Why Unilateralism won’t work in Climate Negotiations

As this piece goes to press, the Copenhagen Conference on climate change has begun. Predictably, the developed countries are up to their usual games, tabling outrageous proposals which they know will be unacceptable to the developing countries but which they hope will pressurize the latter into accepting other unfavourable terms. The so-called Danish proposal, which is in fact a draft jointly drawn up by the US, EU and some others, is one such. Australia had already put forward another proposal earlier. All these seek to reverse the entire almost two decades old Kyoto framework. Almost everything is being called into question and thrown up for renewed debate: whether at all to have binding emissions cuts, having a single framework for both developed and developing countries in place of the Kyoto principle of common but differentiated responsibility, putting an extremely low price on the damage caused by historical emissions by developed countries and so on.

We shall examine all these developments next week as they unfold. For now, let us look at the position that India has taken with it to Copenhagen, especially as outlined by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in Parliament the week before. It is important to understand the implications of this position since, over the next ten days in Copenhagen, it will have significant impact on how India negotiates and, since India is a key player as a large growing economy,  also on the outcome itself

New Indian Position The Minister’s announcement in Parliament of a new Indian position on climate change, namely a unilateral quantitative target for slowing down the growth of Indian emissions, has stirred a new debate in India. Some in India have hailed the decision to voluntarily reduce emissions intensity by 20-25% by 2020 as a major step forward for the Copenhagen conference and have also praised the supporting arguments advanced by the Minister. The main thrust of the government’s new position is however based on a faulty if not deliberately misleading understanding of climate change and on flawed perceptions regarding the outcome from Copenhagen. Since the Minister was at pains to point out that, contrary to appearances supposedly caused only by his colourful language, there were no differences within the government, his arguments will be taken as those of the government as a whole.

It seems to have gone almost entirely unnoticed that the Minister’s speech contained no mention of deep cuts in developed country emissions as called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the run up to Copenhagen, the US, EU and most developed countries have announced extremely low targets, dashing hopes of concluding an effective Treaty to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations below danger levels. While the government has gone along with joint statements elsewhere calling for deep cuts by advanced countries, including in the recent BASIC draft initiated by China, when speaking for itself it has chosen to completely ignore this requirement.

Some “non-negotiables” were declared for India, such as no binding emission cuts (which nobody was seriously asking for) and no peaking year for Indian emissions (which too can be derived from pronounced trajectories). But no similar “bold red lines” were drawn underlining the minimum that India expects developed countries to do, clearly signaling that their current low targets are of little concern to it. This despite IPCC having made amply clear, and the Group of 77 plus China having repeatedly demanded, that developed countries need to reduce their emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 90 percent by 2050.

In sharp contrast, the US is offering only 3 percent by 2020 and less than 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. The EU is putting only around 25 percent on the table. So too is Japan, but with reference to 2005 levels, equivalent to single-digit reduction compared to 1990, the baseline year under the Kyoto Protocol. If developed countries, together accounting for around half of all global emissions, are going to make only such small reductions, then whatever India does with regard to its less than 4 percent of global emissions will not matter. The world will be left staring at possibly irreversible climate change impacts and the Copenhagen conference will amount to nought. But no red lines here for the Indian government, no non-negotiables.

Even these measly cuts by developed countries will not materialize in real terms, since actual cuts could be discounted against supposedly equivalent tree-plantation or other mitigation action in developing countries. Again, no red lines on offsets.

On fund transfers, US President Obama has proudly declared that there is growing consensus among developed countries on putting together a climate fund of $10 billion and that the US would make “suitable contributions” towards it. This compared to the $100 billion per year required as per EU estimates. No red lines here either.

Unilateralism So what exactly is the government negotiating for in Copenhagen? Is no shift in position or minimum commitment expected from developed countries in terms of emissions reduction, fund or technology transfers? Why has India announced new measures to reduce emissions intensity without seeking anything in return, such reciprocity being the very purpose of any negotiation?

The major answer provided in the Minister’s speech, and one he has been repeating often, in his letter to MPs, his leaked letter to the PM and in numerous press interviews, is that India needs to take unilateral emission control measures because India is one of the major victims of climate change. “India, of all the 192 countries in the world, owes a responsibility not to the world but to itself to take climate change seriously. We are not doing the world a favour. Please forget Copenhagen; forget the UN.  We have to do it in our own self-interest.”

That such an idea can be advanced seriously stretches one’s credulity and one may be forgiven for therefore concluding that the real intention is to mislead the Indian public. Climate itself, and thus climate change, are global phenomena: the monsoons and their vagaries, frequently referred to by the Minister, are not purely Indian nor are they caused in the atmosphere above India only. Erratic rainfall, extreme weather events, melting glaciers and rising sea levels inundating coastal areas will all occur in India not just because of Indian emissions but due to changes in the global climate resulting from accumulated greenhouse gases emitted mostly by developed countries. These impacts will occur even if India reduces its emissions to zero! It is completely fallacious to argue, and highly irresponsible of those in positions of authority to convey to the public, that Indian actions alone can tackle climate change impacts in India.

This writer has long argued including in these columns, that India does indeed need to arrive at and declare a quantified target for slowing down emissions growth rates, but conditional upon developed countries committing to the steep cuts required. Not only does the science demand such action by large developing countries, such a stance would also help them to occupy the moral high ground and leave developed countries with no excuse not to undertake deep emissions cuts. One’s quarrel is therefore not per se the offer to reduce emissions intensity over the next decade — although modalities and priorities still need to be discussed, particularly as regards reducing inequalities in energy access among sections of society — but the unilateral nature of the declaration, the abdication of any demand for reciprocal measures and deep emission cuts by developed countries and the open license given to them to change the terms of reference in Copenhagen. Non-negotiables for India should go along with non-negotiables for developed countries: sauce for the goose must also be sauce for the gander!

The Minister’s claim that the new stance represents a bold and major departure from the traditional ponderousness of Indian diplomacy, waiting for the last minute before arriving at even tepid decisions, makes a virtue of necessity and is completely belied by the very manner of its announcement. India could have made such a conditional offer much earlier and to more telling effect on the negotiations process as a leading voice of the developing world. Instead, India arrived at a flawed decision, the last major developing country to do so, having been dragged there by China and pressured by earlier declarations by Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Indonesia. No encomiums greeted the Indian announcement in the international media or by other governments. Only President Obama mentioned it, and well he might, for he can now breeze through Copenhagen comfortably with no pressure on him, certainly not from India. India has gained little by its gesture, not even the few brownie points it may have expected. On the contrary it may have squandered a crucial opportunity to exert some positive influence on the global climate negotiations process.

Dangerous Implications The days ahead will show how much the new Indian stance will influence the negotiations in Copenhagen. Since the Indian stance is one of unilateral action, it will be perceived that, whatever else India says or signs on to with other countries, India does not really intend to put pressure on the US and other advanced countries. Further, unilateralism would also convey to smaller developing countries, especially the Island States and Least Developed Countries, that there is some covert understanding between the US-led developed countries and India wherein both have already agreed on a mild outcome in a process where neither will push the other. Signs of this are already being seen where the Island States and even Bangladesh, for instance, have signaled their unhappiness at larger developing countries carving out a separate negotiating stance throwing open the possibility of a compromise that leaves the least developed and most vulnerable to fend for themselves. Straws in the wind, no doubt, and surely egged on if not prompted by some clever manipulation by the developed countries with centuries of divide-and-rule experience. But that is precisely why these are dangerous waters to go fishing in and India’s unilateralism bait will certainly attract the sharks.