India’s role at the Paris Climate Agreement

When Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar congratulated the representatives of various countries gathered in Paris for a climate agreement, he was more circumspect than euphoric. And, he had good reasons to be so.

“It could have been more ambitious. It does not keep us on a temperature goal below two degrees. Actions of the developed countries are below their fair share and historical responsibility. We agreed to phrases in the spirit of negotiations.”

Almost anyone in the negotiations had seen the headwinds — it would not be an ambitious agreement. The developed world looked to transfer its burden of responsibilities and not to increase its target for emission reduction or finances in the short term. That process began in 2009 at the Copenhagen talks. This was the culmination of the journey that the US had pushed the others to while announcing it would join back the climate action if other emerging countries were brought on board with equivalence.
India’s negotiators knew that well. If this was a battle, Paris was to be a holding job. The minister and the prime minister deployed rhetorical phrases such as historical emissions, climate justice and equity. But the negotiating team was clear. The purpose at Paris was to embed the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in a manner that the burden of climate action did not keep disproportionately shifting to their shoulders, to the point that the short-term economic space of the country got constrained over the next 15-20 years. The rhetoric was a mere shield.

The firewall

India managed to create that differentiation between developed and developing world in almost all the elements that together made up the Paris agreement.

The differentiation in the agreement now is not as strong as the UN Framework Convention provides, but it is by far better than what the developed countries, led by the US and EU, were pushing hard for at Paris.

Under the Paris agreement, the developed countries are encouraged to take economy-wide emission reduction targets, and countries like India can decide the nature of their targets — they can be of the nature India has at the moment on emission intensity. Neither of the two sets of countries can be told how much more emission reduction is required to keep temperature rise in check.
The developed countries are to peak their emissions ahead of India and the year of peaking cannot be forced upon India.

But historical responsibility for emissions or equity practically does not remain a basis for asking any country to do more. The carbon budget proposal, which asked for carbon space being divided on the basis of historical responsibility and current capacities, has been thrown out. Most negotiators knew it would be eventually because the US and EU both drew red lines around any idea related to measuring their historical emissions and then asking them to do more on that basis.
In other words, there is really no metric now to goad the countries to do more than their voluntary choice, but the embedding of the principle of differentiation has been operationalised to ensure developing countries are not forced to do more than the rich ones in a low-ambition regime.

Finance

The US and EU were adamant till the penultimate night of Paris talks that all countries — and not just those with historical responsibility for the climate change — contribute to the climate finance pool. India and China, along with other developing countries, fought that off to make sure the option remained voluntary, not mandatory.

But then India slipped. The Paris agreement says one of the objectives of the pact is to “making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development”.
Negotiators explained this meant India would find it more difficult to find global finance for its thermal power plant expansion in coming years, since funds would be locked in to conditions based on climate change parameters. India has been fighting against this with multilateral institutions like World Bank in the face of a movement by Northern countries to disinvest in coal. The current central government in India has led a huge campaign to ensure the country’s coal expansion plans are not restricted under the climate change regime; in that respect, it lost the battle in Paris.

Transparency

India wanted the differentiation to be set deeply and explicitly in how countries report and are reviewed for achieving commitments. This battle India lost to a large extent under the pressure of the US seeking equivalence.  India relented, as did other developing countries, to set in motion a process through which by 2020, when Paris agreement comes into force, the world will be looking at common rules for measurement, reporting and verification of the actions of all countries — some exception, though, is given to countries with smaller capacities. It would be hard for India to claim that it does not have the capacity to report in detail.
This will remain a back-door method for bringing equivalence over time between developed and emerging economies.  There also are several other small battles that India has lost at the talks. These include the issue of an ex-ante review of its targets. It was not able to eliminate the process entirely, though the provision has been weakened to the point of being more of an irritation than a concern.

Notional gains, some other losses

Minister Javadekar claimed the prime minister’s idea of climate justice had been enshrined in the agreement. But it has been captured in the document in a fashion that renders it nearly useless in guiding the document. The preamble of the agreement says the pact is being signed, “noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognised by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change”.

The reference to the principle of equity has also been shaved off to the point of holding no value. India was not been able to keep alive the explicit reference that no country should be able to take unilateral measures like border taxes on imports based on climate-change considerations. It was also not able to keep alive a more explicit indirect reference to the need of resolving the issue of intellectual property rights that make clean technologies costly.  But what India won or lost at the Paris agreement must be seen in the light of how badly it had slipped in two years at Copenhagen and Cancun summits — 2009 and 2010. In those two years, the country had agreed to drop the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities. It had stopped arguing for historical responsibility and equity and was willing to be treated almost as an equal with the developed world. It had given in to demands of the developed world without seeking much in the bargain. Since that time, India’s negotiating teams have been constantly trying to retrieve the lost ground. The battle for retrieving lost space began in Durban in 2012, as the world decided to stitch a new agreement.

As a developing world negotiator summed it up on the last night of Paris talks, “This is a battle of attrition. But the final terms have not been set at Paris. Through the next four years, as the rules and decisions regarding the Paris agreement evolve, we shall see the developed countries trying to gain what they were unable to achieve in 2015. Seeking to slow down this attrition is the process of ensuring our developing space.”


A BRAND NEW CLIMATE ORDER

Key promises

  • To keep the rise of global temperature far below two degrees Celsius by the turn of the century
  • To ensure global emissions peak as soon as possible, with developed countries doing so before others
  • To ensure net greenhouse gas emissions become zero in the second half this century

WINS & LOSSES FOR INDIA

The wins

  • Differentiation between developed and developing world while reducing emissions
  • No forcible ratcheting up of emission targets periodically
  • India does not have to compulsorily provide climate finance
  • No peaking of emissions before other countries
  • Removing reference to decarbonisation of economies against fixed deadlines
  • The Paris pact not entirely centred on mitigation, but it lays substantial stress on other elements such as finance, adaptation, loss & damage

The losses

  • Transparency mechanism brings equivalence between developed and developing countries through the ‘back door’. Global financial flows for thermal power in India will shrink with time
  • Climate justice is a lame-duck idea in the pact. Carbon budget concept fails to find place; no reference to reducing cost of IPRs.

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