People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 25, 2011



UPA Govt's Bankrupt Climate Diplomacy


Prabir Purkayastha


THE current phase of climate change negotiations have now come to an end with the Durban Platform and its announcement of a new round of negotiations to arrive at a legally binding commitments for all countries by 2015, and implementation starting from 2020. In the intervening period, a second commitment period for Annex I countries – cutting of emissions of Annex I countries – will start from 2013, with targets to be decided in the next one year. What is missing, as the Science and Development column by Raghu pointed out in the last issue of People’s Democracy, is developed countries taking on the steep cuts necessary to save the globe. India made a lot of noise about equity, but in the absence of any concrete proposal of how it wanted the future climate agreement to be shaped, appeared to be using this only as a ploy to avoid taking any future commitments that may be required.




The Durban results also showed the bankruptcy of the UPA government in its handling of the climate negotiations. Instead of leading the developing countries as a climate champion, it aligned with the the emerging economies and the US. It refused to lead the call for asking the developed countries to take on immediate and steep cuts in their emissions and instead decided to play soft on the US and the EU. Its sole objective seems to have been only in avoiding future commitments on emissions or legally binding commitments in the future – using equity as a  shield to avoid making commitments.  


If we now look at the climate negotiations – not just at Durban – but from Bali onwards, there has been a continuous shift in which the focus has shifted from the developed countries under Kyoto Protocol to all countries needing to take actions. Copenhagen, Cancun and now Durban have been major milestones, but the thrust of putting the burden of cutting global emissions on all countries and not just the ones who have today the major amount of global greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the stock - has been the defining characteristic of the climate negotiations. Just to reiterate some numbers – countries who have about 20 per cent of  world's population have added about 74 per cent of the CO2 in the atmosphere while the rest 80 per cent have contributed only 26 per cent. The available carbon space beyond which the 2 degrees centigrade rise would be difficult to contain is rapidly shrinking, as developed countries continue to occupy carbon space well beyond what is their fair share. The longer steep cuts can be postponed, the longer they can continue to occupy this carbon space, pushing the burden of cutting emissions on to all countries.


Climate change negotiations have always had two objectives – what is it that needs to be done globally to stave off disastrous climate change and how to share this burden of action. If 2 degrees centigrade rise is the target, it can be translated to a “budget” in terms of carbon space within which we all have to stay. As long as the discussion stays within this narrow framework, some general agreements are possible. The differences come up the minute we try to dice up this carbon budget in terms of countries and work out who will have to pay if a low-carbon path is to be chosen globally.


In any negotiations, the rich countries have always avoided any linking of per capita emissions to climate action. Again, a few numbers. India's current per capita carbon emissions are about 1.7 ton as against the US emissions of about 19 tons. What the US is arguing is that per capita emissions should not be the measure in climate change negotiations but the total emissions of a country. In this scheme, the US, China and India are all big emitters and therefore needs to be treated similarly, even if they have very different per capita emissions.


If it has to develop, every country needs energy. A right to development implicitly means a right to energy. If we take the fossil route, for every unit of energy, we will emit some carbon. If we take a low carbon route, we will emit less carbon; the cost of energy using a low carbon route is today much higher than that using a fossil fuel one. What the US is arguing is that the late developers should pay much more for their energy as the early developers have already grabbed the major share of the carbon space and would continue to do so in the future as they are “locked” into the fossil route. This is the grandfathering argument in climate negotiations. Since “we” already have grabbed most of the existing carbon space, this gives “us” a right to the remaining carbon space as well – the right to future carbon space is in proportion to what countries have already occupied. Therefore the argument that all big emitters have to cut their emissions in the same proportion irrespective of their per capita emission.


While the US argument for China and India being included with same obligations as other developed countries is an extreme one, most developed countries use a variant of the same while accepting some headroom for countries such as India. China has been clear about what it wants to do – it wants to grab as much carbon space as it can now so that when the climate change demands begin to bite they would have already got their share of carbon space required for their energy needs. That is why a 2020 date suits both China and the US. US is not a part of Kyoto and therefore can continue to increase emissions and so can China.


It must be noted here that China has per capita emissions that are 1/3rd of the US, therefore its wanting to increase emissions beyond current levels is very different from that of the US. But nevertheless, China is clear that it will have to peak its emissions around 2020-25, so postponing action to 2020 suits China as well.




If we look at the global scenario, there are three groups of countries. One is the club of the rich, who has taken over most of the global commons in terms of carbon space and is now arguing that all the countries need to cut as we are reaching beyond what the atmosphere can bear. They have the major accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and therefore have the historical responsibility.


In Kyoto, all Annex I countries barring the US agreed that while all countries need to take on climate commitments, the developed countries need to do it first – therefore the formulation of a “common but differentiated responsibility” and the Kyoto first and second commitment periods being applicable to only Annex I countries. Others would do according to their capacity and based on transfer of funds.  The US never agreed to do this formulation and stayed out of Kyoto Protocol, while being a part of UNFCC.


The second group of countries are those that do not have a major share of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere but have today per capita flows that are high, though in most cases still well below that of the rich countries. These are the emerging economies. Their flows – per capita emissions today – are above the global average of 4 ton of carbon and are also increasing. Even though they are below their fair share in terms of accumulated greenhouse gases, if they continue to emit or increase their emissions at the current rate, they would definitely have to be brought, along with developed countries, under some kind of emission controls. China, South Africa, Brazil, Korea, etc., all belong to this group. By per capita emissions, India does not belong here though it sees itself as a part of the emerging economies.


The last group and this is numerically the largest number, are those countries whose per capita emissions are well below the global average of 4 ton of carbon. India is very much a part of this group of countries. They have small per capita carbon footprints, but if we lump all their population together, they do emit significant amounts. But either in terms of stocks or in terms of per capita flows, they are not the ones that currently should be under the hammer. Yes, if their per capita emissions grow or the global carbon budget shrinks, they also may need to be brought under emission controls.


It is important to understand that per capita emissions and per capita energy use today are strongly correlated – the higher the energy use per capita, higher are the carbon emissions. Similarly, development again is strongly correlated with per capita energy consumption. We are not aware of any country that has, for example, a high human development index with a low per capita  energy consumption. Therefore limiting carbon emissions could also mean limiting development. Or a much longer time to reach the same level of development as developing energy resources could become much more costly.


Of course, all this could change if energy production could be de-linked from carbon emissions – if renewables became much cheaper than they are today. This is not the case currently, with renewables still being much higher in cost than fossil fuel based energy generation.


If we talk of carbon emissions, it might be argued that as carbon emissions damage the environment, why should countries emit at all – is this not a right to pollute? It is important to understand that the atmospheric commons as a global sink plays also the role of a resource. It can take a certain amount of carbon emissions and bury it in the sea as it does continuously. If we go beyond this amount, it starts to accumulate and this in turn triggers the greenhouse effect. When we are talking of a global carbon budget, we are talking of what is it that humanity can emit without disastrous climate change. This amount is obviously finite. The crux of the issue is how do we stay within this budget and how do we do it equitably.


Let us make one thing clear. Irrespective of the stage of development, we have to accept that the global carbon budget has overriding importance – if foregoing development or undertaking costly development is the only way to stay within the budget, countries like India have accepted or are willing to accept such limits. That is why India is putting money into costly renewables. Therefore the issue is not as Granada posed at Durban – if we develop we die. Countries such as India have already agreed to be bound when it agreed to the 2 degrees centigrade limit. What is under negotiations is how this limit is to be executed – with equity or without. What has emerged as the text in Durban is unfortunately without any mention of “common but differentiated responsibility” or “equity”. Instead, we have a formulation that every country will do the maximum it can without any mention of equity or historical responsibility.


The argument that India could have put in the climate change negotiations is that we recognise the need to limit climate change and therefore accept that the globe has only a limited carbon budget. That we are not talking of our fair share of carbon budget being achieved but how to share the remaining carbon space equitably. That this demands that the rich countries cut now and take on steep cuts while agreeing that if required, all countries have to cut or limit emissions based on some equitable arrangement. That any impact on development and taking on a more costly low carbon path should be facilitated for at least the LDC's from those who have historically benefited from the low cost high carbon path to development. That technology for saving the global climate should be free of intellectual property “rents”.


All this demanded that India becomes a leader in the climate change negotiations. Instead, India took an entirely defensive position of not agreeing to bind itself in the future. The EU, while offering nothing beyond empty promises of a second commitment period, became the climate champions.


With Manmohan Singh and his Heilegendum declaration of India staying below the emissions of the developed countries, India started the long trek back from its Kyoto positions. Step by step, it has withdrawn from equity, diluting it in Cancun and now abandoning it in Durban. Its desire to play in the big league and not look after its national interest has landed it in a situation where it got itself isolated from its natural allies and outmanoeuvred. It will have to go back to the drawing board and retool its position completely if it has to protect the interests of the Indian people. What is at stake is India's future development. Mere rhetoric, as we saw in Durban, is not enough.