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Is Modi's pitch for 'climate justice' more than rhetoric?

The chances of putting climate justice at the heart of the Paris climate change agreement are looking remote

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

UN climate talks in Bonn from Aug 31-Sept 4

Prime Minister Narendra Modi added a phrase to the Indian government's climate change vocabulary when he called for the world to be made aware of 'climate justice'.

The phrase is not new-it's been part of the vocabulary and demand of many civil society groups and environmentalists for several years, especially from Southern countries - but India raking it up at this juncture, five negotiating days before the Paris talks, has made observers and other countries wonder if India intends to really push for climate justice under the Paris agreement or is it a rhetorical tool to seek at least a fair global deal?

When Union Environment Secretary Ashok Lavasa was recently asked at a meeting to explain how India defined the phrase, he said it meant India was looking for a "just agreement… where countries fulfil their obligations".

Once Modi used the phrase, others in the government repeated it. It's made environmentalists and civil society wonder if India has suddenly shifted gears on the road to Paris.

The Paris deal will be a legally-binding agreement between 196 countries drawn by consensus. Like in any legal agreement, each phrase and word carries clear implications and consequences.

Until Modi talked of climate justice, India had asked only for adherence to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. The two principles need to be operationalised for delivering climate justice but are not sufficient.

Climate justice requires that countries that are responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases be held responsible, take on proportionate burden to reduce the global emissions and provide resources to others to take similar actions in order to cut their future emissions as well as pay reparations for the damages the emissions have caused to others.

Justice also requires a clear case of culpability. In practical terms, it would require the global community to put a date from which it can be claimed historical emitters of greenhouse gases knew they were causing harm to the planet. The burden on different countries could alter based on the benchmark year picked.

If the emissions accumulated from the pre-industrial era were to be accounted for, operationalising climate justice in the Paris agreement would put a large part of the burden on developed countries to reduce emissions, pay huge sums of money to developing and poor countries as compensation as well as for support to reduce their current and future emissions and transfer clean technologies.

Huge investment

India while communicating its actions to the Paris agreement has pegged that it alone would have to find $2.3 trillion over 15 years to undertake all climate change actions it envisages - reducing emissions as well as adapting to the climate change already taking place. In contrast, at the moment, developed countries have committed to $100 billion annually by 2020.

Is Modi's pitch for 'climate justice' more than rhetoric?
But, in its targets for the Paris agreement, India has hedged its bets on where the funds would come from. Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, has said a large part of the funds would be generated domestically even as the country continues to demand funds and technology transfer from the rich world as a principle.

There is no strict adherence to the idea of 'climate justice' in India's communicated targets for the Paris agreement (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). But, there are caveats against India being probed for achieving its targets even if the developed world does not provide funds and technologies and the Paris agreement is unbalanced. India supports other countries in their demand for loss and damage (reparations) but does not draw a red line for accessing these funds if and when they become available.

The first draft of the Paris agreement, now in the public domain, makes no mention of equity, historical responsibility and renders the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities more as a homily. Consequently, it has strayed far from the idea of climate justice.

Professor Lavanya Rajamani of the Centre for Policy Research writes that the idea of differentiation has been slowly diluted over the past years, noting the "subtle yet significant erosion of certain forms of differentiation between developed and developing countries in the climate regime."

The US has scoffed at the burden of historical responsibility and the European Union has preferred to let the idea slip out of the negotiations. Both have pushed emerging economies such as India and China to take on a greater burden based on their current 'capabilities' and their current and future emissions. They have also worked to diminish the emerging economies' rights to access funds and technology.

The current draft of the Paris agreement more aggressively favours such arrangements, though it lies closer to the US positions than the EU's, experts and Indian negotiators assess.

India, at the moment, faces the tough challenge of retaining the original principles and provisions from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Paris agreement in even a semi-diluted state. It is expected that to varying degrees many developing countries would do the same when countries meet at Bonn starting October 19 for the next five days of negotiations. But the phrase "climate justice" is not enshrined even in the mother convention.

There is now an almost universal acceptance that the targets under the Paris deal will not straightaway lead to keeping global temperature rise within safe levels and at best will be able to have an architecture that in future encourages countries to do more when they revise the targets periodically.

With neither the EU nor the US willing to put an explicit roadmap to their current and future financial and technology sharing commitments, India has limited options on the table.

Ensuring climate justice is rendered through the Paris agreement is not one of them. Observers note the subtle phrasing by Modi, asking the world to just be more 'aware' of climate justice. That is very far from suggesting India would sign on a deal only if it operationalises climate justice.

First Published: Wed, October 14 2015. 21:30 IST