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As the world is gearing up to negotiate on a new climate treaty in Paris, here’s a peek into how climate negotiations have evolved over the years

Differences between developing and developed countries remain unchanged at the UN climate summit at Bonn (Image by Sébastien Duyck)

Differences between developing and developed countries remained unchanged at the UN climate summit at Bonn this year (Image by Sébastien Duyck)

Scientists have known about climate change since 1896, when Svante Arrhenius published his findings on the effect of fossil fuel combustion on global temperature. But it was 1972 before policymakers actually started discussing the problem, at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, popularly known as the Stockholm Summit.

Apart from the host, only one Prime Minister attended that summit – Indira Gandhi of India – a far cry from the situation now. At least 37 heads of state and government are expected to inaugurate the Paris summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The UNFCCC came into being in 1992, a full two decades after the Stockholm Summit. The negotiations that went on during those two decades, the many attempts to discredit climate science, were enough for the world to realise that it would be a rough road to any international agreement to tackle climate change.

Fault lines

From the very beginning of climate negotiations, four fault lines emerged between countries;

1. Greenhouse gas emissions were causing global warming, so these emissions would have to be controlled. But which country would control how much, and why? What the negotiators called the “burden sharing mechanism” was the first fault line, and remains the principal one

2. Major oil producers – led by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – feared the economic consequences of emissions limitations. For years, they tried their best to rubbish climate science

3. Countries relatively resilient to climate change impacts – mostly in the temperate regions and at even higher latitudes – were not nearly as worried by the thought of global warming as tropical region countries that are extremely vulnerable

4. Climate change sceptics and deniers opened up the fourth fault line by repeatedly questioning the science and succeeded in delaying action to tackle the menace.

Climate negotiations – the phases

The UNFCCC came into being as one of the results of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, there have been some distinct phases in negotiations held under its aegis;

1. The first phase was till the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. During this phase, the focus was on designing a workable agreement that would help address rising greenhouse gas emissions and also provide developing countries necessary support through finance and technologies so that they could tackle the problem through voluntary actions. The signing of the Kyoto Protocol made it mandatory for rich nations to reduce their emissions and was hailed as a major triumph. But on hindsight, it can at best be called a very partial success. The major problem was the non-ratification of the protocol by the United States of America. The European Union was at the forefront of those rich countries that did work according to the Kyoto Protocol, but their emission reductions were inadequate to check global warming to the extent that the scientists recommended.

2. The second phase was the decade from 1997 to 2007. Much of this decade was spent in negotiating the details of the Kyoto Protocol, whose first phase was finally determined to be 2008 to 2012. Climate science advanced manifold in this decade, and scientists ratcheted up their warnings, but developing countries failed to initiate effective pressure for more actions from developed countries. Instead, developing countries split into smaller blocs such as the Association of Small Island States and the Africa Group, which had an adverse effect on their collective bargaining power. The second phase came to an end with a dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fourth assessment report, despite which the next UNFCCC summit at Bali saw a series of compromises on different red-lines of the developing world, while developed counties were successful in ensuring minimum actions on their part.

3. The world is in the third phase of climate negotiations now. From the fiasco of the Copenhagen summit, this phase is being marked by a split between the emerging economies and the rest of the developing world. The split has been encouraged by the US and some other rich countries, which point out that China and India are now the world’s largest and fourth largest emitters, but gloss over the fact that rich countries have placed almost all the greenhouse gases that have been accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere from the start of the Industrial Age. They also gloss over the fact that per capita emissions in China are one-third of that in the US and that in India one-tenth. The split has enabled rich countries led by the US to effectively dismantle the original UNFCCC pillar of differentiation between rich and poor nations. Now – except on paper – there is no top-down legal global emission reduction target to be allocated to rich nations. Instead, there are voluntary bottoms-up Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) by every country. At the 2010 Cancun summit, countries had agreed to keep average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius. Current INDCs will fail to do that. Analysts estimate that at best they can hold average temperature rise to 2.7 degrees Celsius. And that is the best that can be expected from a Paris agreement for a post-2020 world.

Global realignments

The binary differentiation between developed and developing countries under the climate convention had implied that rich nations had to undertake substantial emission reduction actions. Many of them have been unwilling to do this. Instead, since 1992 there have been repeated attempts by developed countries to break G77 plus China, the 134 developing countries that undertake climate negotiations as a bloc.

The bloc survives, but many of its member countries are now also in smaller blocs that speak in different voices – the Least Developed Countries group, the Africa Group, Association of Small Island States, and Small Island Developing States being the most prominent among them.

Perhaps in response, bigger developing countries have formed their own groups – BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), a group that has India, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and a host of others.

Then there are groups that are a mix of developing and developed countries, such as Cartagena Dialogue, which has 32 members ranging from Australia to Bangladesh, Britain, France, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Maldives, Nepal, New Zealand and United Arab Emirates. The Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC) falls in the same mixed group.

While the European Union negotiates on behalf of all its members, most non-EU developed countries including the US and Japan are members of the Umbrella Group.

The result of divisions within the G77+China group was most apparent during the 2009 Copenhagen summit, when AOSIS and LDCs opposed the target of keeping average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius. It was too high, they said, and would submerge the island countries. They wanted an upper limit of 1.5 degrees. This was opposed by the BASIC group as well as countries such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, who could see that this would leave them, with very little carbon space.

There have also been serious differences within the developing world over issues such as financial support and how it should be prioritised, as well as technology transfer. LDCs are looking for money that will help them adapt to climate change effects; they are not too worried about the head under which the money arrives. Bigger developing countries that are more able to finance their adaptation actions are keen to ensure that the money received from developed countries is “new and incremental” rather than renamed aid. The bigger developing countries are also keener on technology transfer without having to pay patent fees, while LDCs are keener on capacity building programmes within their countries.

The result of all this has been a weakening of the unified G77+China voice, which allowed some rich nations to get away without having fulfilled their legal obligations under the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries still insist that developed countries fulfil their obligations under the second phase of the protocol by 2020, but there is hardly anybody ready to listen to them.

The trends

These changes, as well as new bilateral relations between various developing and developed countries, have moved the climate change control system from a top-down approach like the Kyoto Protocol to one where individual countries make voluntary pledges – the INDCs.

This leads to worries on two counts. First, as shown by the latest report of the IPCC, climate change and its impacts are all gathering pace, but the INDCs are not good enough to rein in the trend. Second, in a voluntary system a country that fails to live up to its pledge does not have to worry about any action by the international community.

Some countries are still trying to subject these pledges to an international review system, but that is being opposed by others that see this as a dilution of their sovereignty. Some sort of a review system is likely to be put in place in the Paris deal, but it will probably be weak.

The other big trend is that it is no longer a binary climate world, split between developed and developing countries. Despite strenuous efforts by their negotiators, emerging economies such as China and India now have to take a substantial share of the emission control responsibility.

As it stands now, emission control pledges by developing countries are actually bigger than pledges by developed countries, a situation that flies in the face of climate justice. On top of that, there are serious question marks on the kind of financial support rich countries are providing and whether there is any double counting going on. A recent OECD report totalled climate finance support by its member countries at over $62 billion, but developing countries point out that the UN’s Green Climate Fund has only $10.3 billion in pledges.

It all points to one trend that has remained unchanged since 1896 – policymakers do not pay sufficient attention to scientists. Apart from IPCC, the annual ‘emissions gap’ reports brought out by the United Nations Environment Programme have failed to act as wake-up calls.

The Paris COP-out?

The annual climate summits of the UNFCCC are officially known as Conference of Parties (COP). The 2015 COP is crucial because it can determine the direction to be taken by global energy generation systems after 2020. But by current indications, this opportunity will at best lead to a common minimum programme that will be too weak to combat climate change effectively.

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