The climate bilateralism Obama pursues sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the multilateral framework under which the world seeks a meaningful global treaty on climate change.

While it was not the first time a US President visited India, nor the first time Barack Obama came calling, the saturation coverage of his visit was unprecedented.  Readers of national dailies and viewers of news channels were deluged with minutiae of his elaborate security, the presidential limousine and plane and Michelle Obama’s attire. As the dust settles on his visit and headlines move on to other breaking news, it is useful to take stock of what it achieved.

Though it had been reported that agreements on trade and climate change would be key outcomes of the summit, nothing substantial was concluded on either beyond the usual platitudes. On the latter, before the visit senior White House officials had stated they were hoping to ink a deal along lines of the agreement Obama signed with Xi Jinping in November last year. The fact no such deal happened does not mean however Obama himself and the US establishment in general will stop treating climate change as a bilateral issue or that they will not cajole India to take on targets to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Indeed, in his last speech at Siri Fort he did make pointed a reference to India’s growing GHG emissions.

It is not surprising Obama in the last two years of his presidency should do so. As a president who has lost the Congress and has been unsuccessful in meaningfully ending the two wars he inherited, there is limited scope for him to push his domestic agenda on climate change or to seek foreign policy success. Thus, bilateral deals on climate a la with China have taken on importance.

But the irony of Obama seeking curbs on India’s GHG emissions is inescapable. As recently as last fortnight the US Senate twice rejected that humans are causing climate change, even as their own scientific bodies, namely, NASA and NOAA, unequivocally concluded 2014 was the warmest year on record. Thwarted as he is on the domestic front to act on climate change, he seeks bilateral accords with China and now India.

Parenthetically, it means little the Obama-Xi Jinping accord agreed to reduce US GHG emissions by 26-28% in 2025 compared to 2005. Without the force of a globally binding treaty agreed under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), bilateral deals mean little and after January 2017 when his term ends, Obama will be a receding memory. It is also evident many American politicians and the public have little appetite for deep and rapid cuts in their own emissions.

And now with vast reserves of shale they can cock a snook at oil imports. The share of US crude oil imports from OPEC is at its lowest in 30 years. At the same time they like to keep beating up India for using coal to eliminate the energy poverty of its people. For instance, the day Obama arrived in India a leading Washington daily headlined, “On Obama’s India visit, climate-change deal unlikely as Modi boosts coal production.”

The climate bilateralism Obama pursues sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the multilateral framework under which the world seeks a meaningful global treaty on climate change. The key principles of this treaty as articulated in the UNFCCC are of equity and “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR), whereby rich countries were to take the lead in addressing climate change in accordance with their level of development and their historical contribution to the problem.

In bypassing this multilateral framework Obama is re-enacting the ad hoc Copenhagen Accord he cobbled together in the dying hours of COP 15 bypassing formal negotiations. The most surreal moment of the 15 hours he spent in Copenhagen on December 18, 2009 was when he burst into a room where BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) leaders were gathered in a huddle. An hour later, with the ‘accord’ drafted, he confronted another roomful of leaders from the EU, Australia and Canada and made them agree to it. The ‘accord’ was at best a statement of intent and at worst a dangerous distraction, even a threat to global negotiations under UN auspices. As expected nothing much came of it.

Obama’s agenda is aligned with that of the US which would like to undo UNFCCC and blur its distinction between developed and developing nations along the CBDR principle. In its view, large emerging economies such as India and China should also take on cuts in GHG emissions since they now emit large amounts. This ignores the historical contribution of countries that were early industrialisers – carbon dioxide once released stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years (global warming is caused by the accumulated stock of GHGs in the atmosphere, not their current flow).

Further, the principle of equity embedded in UNFCCC implies there is something very unfair that a country such as the US with less than 5% of world population should account for 16% of current emissions of GHGs and for almost 30% of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since 1850.

The most productive manner in which India should respond to this bilateralism is not to stonewall or push back on Obama’s demands. Instead, it should proactively propose the year and level at which its emissions will peak. In this context, the former Prime Minister’s statement in June 2007 at the G8+5 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany would come handy, namely, India’s per capita GHG emissions would never exceed those of developed countries even while pursuing policies of development and economic growth.

What this means is India is willing to negotiate on the basis of equal per capita emissions and this could also be used to formulate a peak year and a peak level of emissions. It is time our government converted such a statement and the principles of UNFCCC into a formal negotiating position with concrete proposals and numbers on the table. The time for pushing back and rhetoric is over. It is time to go on the front foot and hit the ball back.

Swati Madan is with the Centre for Civil Society.  Shreekant Gupta is with the Delhi School of Economics and LKY School of Public Policy. He was a Coordinating Lead Author, IPCC 5th Assessment Report. The views expressed by the authors are personal.

A condensed version of this article was first published in The Indian Express.

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