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Shyam Saran: The Bangkok sequel to Cancun

Are multilateral climate change negotiations losing sight of what lies at stake?

Shyam Saran 

When the at in December last year concluded with a series of “Agreements”, and was hailed as a significant success, I argued that celebrations over the outcome may be premature (“Are celebrations premature?”, Business Standard, December 15, 2010). The Agreements constituted a minimalist framework which needed to be fleshed out and finalised for adoption at the next in in December this year. The recently concluded working group meetings at (April 3 to 8, 2011) were the first post-round of negotiations on the road to From available reports, all the fissures that were papered over at resurfaced, casting doubt on the eventual outcome of the multilateral process.

The divisions among the negotiating partners focused on the following:

  • The developed countries wanted the much diluted and limited template of the “Agreements” to determine the agenda of work leading to Durban, with only a rhetorical reference to the original and much more ambitious mandate set forth at the Bali Conference in 2007. Developing countries, including India, wanted the agenda to acknowledge that there were issues outstanding from the Bali Action Plan which also needed to be addressed. A compromise of sorts was arrived at eventually, but it remains to be seen whether this salvage operation will work in the substantive negotiations to follow. 
  • The developed countries, parties to the Kyoto Protocol, continue to evade their legal obligation to declare their greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for the second commitment period, which will commence in 2013. There was a familiar replay of arguments over whether technical issues, such as counting procedures, inclusion of new greenhouse gases and the treatment of emissions from and agriculture, should be resolved before the political process of negotiating binding emission reduction commitments or vice versa. As would be apparent, developing countries insist that the political process must come first. There was also the insistent refrain that major developing countries should also take on emission reduction obligations.

Some progress was made on the establishment of the Technology Mechanism, while the agreed upon at will be discussed at a technical level meeting at the end of April. It is not clear, however, whether even the modest amount of financing agreed upon, that is, $30 billion of fast-track finance for 2010-12 and $100 billion by 2010 will actually see the light of day.

One major argument for lowering of sights at was the need to bring the world’s largest economy and its largest emitter, the US, on board in any global climate change regime. The negotiations have become an attrition process in which the multilateral and international legally-binding nature of the commitments undertaken by Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been systematically eroded to satisfy the US. First, the Europeans and, subsequently, the major emerging economies, including China and India, acquiesced in significant departures from the principles and provisions of the This is what made the Agreements possible. But are we any closer to convincing the US to become part of a new global climate regime, which will be only a pale shadow of what was envisaged at Bali?

On April 6, 2011, even as the meeting was in progress, the US Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern, made some carefully calculated and revealing remarks in New York at an Energy Conference.

One, he is reported to have said that the UN talks aimed at negotiating a binding treaty to end global warming were based on “unrealistic” expectations that are not doable. He added that the goal of agreeing to a treaty was always out of reach.

Then, pray, what are the negotiations all about?

Two, he said it was not necessary that there be “internationally binding emission caps as long as you’ve got national laws and regulations. What I am saying is it’s not doable”.

So, what should be the “doable” objective of the negotiating process? Stern says should focus on writing the rule book for institutions that would monitor worldwide agreements, not on climate change, but on “aid and forest protection”!

Three, Stern rejected the principle of historical responsibility of industrialised countries for the accumulated greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is what is responsible for global warming. This is strange since a couple of years ago his own Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had acknowledged this principle in a speech to the Major Economics Forum in Washington. Seeking to erase the distinction between developed and developing countries altogether, Stern criticised those who would propose to apportion the “carbon space” in the atmosphere and parcel it out based on so-called “historical responsibility”. This, he said, was a non-starter in the real world for many reasons, reasons that were not spelt out.

These remarks were, I believe, specifically directed against India, which had presented a carbon budget for developed and developing countries at Bangkok, based on equal per capita entitlement.

Four, Stern also downgraded the UN process by insisting that it was “not the sole platform” for climate change-related action.

Not much attention seems to have been paid to these significant policy pronouncements. What they indicate is that the US, having successfully leveraged the threat of its non-participation to downgrade the prospects of an ambitious global climate change regime, is now giving notice that it does not, in any case, intend to be part of even an anaemic regime, certainly not a regime that is capable of addressing the compelling challenge of global climate change. At the most, it will agree to a “rule-book” for agreements on “aid and forest protection”. So who is the deal breaker here?

It is worth noting that while developing countries are being asked to adopt “low carbon growth strategies”, the industrialised world is happily engaged in perpetuating its own carbon-intensive pattern of economic activity.

The US itself has announced its intention of exploiting more of its carbon-emitting oil, shale gas and even coal reserves to promote its energy security. Russia and Norway are planning to exploit the significant oil and gas reserves in the Arctic made feasible, ironically, by the melting of ice owing to global warming. India should pursue sustainable development and energy security by promoting the use of renewable and clean sources of energy. This is in our interests. However, let us approach the multilateral negotiations with a clear awareness of what is at stake. To play the role of a responsible power, with a seat at the high table, the least we must do is to insist that solemn treaty obligations, in particular those freely undertaken in the UNFCCC, cannot be subject to selective adherence by its Parties.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary and currently Chairman, RIS and Senior Fellow, CPR

First Published: Wed, April 20 2011. 00:35 IST