COP 21: What can be expected?

COP21 plenary

The world is watching, with anticipation and apprehension the proceedings of the 21st Conference of the Parties – COP 21 – to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris which is expected to take far-reaching decisions to deal with global climate change.

Notwithstanding the long duration of the Conference (Nov 30-Dec 11), the talks this time, as in the past, could see an extension. About 150 Heads of State/Government and their climate negotiators have descended upon this culturally vibrant city which was witness to a series of barbarous and heinous terrorist attacks just two weeks ago, to work out a durable and long-term deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Rhetoric and Action

Such unity of purpose has rarely been witnessed on international platforms. The world is convinced that this is the last possible opportunity to take a slew of resolute and decisive measures to rein in emissions of carbon-dioxide if the earth is to be saved from serious and debilitating consequences of global warming. It is, however, a moot point whether the high sounding rhetoric at the beginning of the summit, which has been heard earlier also, will be converted into action to arrest and reverse the slide that the globe is experiencing.

New Initiatives: Sunny Times

A huge build up to the meeting was witnessed prior to start of the negotiations. A string of new initiatives and projects, including the International Solar Alliance (ISA) launched by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the presence of the host of the Conference French President Francois Hollande, have been unfurled. This grouping has collected more than 100 nations under its roof with the promise of harnessing freely available solar energy through innovation to meet the energy needs of the world, particularly of the developing countries. It seeks to ensure that development and growth can take place in a sustainable manner without adversely impacting on the environment. India has offered to provide secretarial space as also an initial funding of USD 30 million to conduct research in this promising field.

In addition Bill Gates has put together a group of 28 leading industrialists and entrepreneurs including India’s Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to engage pro-actively to come up with creative solutions to significantly enhance production and generation of energy without heating the atmosphere. The Coalition brings on the same platform companies that have the potential to deliver affordable, reliable and carbon free power from the research lab to the market.

President Obama simultaneously launched the Mission Innovation under which the world’s industry leaders will double their R&D to expedite energy transition by dramatically speeding up the cycle of innovation. This will seek to support governments from across the globe to move on the clean energy growth path through cutting-edge innovation.

All these efforts – the International Solar Alliance, Breakthrough Energy Coalition, and Mission Innovation – by the governments and by big investors – are expected to go a long way in leading the world towards non-fossil fuel energy.

Sharing Carbon Space

It is evident that even when temperatures have risen by less than 1°C since pre-industrial times, the world has experienced catastrophic and devastating weather conditions. In India, farmers are hit repeatedly with unseasonal rain, hail and extreme temperatures. The incessant, continuing heavy rain in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, is only the most recent reminder of the havoc that global warming can wreak on people’s lives and security. Therefore, it is incumbent on COP 21 to arrive at a comprehensive, effective and ambitious agreement to reduce emissions and to keep the world below the 2°C rise, the highest possible threshold that is acceptable. This window of opportunity will, however, disappear soon if far reaching decisions are not taken in Paris.

Limiting the rise of temperature also limits the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted in the atmosphere. Negotiators in Paris hence need to carve out an agreement to share the global carbon space available to humanity. As PM Modi has forcefully articulated: “The problem is not of our making. It has been created by the developed countries over the last 160 years of industrialization for which dirty fuels have been used indiscriminately by them. We are, however, willing and ready to cooperate with the international community to seek effective solutions to confront this challenge.”

Shifting goalposts


The discourse over the last few months has moved on to a track different to what was being followed earlier. Instead of requiring countries to cut emissions based on their responsibility in creating the problem, as was the case earlier, each country has now been given the option to decide on how much reduction in carbon emissions it will voluntarily undertake. Furthermore, all countries are required to take action, not just the countries which are responsible for the bulk of emissions in the atmosphere. The underlying principle in the Kyoto Protocol that was agreed to in 1997 was that such contributions would be made on the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and capacity to pay. In this way, the strong impenetrable fence which separated the developed world which is responsible for bringing the world to these dire straits, from the developing countries, which have the right to development, is sought to be breached.

But this is not all. The UN has determined that the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – actions submitted by all countries to reduce emissions by 2030 – will take the world to at least 2.7°C rise, if not more. Other estimates peg this at 4°C rise by the end of the century. The world will hence have to determine in Paris how to enhance commitments and contributions by some countries, particularly developed ones, to meet the target of 2°C rise in temperature.

Budgeting emissions

India pavilion

Another major issue of discord in Paris is the distribution of the carbon budget space among different countries over rest of the century.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to keep the world temperature rise below 2°C, with reasonable probability, the total budget available is 2,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1870 and 2100. The industrialized countries have already emitted the bulk of 1,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide currently existing in the atmosphere. The world is left with just about 1000 billion tonnes to be used over the next 85 years. The US and the western world aim to corner as much of the remaining carbon stock as possible for their own use in the coming period leaving very little for the developing world. This will of course have serious consequences for the growth of developing nations. The US, for instance, has already used up about 21 per cent of the consumed carbon budget. Between now and 2030, as per its unimpressive INDC, it will take up another 8-10 per cent. This is patently unacceptable.

The only way to ensure equity as we go forward, while taking full cognizance of who is responsible for the unenviable situation we find ourselves in, is to make sure that all countries take actions to reduce emissions based on their fair share of the carbon budget. The rich developed countries do not wish to engage in a discussion on this uncomfortable subject.

India Challenge?

This is why the western world and media have started an orchestrated campaign to paint India, which is demanding its right to development as either a “spoiler” or a “challenge” in the climate discourse.

India’s INDCs are more ambitious than most offered by developed countries. We have not only offered to generate 175 GW of renewable energy, 100 GW of this coming out of solar energy, but also to reduce the emissions intensity of our GDP by 33 to 35 per cent by 2030 from 2005 level. In addition we have committed to achieve 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF).

The Road Ahead

These are still early days of the COP21. India will have to remain steadfast on not accepting a cap on its carbon emissions. This is likely to put its relations with the western world under considerable strain. India will also need to be vigilant and ensure that it does not succumb to any periodic mandatory inspections of country’s performance in fulfilling their commitments. Such an exercise can be used to exert pressure at regular intervals on countries like India to bring down their emissions. India has offered that it could consider bringing down its carbon emissions if technology and adequate funds are provided under GCF to switch to green technologies

There is a huge gap between where the negotiations currently are in Paris and where they need to be in the fading hours on December 11, 2015. It can only be hoped that the world leaders will rise to the occasion to come up with a deal that is balanced, equitable and workable. The final document should protect the right of developing countries to grow while at the same time bringing about changes in production and consumption patterns in the industrialized world.


(Ashok Sajjanhar is a former ambassador of India and a commentator on foreign policy issues. This article has been written exclusively for India Writes Network)

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