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Why the climate deal is bad for us

By Sunita Narain
April 23, 2010 13:21 IST
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There is no way the Copenhagen Accord can be billed as a climate change agreement, says Sunita Narain.

Climate change negotiations - cold after the freeze at the Copenhagen meet in December - have warmed up again. In early April, negotiators met in Bonn on the possible agreement, which could be signed at the conference of parties, scheduled in December in Mexico.

This was followed by the US-convened meet of the Major Economies' Forum, which would be better named as the Major Emitters' Forum, in Washington. Next weekend, the group calling itself BASIC - China, Brazil, South Africa and India - is meeting in Cape Town to come up with its common position on climate negotiations.

Then early May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called some 45 environment ministers to come together in the castle of St Petersburg outside Bonn to keep talking.

All this will culminate, for now, in the meeting of the subsidiary bodies to the climate convention in early June, also in Bonn.

So, the heat is now on. The US has thrown down the gauntlet, demanding that the now-infamous Copenhagen Accord, hammered out in the wee nights of the meeting, become the only game in town.

It wants the world to stop discussing the Kyoto Protocol or the Long-term Cooperative Agreement - the two tracks that bring past polluters into a legal regime and future players into a cooperative arrangement to avoid the growth of emissions. To stitch up this deal, they have put together their very own coalition-of-the-willing (which includes a powerful section of Indian policy-makers). The US wants no full stops to this new deal.

The small problem is this "deal" is bad for climate change. It is bad for us. Why?

One, the Copenhagen Accord is weak in terms of its commitment to reduce emissions. It does not set hard, drastic emission-reduction targets for rich countries (Annex 1) and instead promotes a framework for future agreements based on "pledge and review".

In other words, industrialised countries will be allowed to voluntarily pledge their domestic targets, which will be aggregated at the global level. The target will be self-chosen and voluntary, even if it adds up to nothing.

The US has offered some 3 per cent reduction over 1990 level, against the 40 per cent which is required of it. The Accord will simply legitimise its right to pollute, by saying that it will do what it can domestically and that this will be reviewed to see if the pledge is met.

This is when we know that the sum of the current "pledges", if we can call them that, means that the world is definitely not close to meeting its 2°C target but is, by recent accounts, close to at least 3°C or more.

In fact, discussions on tough emission-reduction measures by rich countries are completely off the agenda. Occasional noises are made to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive. But this is just form. The function is to make the Copenhagen Accord supreme.

There is no way the Copenhagen Accord can be billed as a climate change agreement. It is simply an agreement to legitimise the right to pollute.

Two, the Copenhagen Accord will completely overwrite the principles of historical emissions and equity in burden-sharing. The reason is simple: as the world will no longer set targets based on historical and current emissions, the issue of equity in burden-sharing will be erased.

The use of the word "equity" in the accord (twice) is just a smart ploy to fool some people in our world. The fact is that once this framework is accepted, then, in the words of the top US negotiator, the "breach in the firewall between developed and developing countries" would be sealed and signed.

No longer will there be a distinction between countries which have created the problem, and so have to take the first step to cut emissions and create ecological space, and the rest. All of us will be equal in the world of polluters and sinners.

Three, as mitigation targets will no longer be on the basis of responsibility or contribution to the problem, all countries equal sinners will take on what they can. As developing countries, like India, are now growing in terms of their emissions, the heat will be on them to cut now.

The burden of the costly transition will shift to the developing world. This is when, under the current climate agreement, industrialised countries are expected to cut drastically and provide financial assistance to developing countries to avoid growth of emissions. But the coalition would like this formula to be history. Buried forever.

The terms of the Copenhagen Accord are delicious because so much is left unsaid. Just think: All countries do what they can to cut emissions. There is no international legal agreement, but only a simple pledge that you will cut.

This "pledge" will be recorded (and not be called your commitment to avoid red flags). But the big brother will send inspectors, or ask for your records to check for compliance.

All this will be cleverly couched in terminology called international consultation so that we still believe that we are not being asked to make commitments. And, with this done, the Indian minister will be able to go to Parliament and say, "all is well".

So, what does this changed framework do to India's efforts to cut emissions? Are we rich enough to take on the cost of transition? Let me return to this question and more next fortnight. But what I can say today is, all is not well.

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Sunita Narain
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