) enshrined in the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). India was part of the Basic Group of Brazil, China, India and South Africa that was in the vanguard of preserving the integrity of the UNFCCC and its principles and provisions, and resisting attempts by the US and other developed countries to shift the burden of climate-change action on to developing countries. When Kerry set out the US position, it was naturally countered by the BASIC representatives. We pointed out that the US was attempting to change the very mandate of the multilateral negotiations then underway, and going back on consensus principles which the US itself had been party to. Kerry’s response was arrogant and aggressive. At one point during a heated exchange, he said that the BASIC countries were all major current and future emitters, not the US, nor Europe. The argument that developed countries were responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse gases accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere, and that they should shoulder the greater part of responsibility to reduce them, cut no ice even though during her meeting with us, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had acknowledged this historical responsibility of both the US and other industrialized countries. Kerry ended his diatribe with a warning that those failing to curb their current and rising emissions could become subject to international sanctions. This was coming from a country which at the time was the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. As we subsequently witnessed at Copenhagen, the US came with nothing to put on the table, but left declaring victory.

Later, as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Kerry negotiated, in November 2014, an infamous bilateral deal with China that essentially endorsed the American playbook on a new international regime for climate-change action in exchange for China continuing its rising emissions at least until 2030. China happily stabbed BASIC in the back. This became the template for the Paris Climate Change Agreement later that year, which India eventually acquiesced to. This background makes me more apprehensive than enthused with Kerry’s appointment as President-elect Joe Biden’s special envoy for climate change. While one must welcome the US return to the Paris Agreement, which Trump had walked out of, one should take note of some of Kerry’s statements on the occasion of his appointment being announced.

One, under Biden, Climate Change is being elevated to a national security issue for the US: “America will soon have a government that treats the Climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is. " This will thus oblige the US to place greater pressure on major economies like India whose emission trajectory will be upwards for some years to come. The immediate pressure may be to announce a peak year for emissions, citing the example of China. That India is nowhere near China’s humongous level of emissions (26% of global volume against India’s 7%) will probably be ignored, as has been the case all along.

Two, Kerry said, in response to Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement, “You are right to rejoin Paris on day one and you’re right to recognize that Paris alone does not get the job done." It is the second part of the comment that sounds ominous. Currently, we are in the midst of difficult negotiations to flesh out the so-called Paris playbook, which will chart out a path towards meeting the commitments enshrined in the agreement. We have already witnessed a continuing effort on the part of developed countries to remain vague and non-committal on financial support to developing countries, to impose greater accountability on developing countries on their climate-related action, while avoiding scrutiny of their own actions, and to further shift the burden of adjustment to a greener global economy on to the developing world. A Paris Agreement-plus will likely be at the expense of countries like India.

Three, it has been reported that Kerry will seek to revive the Climate and Clean Air coalition, which is a voluntary UN-administered organization formed in 2012 with US support. One should be wary of this coalition, which has mostly lain dormant under Trump, since it focuses mainly on short-lived pollutants such as black carbon, methane and hydroflourocarbons (HFC). On all these three counts, India is vulnerable, although some international pressure on controlling stubble burning within the country may be useful.

Finally, we are likely to see the US under President Biden resuming high-level engagement with China on the pretext that dealing with an urgent global challenge such as climate change requires such talks. One should anticipate a less prickly and less confrontational phase in US-China relations under a Biden administration, and John Kerry might revel in being the architect of such a détente. This is not a good prospect for India either.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. He was the special envoy of India’s Prime Minister on climate change from 2007 to 2010.

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