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Uncle Sam and the Elephant

December 11, 2015 14:51 IST

If Paris really meant to serve as a landmark in recognising equity in climate negotiations, it should have heralded the second phase of the Kyoto protocol.

Instead we have all countries, India and China included, all signing up with voluntary commitments in what can only be seen as a race to the bottom, reports Darryl D’Monte.

If the US view in particular and  much of the Western perspective on the Paris climate summit in general was to be symbolised, it is the cartoon which appeared in the New York Times which shows the locomotive of  the conference grounded by a slovenly Indian elephant sprawled on the tracks.

This, it must be remembered, appeared in the Opinion section of what is not the best, but the most powerful newspaper in the world. It drew a riposte from Ajit Ninan in our very own Times which showed a ferocious Uncle Sam whipping the two engine drivers of the locomotive -- the elephant and dragon (China) --  in an effort to get the train moving in the opposite direction.

Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science & Environment in Delhi and is a sharp observer of climate summitry since Rio de Janeiro in 1992, has angrily blogged against the intolerance shown by the global North against developing countries, using the media as a weapon and turning the tables by showing the victims of climate change as the culprits.

She wrote: ‘The erstwhile climate renegades are in control of the dialogue, narrative and the audience. The Umbrella Group is led by the US and includes the biggest rich polluters, such as Australia and Japan, which have always been in the dock for not taking action to combat climate change. In Paris, these countries have done an image change.

‘They are now the good guys. They want the world to be ambitious in meeting not just the 2°C temperature threshold, they are pushing for even staying below 1.5°C. They say they are pushing because they care for the small island nations, which will suffer horrendous consequences with rising temperatures. They also want an effective arrangement to monitor progress and to ramp up actions to meet these targets.’

Narain’s anger is understandable. It goes back to 1990 when she, and the illustrious founder of the CSE, the late Anil Agarwal, brought out a stinging critique of the Washington-based World Resources Institute’s listing of India as the fifth largest net greenhouse gas emitter. They titled it a case of ‘environmental colonialism’.

Since then, their formulations about global equity, historical emissions of industrial countries and last, but by no means least, per capita emissions have been accepted throughout climate negotiations.

Subsequent NYT editorials during Paris laboured the point: ‘Kyoto [the protocol under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] failed because it imposed emissions reduction targets only on developed countries, giving developing nations like China, India and Brazil a free pass…’

Kyoto was anathema to the US, which refused to sign it because it imposed quantitative cuts in industrial countries greenhouse gas emissions and financial penalties for failing to do so.

Even Japan, the host country of the protocol, later bowed out! If Paris really meant to serve as a landmark in recognising equity in climate negotiations, it should have heralded the second phase of the Kyoto protocol.

Instead we have all countries, India and China included, all signing up with voluntary commitments in what can only be seen as a race to the bottom. As US President Barack Obama intoned in Paris, there will be ‘targets that are not set for each of us, but by each of us’.

On the contrary, the US took the lead in blurring distinctions between developed and developing countries in Paris. There were references to the BASIC group, consisting of Brazil, South Africa, Indi and China, with ‘evolving economic circumstances’.

The top US negotiator Todd Stern criticised countries which took ‘fixed and immutable’ positions and argued for a ‘nuanced and flexible’ view. The US had the temerity to make a case for an ‘expansion of the donor base’, implying that China and India could contribute to the Global Climate Fund. US Secretary of State John Kerry noted that China had $3.5 trillion in reserves.

The widely-syndicated NYT columnist Tom Friedman interviewed Kerry at length in Paris. Kerry said: ‘We’ll be able to begin to measure where the potential derailers really are, or aren’t, after a lot of work’ -- once again the almost-literal reference to the cartoon.

At one stage Friedman specifically asked: ‘We were worried about how India would participate in this conference and whether it would be a spoiler or not. What can you tell us about India and its participation?’

Kerry refused to rise to the bait and was disarmingly generous: ‘I think Prime Minister Modi is a really interesting leader who is appropriately seized by technology and by the possibilities, and he faces this enormous challenge also. 

‘India, a very poor country, has an enormous challenge of bringing Indians in to the modern economy. Their baseline needs for energy production to keep their economy going are what they are. And he doesn’t have the luxury of cutting that off and then still growing and moving. 

‘So we’ve got to help. Everybody has to help. And there are ways we think we can help -- technology transfer, adaptation, mitigation. There are things we can do.  We really want a joint venture, work with India to try to do it just as we are with China. 

‘We have an obligation to try to do ...what can we do politically and what can we do substantively.  And we’re trying to get there.’

In the build-up to Paris, there were favourable references by US officials to India’s decision to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are a substitute for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

India has been resisting making this change, mindful of the fact that it was giant US chemical companies like DuPont which originally made CFCs, then the substitute HFCs and now hold  the patents for its replacement.

The US administration is working closely with these companies to get India -- which has a huge market for air-conditioners and refrigerators -- phase out HFCs. This has enormous financial implications for India and highlights the problem of getting patented technologies to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In Paris, the Western media, especially British outfits, kept up a constant barrage about the report a few weeks ago by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development that rich countries had already contributed $62 billion out of the S100 billion they have to provide developing countries combat climate change by 2020.

In a report disseminated in Paris, Indian finance ministry officials have torn the document to shreds, pointing out to double-accounting, the inclusion of private investments and ‘greenwashing’ in general.  However, the journalists persisted in needling Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Chief Negotiator Ajay Mathur about these findings, which have been widely discredited.

In all countries, there is a symbiotic relationship at international summits between governments and their respective media. One can see the symmetry of views and the media can often articulate what diplomats are too polite or nuanced to state. One has only to recall that the BBC World Service was till last year funded by the British Foreign Office.

Not that India is all that different. Many journalists here, reporting on the environment for the first (and only?) time, uncritically wrote or said what was handed out by Javadekar and other negotiators.

While India must be complimented for holding out against Western pressure, the question needs to be asked: what prevents the government from providing electricity to 300 million citizens who don’t have access to it? Or, for that matter, to more than twice as many who cook with smoky and polluting fuels? 

Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 9, 2015. Photograph: Stephane Mahe/Reuters.

Senior journalist Darryl D’Monte will be filing his despatches from the Paris climate change summit exclusively for Rediff.com.

Darryl D'Monte in Paris