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Mukul Sanwal: Climate negotiations: what is at stake

The underlying issue is distribution, not scarcity, of a global natural resource

Mukul Sanwal 

Mukul Sanwal

India is being unfairly targeted as an obstructionist following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call that emissions reduction should be consistent with the carbon space that nations occupy and developed countries, with a disproportionate share, must fulfil their responsibility to make clean energy affordable and accessible to all in the developing world.

As a late developer, India has the lowest per capita gross domestic product (GDP) as well as emissions of carbon dioxide among the G20. It is really speaking for half the world that has yet to achieve middle class levels of urban well-being and is not fully represented at the high table.

What should be the priorities for India, as the climate treaty is being redefined in Paris with a new framework? There are four outstanding political issues - how to reflect fairness and ambition, adaptation, transparency, a review and stocktaking system and the role of non-state actors. A middle ground can be achieved by building on the consensus for a fair and ambitious agreement that will give a clear signal to business as well as the urban middle class.

First, the United Nations estimates that 75 per cent of the world's carbon budget will be over by 2030. Any future assessment, which only considers 'environmental integrity', will not be fair to those countries whose emissions will need to grow beyond 2030, or the late developers. For example, India's emission levels are expected to double by 2030, putting them ahead of those of the US and the European Union (EU) but at half the levels of China, while India's per capita emissions will be one-fourth those of the US and China, two-thirds of the EU and half the global average in 2030. Therefore, fairness will be transparently assessed by showing how the carbon budget is being shared between countries.

In the absence of a political agreement on criteria to reflect different national circumstances in sharing the carbon budget, multiple indicators should be agreed upon to keep up political pressure on "fairness", or "equity". For example, the indicators to assess national actions should include levels of current emissions, per capita emissions and concentrations, as emissions are defined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (hereafter, the Convention) as the "release of greenhouse gases and/or their precursors into the atmosphere over a specified area and period of time," in addition to percentage reductions in absolute and per-capita terms along with GDP and GDP per capita without making a choice of one over the other.

Second, the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) submitted to the UN establish that in the case of electricity generation, global emissions are expected to level out by 2030. Nearly half the INDCs target an increase in renewable energy and, if the goals are met, a mere one-third carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere till 2030 compared with the increase between 2000 and 2014. Clearly, ambition is not ratcheting up emission targets to meet a long-term emission goal but a pathway to a long-term transformation; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not define mitigation in terms of emission reduction but as "an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases".

Successful modification of the key longer-term trend in sources of greenhouse gases focuses on the transport sector, which is responsible for one-fourth of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. It is the largest energy consuming sector in 40 per cent of countries and second-largest in the remaining countries, and the fastest-growing sector in energy consumption. For example, since 1990, in the EU, emissions from transport increased by more than one-third, by a larger amount in the United States and two-third of the emissions came from buildings and transport in these countries. The IPCC assesses that 15-40 per cent reduction in transport emissions is plausible by 2050. Therefore, the second tranche of INDCs, to be prepared by 2020, should focus on energy efficiency and aim to stabilise emissions from transport and buildings.

Third, there is now sufficient scientific evidence that the global goal for 2050 should include the "adverse effects of climate change". The Convention defines adverse effects of climate change to include natural and managed ecosystems, socio-economic systems and human health and welfare. Therefore, the purpose of the agreement is best expressed as "ensuring the transformation to sustainable development through longer-term strategies for transitioning to low-carbon societies and resilient socio-economic systems to secure human well-being", because new infrastructure that is now being built will lock in emissions and resilience measures. Emission reductions consider symptoms and not causes of the problem, which requires a broader goal, and adaptation is not a co-benefit.

Fourth, multilateral transparency, review and related stocktaking to increase ambition, in order to take account of national circumstances and fairness should be applicable to countries after the year of their nationally determined peaking of emissions. This is why the United States has chosen 2005 as its base year and China 2030, and those dates are not under review. The support provided should also be included in the INDCs and periodically reviewed as part of the transparency system.

Fifth, for the role of non-state actors to be effective, the exchange of experiences should be organised separately for the major stakeholders - policy analysts, scientists, business, agriculturalists and cities. The discussion in the annual conferences revolves around political concerns and a forum is needed to discuss the global transformation in terms of the natural and social sciences as well as innovative technology.

The India-UK Joint Statement on Energy and Climate Change, signed on November 12, 2015, is an example of international cooperation on technology transfer outside the Convention, with a new Virtual Joint Centre on clean energy and the India Innovation Lab for Green Finance, and there is no reason why a cooperative framework will not emerge at Paris that is not only ambitious but also fair, and, above all, enable the transformation to sustainable development.

The author is a former United Nations diplomat and policy advisor, Climate Change Secretariat

First Published: Wed, December 02 2015. 21:49 IST