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Time to consider climate change as a social and energy issue rather than a physical and environmental problem

(Image by COP20)

(Image by COP20)

Lima witnessed the end game of a 20 year old negotiation around doing away with differentiation between countries at different levels of development and the beginning of negotiations on a global pact for sharing the carbon budget. It is all about geopolitics, not about the global environment.

The Lima Call for Climate Action recognises that the national actions under the new regime will continue to focus on achieving the objective of the Convention and will address in a balanced manner mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer and development, as currently provided in the Convention. However, the new regime will “reflect”, rather than be based on, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and fairness is referred to in terms of national circumstances rather than historical responsibility. Consequently, developed countries will “provide and mobilize financial resources” and there is no reference to technology transfer. “Loss and damage” is relegated to the preamble. In effect, the principles of the Convention will not apply to the new regime and in this respect it echoes the China-United States Climate Agreement.

The issue

The issue was not about what countries are prepared to do to meet the challenge, because that does not require a multilateral treaty. This has been made clear by the pre-Summit bilateral China-United States Agreement and the unilateral emission reductions announced by the European Union, covering more than two-third of global emissions.

The issue at Lima was how to ensure equity, fairness and justice in the new global pact. The Climate treaty accommodated the concerns of the developed countries in 1992 by only prescribing an “aim” for them to reduce their emissions. Only two developed countries, Monaco and Norway, have ratified the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, and the legally binding arrangement is withering away. Following Copenhagen, in 2009, the ‘Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions’ (INDC) now required of all countries, was the third response by developing countries to accommodate the developed countries. At Lima, the principles that guided relations between countries have themselves been negated.

The developed countries have insisted on doing away with differentiation because, having occupied more than their fair share of the carbon budget, they would be obliged to make significantly deeper emissions cuts and provide resources for adaptation as the adverse effect of climate change unfold.

Doing away with the legal differentiation between countries at different levels of development will bring centre-stage the political problem of balance between contributions of countries that are required to cap their emissions (developed countries) and countries that will do so later (developing countries), in a manner that will ensure that the late developers can continue to use energy for infrastructure, urbanization and moving the rural poor into the urban middle class.

The China-US Agreement

The issue of planetary limits has now become the centre of the negotiations because of the global agreement in 2010 on keeping increase in global temperature below 2 degrees centigrade; that is, keeping within a global carbon budget. The China-United States Agreement deals with the knotty problem of countries’ responsibility through different peaking years for countries at different levels of development: a peaking year is really about sharing the global ‘carbon budget’.

Concretely the US has agreed to cut net emissions by 12-14 percent of 1990 levels. China can increase its emissions by around 30 percent till 2030, by which time China will have completed its infrastructure development and urbanisation process, and will have a GDP per capita of $ 20,000, the gap between their per capita energy use and emissions will narrow and China would be a developed country.

Critically, the agreement recognises the evolution in our understanding of the problem. Urbanisation is a mega-trend as urban areas are responsible for three quarters of all emissions and energy use; buildings and transportation are responsible for about one-third of final energy consumption; urban dietary patterns have changed, with meat production accounting for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.This process was completed in the industrialized countries by the 1970’s, and three-quarters of the population of China will move into cities by 2030. Replicating the agreement, it is very possible that defining peaking points until the urbanization process are completed in India and other late-developing nations, around 12 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per capita, forms a part of the new global consensus.

Bridging the divide                             

Countries still need to agree on the global goal against which national actions will be reviewed, and this includes longer term transformations, availability of carbon space and shifting poor rural populations into the urban middle class. Moving away from reviewing emissions reductions primarily concerns developing countries, and India and China must continue to play a leadership role by focusing on the recommendation of the UN’s scientific body, the IPCC, that global emissions need to fall by 40-70 per cent from 2010 levels by 2050 “with multiple pathways to achieve this objective”. How the different pathways link in achieving the Objective of the Convention needs to be agreed at the next meeting in Geneva, in February 2015.

For taking into account different ‘national circumstances’ of countries at different levels of development, or early and late developers, the world community needs three sets of rules to measure modification of consumption patterns in developed countries (emission reductions), developing countries pursuing more sustainable paths (renewable energy, energy efficiency and adaptation aims) and ensuring the equitable distribution of risks and benefits from the transformation (sharing renewable energy and agriculture technology and insurance costs), while keeping within planetary limits. Also needed is a methodology to assess the adequacy of these separate ‘pathways’ in the 2020-2050 periods, and that should be agreed at Bonn, in June 2015.

Agreeing on even broad parameters for sharing of the global carbon budget within the climate regime is not going to be easy, and strategic interventions outside these negotiations are needed to focus on the core issues of energy and food security. With sanctions on Iran likely to end soon, a network of gas pipelines will do away with the need to set up new coal fired plants after 2030. This cooperation could be extended to joint development and sharing of renewable energy and new agriculture seed technologies to ensure energy and food security. As two-thirds of future global growth is going to take place in Asia, the Asian giants should now take the lead for sharing responsibility and prosperity.

Mukul Sanwal has worked in India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests and has represented India in negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


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