With Chinese assurance that it will not leave the developing country group in climate negotiations, and with the US keen on a joint declaration when Barack Obama visits New Delhi late January, India is mulling an announcement of its greenhouse gas emissions peaking year – all options between 2035 and 2050 are on the table

In a departure from its traditional stand, Indian negotiators are now pondering over an announcement of a peaking year for the country's greenhouse gas emissions. (Image by Vijay Chennupati)

In a departure from its traditional stand, Indian negotiators are now pondering over announcing a peaking year for the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Image by Vijay Chennupati)

Two developments, one on the opening day of the climate summit in Lima and one the previous week, have led India to seriously consider an announcement when US President Barack Obama visits New Delhi late January – announcement of the year by which India’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will peak.

This is a marked departure from India’s position in the field of combating climate change. A previous announcement that India would reduce the emissions intensity (not emissions) of its production had led to serious protests from former policymakers, as well as influential think tanks and NGOs. Following the protests, the Indian government went back to its traditional position – developing countries must be allowed to develop; the rich countries were the ones that had put most of the extra GHG now in the atmosphere, so they must reduce emissions, plus provide finances and transfer technologies so that poor nations could move towards a greener economy.

A day after the annual summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened in the Peruvian capital Lima, India’s cabinet of ministers officially instructed government negotiators to stick to the letter and spirit of the UN convention at the Lima talks. This means India is very unlikely to make any emission mitigation commitment during the summit. Instead, it will stick to the principles enshrined in the convention – the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) between developed and developing countries to control emissions, of the need for finance and technology transfer. It will also push the principle of equity – that every human being on this planet has equal rights to the carbon space in the atmosphere.

Move after Lima summit

But there are strong indications that if not in Lima, then in the near future India is prepared to move a lot further. Since the US-China joint declaration that the US will reduce emissions by 2025 and China will peak by 2030, the Indian government has been under increasing international pressure to make a similar commitment. China is now the world’s top GHG emitter, the US second and India third.

According to senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, this pressure was ratcheted up last week, just before New Delhi announced that US President Barack Obama would be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on January 26. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, these officials told indiaclimatedialogue.net that the US administration had made a joint declaration on the lines of the US-China declaration almost a condition before Obama accepted the invitation. They did not specify what India’s response exact had been, but the announcement of the Obama trip has led analysts to draw their own conclusions.

A veteran American climate negotiator told indiaclimatedialogue.net, “Diplomats do not use words like conditions, but White House had made its wishes clear.” He was hopeful that a joint declaration would be made during the Obama visit.

Asked about the implications of this potential move, a senior official of the environment ministry told indiaclimatedialogue.net, “Anyway, by next March we were going to make our voluntary commitments public. All that we are doing now is to hurry up the process by a few weeks.” March 2015 is the deadline by which all countries are scheduled to inform the UNFCCC secretariat of what they plan to do to mitigate emissions.

Asked what the peaking year could be, the official said, “All options between 2035 and 2050 are on the table. We have commissioned some studies by independent think tanks to gauge the effect of the peaking year on the Indian economy. Now these think tanks have been asked to speed up their reports. The PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) is expected to take a decision once we get these reports.”

Chinese assurance

But while India is preparing to make this possible move, it is not willing to give up the differentiation between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries when it comes to combating climate change.

That was why the announcement by China’s chief negotiator Su Wei on the opening day of the Lima summit came as a huge relief to New Delhi. Su made it clear that though China had made the joint declaration with the US, its government has no intention of leaving the bloc of Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) during the climate negotiations, nor any of the other developing and emerging country blocs of which it is a member. At a side event organised by the Third World Network, Su also reiterated China’s commitment to the CBDR principle.

Risks of voluntary regime

With the European Union, the US, China and possibly India announcing their own targets, the global climate regime is moving towards a voluntary commitment scenario. This is contrary to the UNFCCC principle by which all 192 countries and the EU are supposed to decide on a global commitment figure, and then apportion it country by country. But with consensus on this figure having proved elusive for over two decades, many climate activists see the move towards voluntary commitments as positive.

However, as the UN Environment Programme pointed out in a recent report, the voluntary commitments fall at least 40% short of what is needed to keep average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius. A recent World Bank report said this shortfall could lead to an average temperature rise of up to four degrees Celsius. Scientists have warned that crossing the two-degree limit will have serious unforeseeable consequences. In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown how climate change is already having serious consequences – affecting farm output worldwide, raising the sea level, accelerating glacier retreat, making storms, floods and droughts more frequent and more severe.

Apart from being insufficient, a number of developing countries are likely to see the move towards a voluntary commitment regime as retrograde. During the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, these countries ensured that voluntary commitments made at that time were not part of the official UNFCCC decisions. That position has been changed since 2009, but matters may come to a head again during this December 1-12 summit.

The Lima summit is expected to lay down the foundations of a global climate deal that is scheduled to be finalised by the end of 2015. But negotiators from some developing countries are now raising questions about the point of such a deal if major emitters go by their own voluntary commitments instead.

They are also worried because the drafting of the 2015 treaty has not started according to their expectations – various countries had submitted drafts to the UNFCCC, and they want each draft to be discussed. Instead, co-chairs of the drafting committee have taken suggestions from various countries to prepare their own draft. The very first day of the Lima summit saw heated exchanges over such “cherry picking,” as many delegates phrased it.

As climate negotiators work with a treaty draft and countries come up with voluntary commitments instead, there are two questions – where will these tracks meet, and will that meeting point show a commitment strong enough to combat catastrophic climate change?

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