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A requiem for Rio in Paris

December 14, 2015 12:12 IST

The net effect of the Paris agreement for India is a sense of resignation that we cannot gain much from international cooperation either in the form of technology or funding. Without any mandatory cuts, India could keep its own pace of mitigation of climate change by moving away from fossil fuels in the long term.

We lost the gains of Rio and Kyoto in Copenhagen and Paris, but it would have been worse if any mandatory restraints were imposed on our green house gas emissions, says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Image: French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (centre), president-designate of COP21, and Christiana Figueres (left), executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, react during the final plenary session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 12, 2015. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters.

If Copenhagen rang the death knell of the accomplishments of Rio de Janeiro, Paris chanted its requiem.

Concepts like “common, but differentiated responsibilities”, “incremental costs”, “equity”, “justice” and “polluter must pay principle” have been either buried or resurrected in new incarnations.

The rich nations of the world, which had realised the mistake of accepting mandatory cuts to their green house gas emissions and agreeing to pay for the pollution they have caused, have wriggled out of their commitments by threatening to impose mandatory cuts on the poor and extracted an agreement in which none has mandatory cuts.

An agreement in Paris, which is known to have no significant impact on climate change, is being hailed as historic, leaving the world to fend for itself.

Unless a new technology emerges to defang the green house gases or a carbon tax is imposed, God alone can save the earth.

The terrorist attacks in Paris turned out to be a blessing in disguise to the hosts and their allies because they were able to impose severe restraints on the participation of NGOs and popular movements in the Paris conference.

It has been a tradition for the public to hold several side events and maintain constant pressure on the negotiators. In the Berlin conference in 1995, for instance, it was a draft circulated by the World Wildlife Fund, which formed the basis of the Berlin Mandate which, in turn, led to the Kyoto Protocol.

Without such pressure and monitoring, the word that went out was that the outcome of the conference was a decisive contribution to the mitigation of climate change. Many delegations, including India, had hired public relations agencies to present their positions in the most positive manner. A small demonstration was held in Paris only a day later to proclaim that the whole Paris Agreement was a hoax.

James Hansen, formerly the chief climatologist of NASA, was forthright in his assessment. “It is a fraud, really a fake,” he said. “It is just bullshit for them to say, ‘we will have a 2 degree Celsius warming target and try to do a little better every five years’. It is just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuel out there, they will continue to be burnt.”

That the Paris deal will have no immediate effect on climate change is evident in the wording of the heart of the document. The “strong agreement” is to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

But the “Nationally Determined Contributions” submitted so far and the indications given by others make it clear that they will not be able to hold the increase below 3 degree Celsius.

Such a patently unrealistic expectation from the Paris agreement will be proved false sooner than later. The pious hope that the future cuts every five years will strengthen the agreement has no basis either.

Those who have supported the agreement, including India, claim that all countries, rich or poor, have undertaken the obligation to reduce green house gases. But given the fact that the industrialised countries did not reduce their emissions even after accepting mandatory cuts to 1990 levels, there is no reason to believe that they will do so voluntarily.

In fact, the US ensured that the agreement is not a treaty under the US law to obviate the need for President Obama to secure Congressional approval to sign the agreement. Since any financial commitment would require such approval, the offer of USD 100 billion after 2020 has been relegated to the preambular part of the final document.

All these precautions are proof, if proof were needed, of lack of any commitment on the part of the United States and the other developed nations. On its part, OPEC, particularly Saudi Arabia, insisted that there should be no green house gas emissions neutrality even in the distant future.

India’s support to the agreement may have arisen from a desire to avoid mandatory cuts of green house gas emissions for itself, which were a possibility till the Copenhagen consensus, which India joined reluctantly. India’s subsequent efforts to resuscitate the Kyoto Protocol and the spirit of Rio were futile, particularly after the US and China reached an agreement on the Paris outcome earlier in the year.

It was only after India disowned the Kyoto Protocol by saying that we had to go beyond the failed agreements of the past that India’s status changed from “a challenge” to a “partner” in the eyes of the United States. The New York Times’s cartoon showing India as the elephant stopping the Paris train in its tracks was not an exaggeration of the Indian position at the time of the beginning of the Paris conference. Subsequently, it was after some high level persuasion that India agreed to go along with the Paris agreement.

The net effect of the Paris agreement for India is a sense of resignation that we cannot gain much from international cooperation either in the form of technology or funding. Without any mandatory cuts, India could keep its own pace of mitigation of climate change by moving away from fossil fuels in the long term.

We have already made a beginning by imposing a tax on the use of coal, a measure that has not been taken by any of those who advocate cuts on coal use.

We lost the gains of Rio and Kyoto in Copenhagen and Paris, but it would have been worse, if any mandatory restraints were imposed on our green house gas emissions. That explains Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment that there are no winners or losers in Paris.

We embraced the lesser evil of voluntary cuts for everyone rather than mandatory cuts for the main emitters, including India.

T P Sreenivasan, a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the IAEA, was the lead negotiator of India on climate change and the Vice-Chairman of the COP between 1992 and 1995.

T P Sreenivasan