By Arun Mohan Sukumar
June 7, 2013
New Delhi should stop its flip-flops and adopt a coherent policy in its negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions
If the great Scott Fitzgerald were to have walked into the grand plenary hall of the Durban climate conference in 2011 to announce once again, “show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” all fingers would have pointed to the tiny Indian contingent in the room. There, Fitzgerald would have caught a glimpse of the feisty Jayanthi Natarajan, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, holding the fort against attempts by developed countries to impose binding emission cuts on the global South. The “greatest tragedy of all time,” Ms Natarajan would herself acknowledge, would be for negotiators to abandon the principles of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Two years later, this tragedy is imminent — only India’s heroism remains.
The first signs of this tragic denouement were visible a few minutes after the Durban plenary closed. Negotiators from the European Union, the United States and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries simply huddled together and struck a deal to negotiate an international agreement with legal force on, inter alia, emission cuts by 2015. In this arrangement, known now as the ‘Durban Platform,’ equity and CBDR principles struggled to find relevance. India somehow claimed victory in helping resuscitate the Kyoto Protocol — a treaty rendered worthless without its engagement with the world’s largest carbon emitters, China and the U.S. Throw in a vacuous institution like the Green Climate Fund to save face, and India’s message was clear: we will live to fight another day.
That day is nowhere near the horizon. What is, though, is a perfect storm of international and domestic politics that threatens not only to produce an agreement which fails the imperative to tackle climate change, but also derail India’s core concerns in the process.
The news from Bonn, where U.N. climate negotiators met last month to flesh out details of the 2015 agreement, is not reassuring. The U.S. has proposed a mechanism by which countries define their own “contribution” to emission cuts. Once such contributions have been agreed upon nationally, a peer review mechanism could be put in place for monitoring and compliance. The U.S. submission, which Washington claims is driven by ‘realistic’ expectations, is nothing new. In fact, the narrative of “contributions” takes two steps backward from the language of “commitments” that the Durban platform recognises. Even within this minimalist framework, the U.S. has audaciously called for an agreement that lends “flexibility” to countries to “update their contributions.”
What is worrisome, however, is the international community’s surprisingly warm reaction to the U.S. proposal this time round. To some extent, this was inevitable. Negotiators in Bonn were well aware that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide had neared a staggering 400 parts per million (ppm); a week after their meeting, this threshold was crossed. If the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose very existence hinges on the outcome of these negotiations, had already thrown in the towel for the sake of an(y) agreement, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) too have joined the chorus. As Sebastian Duyck, an analyst and blogger at the ‘Adopt a Negotiator Project’, observes: “negotiators of many countries have begun to consider how to accommodate U.S. intransigence.” The U.S.’s “bottom-up” proposal, which emphasises national autonomy over multilaterally negotiated commitments, comes too little and too late to achieve any measurable progress in setting the climate clock backwards.