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196 countries give in a little for a big deal

Resets the framework by which world will move away from fossil fuels before 2100

Nitin Sethi  |  Paris 

Laurent Fabius, Francois Hollande, Ban Ki-moon
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (centre), stands near French President Francois Hollande (left) and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 at Le Bourget near Paris

The world agreed to a new global climate change agreement on Saturday night in Paris. The agreement, which 196 gathered countries agreed to, promises to keep the rise of global temperatures far below 2 degrees by the turn of the century, and try possibly to keep it below 1.5 degree.

The gathered countries agreed that they would try to peak their global emissions soonest possible with developed countries doing so before others do. But collectively they would ensure that in the second half the century the net greenhouse gas emissions turn to zero. In this too the developed countries would have to put more effort than others and the developing countries’ would get latitude to ensure poverty eradication. But the direction in which the global economy would move over the century was set in the 31 pages of the Paris agreement and the attendant decision of the summit – towards relatively cleaner energy pathway.



The high degree of unity among developing countries in the G77+China group, and especially between India and China within the Like Minded Developing Countries, ensured that the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities got embedded in different pillars of the agreement ensuring that the developed world would still be taking the lead and that the burden on the developing world to fight climate change would not be more onerous than that of the developed world. It was not exactly the way India had desired the principle of CBDR would survive, but the final result looked much better than what developing countries had hoped for in the face of an overdrive from the US and the Umbrella group of countries especially and developed countries in general to tear down the firewall entirely.

The agreement agreed to by the 196 countries that are party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change moved a decent distant away from the specific provisions of the convention but picked up, sometimes in parts, the principles of the convention. It was the price to pay for ensuring that developing countries are not weighed down with a heavy burden over the next few decades. In keeping its burden closer to a fair share, it had to let the developed countries create a regime where their own obligations were not strictly legally bound and definitely less than fair. Indian environment minister Prakash Javadekar said as much while congratulating the French hosts during the closing ceremony for the successful summit. The French rightfully got all around accolades for their diplomacy that kept all countries on board till the end.

The US, starting 2009, had desired an agreement that would fit its domestic political needs. It got so. It sought an agreement that would put the emerging economies at almost equal footing in taking on the responsibility to fight climate change. It was able to push the world somewhat in that direction, but not entirely. It did so by lowering the legally required expectations from the developed world and raising the expectations of actions by the developing world. The method was simple – break away from the provisions of the existing UN convention as much as possible. Its political heft and determination visible even in the last hour when the world bent backwards to let a non-negotiable concern of the US be respected by calling a substantial change in the Paris agreement as a typographical error and fixing it. As the US held up the last session of the talks, the typographical correction helped the US go home to claim to its senate that no target or action of the agreement was legally binding on it, whether on reducing emissions or on providing finance to the poor countries.

Ironically, the group which had claimed climate leadership for decades and led from front to demand a top-down approach where science and global community collectively would decide how much effort was required from each country, the EU fell in line easy. The one country that the closing ceremony ignored as the agreement was gavelled through, Nicaragua, continued to ask for a more robust agreement that would not put the world to a pathway towards more than 2 degree rise based on a less ambiguous application of the principle of equity and historical accumulated emissions.

But as most ministers gathered at the Le Bourget airport-turned summit centre said, getting 196 countries on board through consensus required compromise. As the minister for Singapore quoted Voltaire quoting an Italian intellectual, the perfect could not be made the enemy of the good.

Another minister, preferring to speak off the record, said the same through a political perspective, “Everyone found a way to claim a bit of the agreement as his or hers. Everyone found the language in the agreement to show it had been shaped more or less the way they had wanted it to.”

So Australia speaking for the Umbrella group, which is led by the US, said the new regime was based on countries being asked to do based on current national capacities of countries and Javadekar said it was based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and equity. Both of them saw the Paris agreement how they preferred the world to see it too.

First Published: Mon, December 14 2015. 00:40 IST