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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2015 > January 2015 > Staring Down a Precipice

Staring Down a Precipice

Thursday 1 January 2015, by Editorial, Economic and Political Weekly

Lima ignored the urgent need to address climate change.

They came, they talked, and they almost failed. That seems to be the trajectory of most of the conferences on climate change held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The latest, the 20th Conference of Parties (CoP 20) at Lima, Peru, was not very different. Over a thousand delegates from 190 countries talked, argued, bargained, negotiated and finally, after extending the meeting by a couple of days, came up with a patchwork Lima Call for Climate Action with which no one was completely satisfied. This document is expected to form the basis for negotiations leading up to the crucial Climate Summit in Paris in 2015 when nations are expected to arrive at a legally binding international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol that lapsed in 2012.

Why, one wonders, is the same routine repeated when in 2014 the fact that human intervention is responsible for global warming and climate change has been convincingly established? Fortunately, in Lima no one wasted time arguing about the science of climate change. Yet they continued to debate about who should shoulder the principal responsibility for curbing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and how adaptation measures could be financed. When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and agreed upon in 1997, few disputed that the older industrialised nations had to bear the primary responsibility. The world was cleaved into two halves – developed and developing. The former had to curb emissions while the latter were to be helped to adopt cleaner technologies and adapt to climate change.

Almost two decades later, the picture has changed. China, defined as “developing” in 1997, is now the world’s largest emitter of GHG. It has exceeded the US and the European Union. Although India stands at number four in the list of the six largest emitters of GHGs, its total emissions are less than a quarter of China’s. But more significant than global rankings is the fact that the “carbon budget”, a concept that the fourth assessment on climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put forward last year, is precipitously close to being consumed.

The IPCC calculated that the earth’s atmosphere could absorb at the most 800-880 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) before global warming exceeded the 2°C mark. The problem is that the earth has already accumulated 530 gigatonnes of CO2, leaving only a third of this carbon budget. If the rate of emissions does not reduce drastically, we are staring at the inevitability of a climate change precipice where the only direction in which the earth will go is down. Against this frightening future, squabbling over global ranking is less important than finding constructive ways to limit the consumption of this carbon budget.

This, in essence, should be the focus of the climate talks. Ideally, the discussions should be based on science. Inevitably, it is politics that determines the ultimate outcome. For instance, in the run-up to Lima, the US and China agreed to limits on their GHG emissions. This was interpreted as path-breaking by some and by others as a ploy to put pressure on countries like India to do the same. China has agreed to peak its emissions by 2030 while the US promises to reduce emissions by 28% of 2005 levels by 2025. The sceptics point out that these levels are actually lower than what would have been required under the Kyoto Protocol and that, in any case, this bilateral agreement is non-binding.

Despite the agreement, which the US and China had clearly hoped would influence the Lima talks, the outcome was somewhat different. For one, the final Lima document retains the hard-fought concept of “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR) that developing countries pushed through post-Kyoto. They had argued that even if global warming affects everyone, the industrial economies that have contributed to the current accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere should be held principally responsible for mitigation as well as for funding adaptation measures in poorer countries.

Despite the efforts by many richer countries to remove this provision, it survived. However, its meaning has been diluted with the insertion of a new phrase, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), that allows individual countries, irrespective of the extent of their emissions, to determine how far they are prepared to go. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, this provision provides a handy loophole for many countries from accepting binding commitments to limit emissions.

In the end, however, whether it is CBDR or INDC, these are just so many words. In the absence of a transparent system for monitoring GHG emissions, a treaty or protocol that has legal force to compel nations to comply with emission limits, and shared concern for the most vulnerable countries that are already debilitated by the fallout of global warming, they carry little meaning. GHGs know no borders; their accumulation is not constrained by questions of sovereignty; their adverse impacts are not governed by poverty or wealth. It is unfortunate that a sense of urgency and commitment to address this global crisis has been missing in international climate change negotiations.