COP21: Is India stuck on the wrong approach?

Prakash Javadekar

From this month end (November 30 to December 11), the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 is beginning in Paris. This will be the 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties (CMP 11) to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The objective of the 2015 conference is to achieve, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world with an overarching goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. I have my clear doubts on whether a binding and universal agreement can emerge.

The reasons for my cynicism are not one. The first point of contention arises from the differential impacts of climate change on the developing and the developed nations. Recently, a number of authors have opened up a whole new area of research by using the natural variations in temperature among different years caused by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which produces extreme weather conditions in different parts of the world. For instance, research by Solomon Hsiang and colleagues shows that for rich countries, an additional degree of warming has a nominal effect, but for poor countries, the same change leads to very significant costs in the form of reduced economic growth and increased costs of military and other conflicts.

This is akin to what Thomas Homer-Dixon, cherished political scientist, talked of in the 1990s, when he hypothesized about the environmental scarcities leading to the violent conflicts, and the limited capacity of the poor nations to cope up with the problems, due to the “ingenuity gap”, the critical gap between our need for ideas to solve complex problems and our actual supply of those ideas.

The second point of contention is the concern of distributive justice. The concern begins with: who pays for damages? Most developing countries firmly believe that mitigation should start in the rich countries that bear the largest part of the responsibility for historical emissions. How can one deny the position that the developed world has grown by emitting, whereas the developing and poor world are still on the learning curve? Can one deny the position that only after historically emitting CO2 extensively they have started talking of the perils of the planet, and want the developing world to share parts of the responsibility for the follies committed by them? The very suggestion that all countries should reduce their emissions by similar percentages clearly favors the countries that have large emissions today. Therefore, the calls that the developed nations should compensate the developing nations for the losses caused by the former to the latter through pollution damages also impinging on the ecosystem services is proper, just, and equitable.

The third point of contention arises with the capacity of the scientific knowledge and skilled manpower of developing and poor nations to defend their interests in the international climate negotiations. The risks are different across the globe—some developing countries have much to lose from climate change, while others are more concerned over the costs of global agreements that will limit their markets for fossil fuel or hamper their perceived chances of development. As a result, building coalitions, even among the low-income countries, will be very difficult.

The fourth point of contention arises from the divergence in priorities. Interestingly, the divergence in goals between developed and developing nations can be witnessed in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted by developed and developing nations. Whereas the INDCs of the developed world like US, EU, and Japan do not consist of the term “adaptation” but only consist of the “mitigation” commitments, the developing and emerging nations have a significant portion of INDC’s dedicated to “adaptation”. The need to adapt arises for the poor of the developing world because of livelihoods losses due to ecosystem service losses.

The bigger concern of climate change and global warming for the poorer nations is the changes in the land use patterns and forest cover, resulting in changes in ecosystem structures and functions, thereby impeding on the various ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) of 2005 enhanced human understanding of nature’s capacity to provide ecosystem services (benefits) to the human society in the form of provisioning services (e.g., food, raw materials, genetic resources, water, minerals, medicinal resources, energy, etc), regulating services (e.g., carbon sequestration, climate regulation, pest and disease control, etc), cultural services (tourism, religion, etc), and above all, supporting services that are necessary for production of all other ecosystem services (e.g. nutrient recycling, gene-pool protection, primary production, soil formation, etc).

For the poor people in the developing world, the ecosystem services adds up or complements their low incomes, and is often referred to as “GDP of the poor”. So, the concern of the poor nations is with the impacts of global warming and climate change on ecosystems-livelihoods linkages, and not really carbon-dioxide emission! How can the poor adapt to such vulnerabilities? Who will pay for this adaptation?

The fifth issue of contention arises again from the perspective of understanding the local priorities and bringing them in global platforms like COP 21. Developing nations including India has failed to do that so far! India will again fail to bring that, as I see it, simply because of complying with the carbon-centric approach of global negotiations, as decided by the prime movers of this negotiating process, which are primarily the developed nations. With India being one of the lowest per capita emitter of CO2, its bigger concern is the concern of the poor who are getting poorer because of the losses in the ecosystem services due to global warming and climate change.

Unfortunately, the Indian dialogue initiators in the global platform, most of whom will be retired bureaucrats, are likely to adopt the same techno-centric and carbon-centric approach, and argue on lines of mitigation. They will yet again fail to bring in the concern of ecosystems-livelihoods linkages, and the impacts of climate change on the vulnerable sections of the community, especially women and children. After all, that is not the priority of the developed world, who has proclaimed about their priorities of mitigation only in their INDCs.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata)

Courtesy: ORF– COP21: Is India stuck on the wrong approach?


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