The Paris summit: Universality and diversity

A framework for updating the Climate Treaty

MukulSanwal [1]

On September 23 the world’s leaders will meet in New York to shape the contours of a new global agreement to address climate change. India will face acute pressure to take on commitments to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and needs to craft a response that protects the global climate, has the support of the majority of developing countries and secures its longer term future.


The United States and the European Union are pushing for a political agreement that will ‘update’ the Climate Treaty, of 1992, with voluntary pledges to enact laws to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, while continuing to use the provisions for reporting, review and assessment of national action. According to a report in the New York Times, countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policiesbut would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify nations that did not meet their cuts.


India should seriously think of taking the initiative to put forward an alternative framework, because what is being suggested is not ‘updating’ the Climate treaty but amending its defining feature – the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – not through a legal amendment but by a political agreement of specifying emission reduction. It would amount to shifting the burden onto developing countries, as it would institute a universal regime cloaked under a professed concern for the global environment.


Developed countries are already obligated to reduce emissions and it would be replaced with voluntary pledge while requiring developing countries to agree to a similar arrangement whereas the treaty recognises the low per-capita emissions of developing countries and that their emissions will grow to enable eradication of poverty.The result will be, as the ‘OECD environmental Outlook to 2050’ points out, that its member countries will contribute over 20 per cent to the increase in global emissions till 2050, when their per capita emissions will be nearly two times that of the others.


The United States, as the largest emitter, ensured it had no measurable commitments in the Climate Treaty in 1992, did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the European Union reneged on its commitment in the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period and since the Copenhagen Conference, in 2009, these countries have insisted that developing countries, irrespective of their level of development, also take on similar commitments. In the context of the trajectory of global economic growth their argument isthat Indiawill soon be the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide and must now take on comparable commitments to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide. India’s response so far has been to stress their historical responsibility to argue that it does not need to take any action now, and is increasingly finding itself isolated in the negotiations. 


The international community has already committed, with respect to the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, to a functionalconception of differentiated responsibilities in resolving the common concerns of humanity. In the climate negotiations Indiashould really be emphasizing that one-seventh of the human population in industrialised countries accounted for half of global energy use in 2000, the poorest three-quarters of the global population uses ten percent of global energyandits own per capita emissions are just one-fifteenth those of the United States and will grow till 2050. Therefore, national actions based on levels of development must be embedded in the architecture of the new regime, and not as an exception to general rules. Universalism will unfairly restrict the policy spaceof developing countries in a fast changing globalized global economy.


India should also emphasize that emissions of carbon dioxide in industrialized countries have continued to growover 1990 levels, and the delay in capping emissions has allowed these countries to draw upon the limited global carbon budget, leaving less than their fair share for countries that are yet to industrialize, urbanize and shift their populations from rural areas into the urban middle class.This will obtain the support of the majority of developing countries.


Climate policy is central to the domestic agenda of all countries as it is really about energy, and modifying and shaping urban design and related lifestyles. Aggregate emission pathways evolve with economic development. In the industrial stages of development an economy largely consumes energy to produce goods and build infrastructure. In the more mature stages of development as urbanization increases pace and incomes grow energy use becomes even more important in supporting electricity for urban living and transport based on lifestyles. In industrialized countries two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions are now coming from the services, households and travel sectors, that is, urban consumption patterns. Up to now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption; during the next four decades, new and expanded middle classes in the developing world could create as many as four billion additional consumers. The volume of new urban construction for housing, office space, and transport services could roughly equal the entire volume of such construction and use to date in world history, and developing countries must be able to make this transformation, within the limits of the global interdependence between countries placed by planetary limits. Sustainability is about distribution, not scarcity, of natural resources.


The most recent science on climate change supports this shift to a sustainable development perspective. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 2014, for the first time includes a chapter on ‘Ethics and Justice’ and the ‘World Social Science Report; 2013’, produced by the United Nations (UNESCO), concludes that we must “reframe climate and global environmental change from a physical into a social problem”.A sustainable development perspective will provide a unifying global vision where barriers to sustainability will be overcome by a combination of new rules for sharing technology to make the pie bigger and not just by placing restrictions on emissions of carbon dioxide from the use of energy, which will allow some to take a larger slice.


According to the Report of the Secretary-General, International financial system and development, released in 25 July 2014, in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developed countries agreed to the joint mobilization of $100 billion annually by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. As an initial step, they also committed to provide $30 billion in new and additional finance –so-called fast-start finance –between 2010 and 2012. A preliminary assessment of fast-start finance finds that commitments were exceeded, and $35 billion were mobilized between 2010 and 2012. However, this has mostly not been additional to traditional ODA –80 per cent of these flows were also counted as ODA, and were paid out with similar modalities, largely through bilateral channels. Less than half of it was delivered as grants. Climate financing more broadly remains focused on mitigation, while financing for adaption –critical for the most vulnerable countries –is lacking. These shortcomings, particularly with respect to the most vulnerable need to be highlighted and equal emphasis given to transfer of technology.


India should present an alternative framework for ‘updating’ the climate agreement, in terms of fourelements – absolute cap on the emissions of carbon dioxide in individual industrialized countriesat 1990 levels and coming down to 1970 levels (when the issue first came onto the global agenda and their over-use of the  limited global carbon budget began), sharing renewable energy and agriculture technologiesas well as financial resources to enable all countries to modify their production and consumption patterns (as a global concern like carbon dioxide),recognition of levels of development in the national actions of all countries (in terms of per capita GDP, emissions and energy use which alone ensures human rights), andIndia’s national actions focused on improving energy efficiency with the aim of keeping per capita emissions below the averageof the developed countries emissions (in accordance with the National Climate Change Action Plan focusing onenergy efficiency, urban design, public transport and lifestyles).  Developing countries, learning from the developed countries, must be cautious in international negotiations while being aggressive at home.


The challenge before the international community is to evolve a principle of ‘universality’ that upholds justice by building a framework of shared responsibility and prosperity to recognise ‘diversity’ and levels of development. India’s response to the pressure to take on emission reduction commitments should be to suggest that the approach focused solely on emissions itself needs to be modified to get the results that have eluded governments over the past twenty years.


[1] Ex civil servant and Director UNFCCC 


Related Content