Beyond the global warming imbroglio


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THE path of economic growth that started with the industrial revolution in Europe has, after about 200 years, left humanity trapped in the imbroglio of climate change. To address the global warming and related changes in the earth’s climate, some initiatives have been taken through the UN system. The Climate Change Summit held in Copenhagen during 07-19 December 2009, the most recent of such efforts, had excited the imagination of people all over the world. Humanity, after all, critically needs a remedy to the damage being caused to the global commons of the atmosphere by the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emitted by industrial activities all over the world, ever since the industrial revolution in Europe started.

The comments on the summit after it ended are rather varied. The failure of the Conference of the Parties (CoP 15) to fulfil the aspirations of the global citizens and deliver a legally binding agreement with time-bound reductions in the emissions of GHGs has been by many NGOs described as a total failure. In the early hours of 19 December, as the prospects of a clear agreement from Copenhagen evaporated, what emerged as an alternative was the Copenhagen Accord. From the range of the comments made on this accord it is clear that most people are really unable to decide whether to celebrate the ‘essential beginning’ of a new global climate regime or to express anguish over an unproductive international jamboree attended by 193 nation states.

Those who had, however, been closely following the developments in the days before the CoP 15, did have an inkling of such an outcome, of another statement of political will with no legal strength and no clear time-bound steps for the much needed reduction of global GHG emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C above the pre-industrial level. While global warming has been established from the time-series data on the average temperature of the atmosphere, the range of possible impacts of such a warming on the environment is not yet well-understood. The precautionary principle, however, indicates clearly the measures to be taken even as the science of climate change gets further advanced. Accordingly, if clear and binding steps had been taken in Copenhagen, it would have benefited humanity as a whole.

To address the challenge of global warming and related climate change, the world needs to take almost emergency measures for making drastic cuts in the GHG emissions in a very short time. However, the national leaders attending the Copenhagen CoP failed to achieve that result. Global warming and related climate change continues to pose before humanity a challenge where nations need to act urgently. What, then, are the obstacles to such steps, so important for humanity, being agreed upon? This is the imbroglio global warming has created for the world.

Part of the gap lies in the institutional inadequacies of the United Nations platform constituted by divided nations. The division came in many forms: between countries emitting large amount of GHGs and those not emitting much GHGs, small countries having large stocks of fossil fuels and those not having these fuels, countries having developed post-petroleum technologies and those who may need to buy them, countries threatened by impacts of warming and climate change and those who are not, and so on. The leaders negotiating the post-Kyoto climate regime were, however, closely tied to respective national mandates and thus guided more by related interests than the mission of arresting global warming. This is a vital institutional weakness of the negotiation system in place, as a result of which diversity of national interests and positions have divided the parties and reduced the scope and speed of decision-making on a global priority like climate change. At the same time, national sovereignty is not to be compromised in global negotiations.


As is well-known, results of international negotiations are invariably determined, not by the level of urgency of the subject but by the lowest common denominator among the negotiating positions. Further, as in the case of the CoP 15, an agreement had to be adopted by consensus and not by a majority in the house. A single country can thus raise objection to wordings or a resolution, stalling the whole negotiation process as China did several times in Copenhagen. Similarly, Barak Obama had to respect the limit of 17 per cent GHG emission reduction by 2020 over 2005 for his proposals to receive the necessary support in the House of Representatives. Wen Jiabao, even though his country is the largest GHG emitter today, has to keep the doors open for the ambitious domestic energy expansions based largely on coal. Possibly this is why India, which had been repeating its traditional position based on per capita emissions, suddenly changed line and announced some unilateral reduction in the GHG intensity, a la China, just so that it would not be seen as a deal-breaker.

The outcome of the November 2009 US-China energy summit was a clear indicator that the world’s two largest GHG emitters had come closer and made up their mind for Copenhagen. China’s innovative idea of a commitment for reduction in the GHG emission intensity of GDP by 45 per cent by 2050 was a masterstroke in image building, though not a real commitment to the earth’s atmosphere. The NGO world wanted the world leaders to wish away these very real national political limitations and make Copenhagen a ‘great success’ by taking decisions that may not meet a similar fate as the earlier ones did. Nevertheless, those NGOs who blame the world leaders for having betrayed humanity in Copenhagen need to be realistic, even though their sensationalism has generally contributed towards keeping the pressure on the leaders to walk in the broad direction needed.


In the last part of the Copenhagen summit, negotiations were stuck and the hope for a legally binding agreement had already faded. But for the efforts of Barak Obama and Wen Jiabao, the leaders of the two countries that together account for about 43 per cent of global GHG emissions, it is possible that we may not have had any Copenhagen Accord. It is thus not surprising that the accord is vague on a clear date for a peaking of GHG emissions or specifying clear time bound reductions. The draft accord was subsequently shared with and agreed upon by Brazil, India and South Africa to start with. Twenty eight more countries, both industrialized and developing, joined in at this stage, some grudgingly. Thus, stage by stage, the accord was placed in the plenary as the curtain came down on CoP 15. Finally, in the early morning of 19 December 2009, the president of the conference informed that the parties ‘took note’ of the accord.

Barak Obama should surely get some credit for traversing such an informal and innovative path. Rarely has any US president been so intensely involved in the UN negotiations. This may have been the result of either a genuine commitment to protecting the earth or establishing his own political image as the green leader of the world, or both. Equally, China’s offer to voluntarily reduce the GHG intensity of its GDP was a significant procedural innovation, though it does not guarantee any quantitative reduction in GHG emission from China. By opposing many important quantitative time-bound clauses, China has kept its options wide open. Credit should also go to the other three countries, including India. India’s traditional position of sticking only to the historical responsibility of industrialized countries as the political line and per capita emissions as the basis for comparison, was finally replaced by a voluntary reduction on the pattern of China.


There is no doubt that the accord is vague and has no legal binding. Criticism of the accord has been centred on several points. These need to be seen together with the questions that have recently been raised on the method adopted by the IPCC to study the science of global warming and climate change. Over the past decades, the IPCC has acted as the apex body of scientists from all over the world, establishing the science of global warming and climate change. It is essential that the IPCC comes clean about the complaints that have been made on the misuse of temperature data to fit its position, what is known as the climategate scandal. Similarly, while the accord refers to the science of climate change, it should not ignore the complaints in the follow-up stages. In the interest of climate science, and stronger scientific support for steps to address global warming, this debate needs to be taken up, not set aside.


The accord has also been criticized for its veiled bias towards the US as against the EU. Freedom from the Kyoto Protocol is seen as advantageous to the US, since that would promote CO2 trading with the possibility of large volumes of carbon business shifting from the EU to the US. The third criticism is old but significant, that the accord uses the financial power of the industrialized countries through the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, offering USD 30 billion between 2010 and 2012 and USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for adaptation and technology transfer for mitigation in the developing countries. NGO critics describe this, together with CO2 trading, as a get-away mechanism for the US from making deep cuts into its own GHG emission.

Together with all its shortcomings and lack of quantitative fixation on several issues, the Copenhagen Accord is now the available starting point for further measures that includes GHG reduction commitments from all major emitters. But then, how many times will the world be given a new starting point? It had one in Rio in 1992, another in Kyoto in 1997 and now a fresh one in 2009 in Copenhagen. The citizens of the world now need to mount pressure on all countries to stop shifting the starting line and to begin forward movement to arrive at a legally binding agreement in Mexico next year. Humanity has created many nations but it has only one earth to live in!


India is the fifth largest emitter of GHGs with a rapidly growing economy. It is also a country with the largest number of poor people who have hardly any role in the GHG accumulation in the atmosphere. But indications are clear that the impact of global warming and climate change will be very harsh on them. India needs to take a variety of steps to address both the question of reducing GHG emission and protect the vulnerable from human generated global warming and climate change.

The prime minister has established a council to guide activities related to climate change. The National Action Plan developed by the council has created eight missions which have been announced. Yet, conspicuous by its absence is a mission on the coastal and river delta areas which are already affected by the rising sea level! Till the Copenhagen Summit, India had been propagating the thesis of per capita emission as the principle for addressing GHG emission reductions. This principle has, however, not been applied in the intra-national levels.

The time has thus come to expose the gross inequities in the GHG emissions from diverse income groups. The rich in India should stop hiding their huge GHG emissions behind the large number of poor people who hardly contribute to GHG emissions, and hence, effectively extend a numerical subsidy to the rich by bringing down the per capita emission figures at the national level that the government flaunts in inter-governmental negotiations. There is a need to encourage a new consumption pattern, specially among the rich in India, to reduce the per capita emissions even at the level of families. Taxes and other fiscal encouragement should liberally be extended to promote energy efficiency and use of low futuristic emission technologies. Further, no one has stopped us from investing heavily in research on renewable sources of energy and energy efficiency. There is thus no sacrifice of national interest in India making voluntary cuts in the GHG intensity of the economy.

The more important steps that India needs to take are related to adaptation. The GHG accumulation that has already taken place will not go away in a day, and the warming that has been initiated is not going to stabilize soon, even when the contributing factors are significantly reduced. Thus, understanding and estimating the impacts of global warming and climate change is critical for India. In a country dominated by the monsoon, variability and uncertainties are high. The evolving new climate regime can only make things worse. The Indian economy, with its high density of population, is precariously dependent on good monsoons. If neglected, impacts of global warming and climate change will surely put too many obstacles in the path of India’s economic development.


This crisis offers to India, as indeed to many other developing countries, an opportunity to rethink the present path of energy-technology-production-distribution that is taken almost as given by the pundits of traditional economics. In failing to avail of this opportunity, India will miss a major turning point towards equity and ecological continuity. We really cannot afford to be complacent over the post-climate change economic avenues. Humanity has to take the climate change challenge by the horn. Let us push our leaders to stop making it a practice to return from the negotiations without a legally binding agreement. Let Copenhagen not be repeated in the next climate change summit in Mexico later this year. Humanity has created many nations but only one earth to live in!