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Sunita Narain: Be proactive on climate-change equity

The Indian government has to put forward a counter-proposal on how to operationalise equity. Otherwise, equity is only for blocking consensus; empty words being banged on noisy pans

Sunita Narain 

Sunita Narain

The Indian government must not use "equity" to block climate-change negotiations. It must instead be proactive on equity and put forward a position on how to operationalise the sharing of the carbon budget - accounting for countries' contribution to past emissions and allocating future space - in climate talks.

I wrote this last year when the last government was in power. I am repeating this as the National Democratic Alliance government prepares for the next conference of parties to be held in December in Peru.

Equity is a pre-requisite for an effective agreement on climate change. In the early 1990, as negotiations began, Anil Agarwal, environmentalist and director of the Centre for Science and Environment, and I put forward the argument that since the atmosphere is a global common, we need equal entitlements to the space. We argued the only way countries would commit to reducing emissions - connected to economic growth - would be if there were limits for all, based on contribution to the creation of the problem.

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is built on this premise - the group of countries (Annex 1) responsible for creating the problem must create space for the rest to grow. But as the objective is to have a "different" growth pattern to avoid emissions of long-life carbon dioxide developing countries would get money and technology. This was in the past.

The current situation is very different. Countries, which were required to cut emissions, did not do so at the scale or pace needed. The United States "peaked" its emissions in 2012. The situation is worse if the accounting for emissions is done on the basis of consumption and not production. In that case, developed countries increased their emissions in this period. Because all they did was to export manufacturing to other parts of the world.

So the rich did not reduce emissions while the rest of the world increased. While in 1992, Annex 1 countries contributed some 70 per cent of the emissions, by 2014, they are down to 40 per cent. The space is filled and now there is little left for future growth of all. This is where climate-change negotiations are stuck.

The old rich want the differentiation between the past polluters and the current and future ones to go. They say we should forget the historical contribution and divide the carbon cake afresh. They remind developing countries that the present is different - China, for instance, has overtaken the United States as the world's largest contributor on an annual basis. But they forget conveniently that on a per capita basis, there is still a vast difference between the United States and China.

The "firewall" between Annex 1 and the rest, as called by United States negotiators, was first breached at the 2009 Copenhagen conference when countries like India agreed not to discuss historical contribution of the already rich and put their own emission reduction targets on the table.

In 2011, this arrangement was cemented. The Durban conference of parties agreed that the world would work to finalise a new agreement by 2015. This deal would require the "highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties". The only sweetener was the hard fought phrase that the agreement would be under the "Convention", which, in turn, is based on the principle of equity.

This is also the past. At the 2013 conference of parties in Warsaw it was agreed that "all" countries would submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) by early 2015. In other words, now there is no agreement that specifies the targets for each country based on their past contributions. Countries do not put forward their emission target based on common but differentiated responsibility.

It is, however, argued (by top United States negotiators) that the deal is based on equity. This is because each country is free to decide on domestic targets, keeping in mind its contribution to the problem and its capacity to act. Ingenious indeed.

The game is, however, not over. The next step is to put the INDC together and to see how the aggregate of "all" adds to the magic number needed to keep the world below two degrees Celsius, the guardrail of devastating change. It is taken for granted that the sum of all will be way below what is needed. Now the real question kicks in: how to estimate the past, present and future emissions contribution of each country to decide who will reduce how much?

In Warsaw 2013, the African Group proposed an equity reference framework, which has different indicators of development and capability to assess what each country should do. India stridently opposed this. No doubt, the African proposal has flaws, but our government has to put forward a counter-proposal on how to operationalise equity. Otherwise, equity is only for blocking consensus; empty words being banged on noisy pans.

The ultimate question is whether we take climate change seriously. If we believe it is, then we will argue for an ambitious agreement based on equity because that is the only way it can be effective. This is the last chance to get it right. The chips are already down and the die will be cast by the Paris meeting in 2015.

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment
Twitter: @sunitanar

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First Published: Sun, November 09 2014. 22:44 IST