Barcelona Climate Meeting: countdown to nothing

The last international Meeting of all country-parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) before the fateful Copenhagen Conference due in December took place in Barcelona, Spain over the past week. The Barcelona Meet followed the Bangkok Meeting last month and both these global gatherings involving over 10,000 governmental delegates, UN officials, NGOs, observers, press and others were expected to discuss various details which would then be tied up in Copenhagen. The 15th Conference of Parties (or COP-15 in the parlance) in the Danish capital is slated to finalize global arrangements and responsibilities of different categories of Parties, notably developed and developing countries. Contrary to much casual commentary and press reporting, as well as deliberate misrepresentation by some developed country interlocutors, the negotiations are for the second commitment period of the Climate Treaty — better known as the Kyoto Protocol — beyond 2012 when the first commitment period comes to an end, not for a new or successor Treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Given the depths of the climate crisis, and the near inevitability of irreversible climate change if drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not taken soon, one would have expected a sense of urgency and determination. The December 2009 deadline was set as far back as COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007 when a Bali Action Plan was also drawn up comprising an outline of actions required at Copenhagen and a roadmap for arriving at a global consensus in the form of Treaty terms and obligations. Yet every Meeting since Bali and every passing month has taken us further away from the desired outcomes. And it is now almost certain that the Copenhagen Conference will produce only empty if high-sounding rhetoric, statements of pious intentions, vague promises, and a decision to take decisions through further negotiations later. And even all these will mask a deeper, fundamental change in the currently agreed global UNFCCC-Kyoto architecture.

Those following the international negotiations closely, including this columnist, had been predicting this trend and likely outcome in Copenhagen which was becoming increasingly evident from the positions being taken by the US faithfully followed by its close allies. Ignoring minor differences in tone and detail, the prime reason for the collapse has been the adamant refusal of the developed countries to accept the deep binding emissions cuts demanded by the science and affirmed in the Bali Action Plan, as well as their persistent efforts to re-do the very foundation of the Climate Treaty and transfer a substantial burden of the responsibility onto the shoulders of developing countries.

Abandoning Kyoto        The Bangkok Meeting saw what was till then a sub-text coming out in the open. Australia, whose new Labour government gained kudos for reversing the earlier Conservative Bush-ally government’s rejectionist position on Kyoto, reverted to its traditional role as a US surrogate in the climate negotiations. Australia formally put forward the suggestion that a new unified framework be adopted in which all countries will have responsibilities, replacing the existing twin-track Kyoto framework of common but differentiated responsibilities which puts the onus of reducing emissions squarely on the developed countries while developing countries would undertake mitigation actions linked to fund and technology transfer from the former. Japan and EU countries joined the chorus led by the US. The spin put on this was that such a formulation would enable the US to come on board since the main US objection behind its refusal to join the Climate Treaty was the duality in obligations built into the Kyoto framework.

There has been huge and instantaneous outcry from developing countries, including explicit formal statements from the G77 plus China grouping condemning this conspiracy by the developed countries, as well as from experts, commentators and numerous popular movements against these moves to undo the Kyoto framework. These efforts, which have persisted since Bangkok and through the Barcelona meet, now clearly represent a concerted push to change the terms of negotiations in Copenhagen. It is a brazen attempt to re-do the fundamental architecture of the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol which was founded on a recognition of the historical responsibility of developed countries for the climate crisis and which had been painstakingly constructed through tortuous negotiations over almost two decades since the 1991 Rio Summit.

Both at Bangkok as well as in Barcelona, the developed countries have also made only lukewarm pledges of low emission reduction commitments ranging from the virtual non-reduction commitment of 3 percent reduction by the US, to 20 percent reduction offered by the EU with a proposal to increase this to 30 percent if large developing countries also make corresponding reductions, and 25 percent offered by Japan. The effective emission reductions would be substantially less even than this, because of offsets and carbon trading in lieu of actual reduction of emissions. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer politely characterized this as “low ambition” compared to the commitments of 40 percent reduction compared to 1990 levels required by the science.

Copenhagen sabotaged     It is in fact much more than that. The stage has effectively been set for a certain kind of outcome at Copenhagen scripted by the developed countries. The Barcelona meet was a total damp squib which made absolutely no progress beyond Bangkok and thereby more or less cemented the trend set there. At Bangkok, delegates and observers were somewhat shocked and dazed at the low level of commitments by developed countries, and the huge chasm between developed and developing countries caused by the former questioning the very Kyoto framework, all of which implied that the Copenhagen Conference would not be able to resolve these differences and come to an agreement. At Barcelona, this reality had sunk in.

Formal briefings by UNFCCC officials and Chairpersons of formal Working Groups at the conclusion of the Barcelona meet clearly brought out the massive gaps between the measures called for by the science and the various offers on the table. The Barcelona meet could not even agree on a “shared vision” of long-term goals for emission reduction!

Future prospects were also noted as being bleak since the very concept of a global compact and binding targets was questioned by the US and leading developed countries. The US preferred to have countries making their own commitments through national legislations and to have various bilateral or multilateral arrangements for technology transfer. Obama’s climate policy is not looking very different from that of Bush!

All indications now are that Copenhagen will not yield the desired re-worked global Treaty but will conclude with a broad “political statement” of intention on the basis of which further negotiations would be carried out subsequently. To cover up for this monumental failure, and to put a spin of the world’s leaders doing their best, it is now being proposed that Heads of State or Government should attend the Conference.

This sounds good, but will only put a stamp of approval on an unacceptable compromise. If an agreement within the Kyoto framework has not been possible now, there is no reason why it be realized later. A vaguely worded “political statement” will only give the developed countries a cover to interpret the statement in their favour later and argue that so-and-so was in fact what was intended! No doubt the statement would be full of grandiose homilies about saving humanity and the planet, about keeping temperature rise within manageable limits, about low-carbon development pathways. But hidden amidst all this will be some pithy and pious phrase about how tackling this crisis is the responsibility of all nations and everybody on this planet, and this will later be used to dismantle the Kyoto architecture and supplant it with a new one in which developing countries would “share the burden” and historical responsibilities would be forgotten — after all, it is the future that should concern us all rather than the past, right?

These developments should not have caused as much of a surprise as they seem to be doing. As readers of these columns would know, the emerging direction has been apparent since the L’Aquila G8+G5 Summit and “Major Economies Forum” and in fact in G8+G5 Summits going back to Heiligendamm in mid-2007. Statements here contained long-term global goals of temperature reduction, global targets to reduce emissions and vaguely-worded sentiments about financing and technologies, all pointing to a blurring of distinctions between developed and developing countries, non-recognition of historical responsibility and providing an escape route to developed countries from binding targets and commitments to transfer funds and technology as part of “polluter pays” responsibilities.

India’s role        Where does India stand in all this? In recent months, a cloud of confusion has been cast around the Indian stance, not least by seemingly contradictory positions at the highest levels of the Indian government. Formally, India maintains that it sticks to the Kyoto framework of common but differentiated responsibility, that India will not undertake binding emission reduction commitments for which it would be internationally accountable. But the official negotiators have been strangely silent or at least highly subdued in the face of the volte face by the developed countries in Bangkok and Barcelona. At the same time, the Minister for Environment has been loudly proclaiming, to the apparent consternation of at least some sections within the government and the negotiating team, that India is shifting its position, that it is prepared to take unilateral measures to reduce emissions even without corresponding fund or technology transfers from developed countries, and that it wants to de-link its domestic actions from the international negotiations.

This stance has been given a nationalist even progressive spin by declaring that India would take unilateral actions because it is in its own interest to do so due to impacts in India, that India would conduct its own studies on climate change and not rely on Western studies, that India would not be accountable to any foreign or international body but only to its own parliament, only to which it would be accountable and before which the government would soon bring a Bill.

This has attracted much furious debate with some hailing the new Indian position while others attack it for abandoning traditionally held postures. What has however passed notice is that this new position eminently converges with that of the US. The US too has already passed its own (Waxman-Markey) legislation which will override any international Treaty obligations, and is now pushing other countries to similarly adopt domestic targets which it is advocating as an alternative to global arrangements. The US too has steadfastly maintained that it will not be accountable to any international body, but only to its domestic legislature, and hence has not joined the Kyoto Protocol. And the US too has cast huge doubts on the IPCC Reports saying it will prefer to go by its own studies which were arduously doctored under President Bush. Recent governmental reports casting doubts on previous IPCC findings regarding shrinking Himalayan glaciers are a case in point. At issue is not whether the glaciers are shrinking or at what rate: this could be debated by scientists through peer-reviewed publications which, incidentally, this government report is not. Problem is that the Minister, by attacking the earlier IPCC findings, is actually casting doubt on the very science of climate change, and thus on any targets set based on it! The Minister also conveniently ignores the fact that the IPCC report was based on date provided, among others, by Indian scientists and that the same IPCC Report was also endorsed by the Indian government along with other world governments. Taken together, it is difficult to accept these positions, with their cumulative positions, can be ascribed to just a few individuals in government, and one must believe that they represent the thinking of the government as a whole.

India’s new position will be happily welcomed by the US and with mutual endorsement both countries could push for adoption of similar stances by others in Copenhagen! The Minister for Environment in his various public pronouncements and in his letters to the Prime Minister and to MPs has also argued that India should be content with a “political declaration” in Copenhagen and work out details later. It is noteworthy that, notwithstanding all the controversy about some of the Minister’s remarks, none of these above positions have been contradicted by any section in the Government! India is on a very slippery slope and sliding inexorably towards joining hands with the US and other developed countries to water down the Copenhagen Conference outcome.