Inconclusive outcomes, uncertain futures


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CLIMATE change requires us to move away from traditional thinking of sovereign states and boundaries, to cross-border cooperation and thinking of the commons and equitable sharing of ecological or carbon space. Such cooperation is needed not just across borders, among nations in a region and at global levels, but also within national borders at various scales and levels, as the impacts recognize no boundaries. And yet, what came out of Copenhagen is an accord which is not legally binding, a new climate grouping and, as argued by some, the shaping of a new political and economic order that reflects the new international economic realities and is considered strategic to make a difference to climate change because it brings in the reluctant superpower and the inflexible emerging powers. The interaction, mode and instrumentalities of cooperation being forged among countries will certainly influence not just the nature of outcomes, but also climate security and international relations in the future.

The latest climate negotiations were to review progress achieved by Annex I countries in meeting carbon emission reduction targets by 2012 set out in the Kyoto Protocol, sign on to more significant obligations in the second commitment period commencing in 2013, and work towards an agreed outcome for long term cooperative action. Non Annex I parties, namely, the developing countries, were required to detail their actions to limit the growth of their emissions in line with their sustainable development needs, in particular actions that would need support through finance and technology from developed countries.

What emerged instead was a political statement known as the Copenhagen Accord, a statement based on a deal brokered by the US with four emerging economies, namely Brazil, South Africa, China and India, and arrived at a closed meeting of 26 UNFCCC parties, and then presented to the rest of the parties. Though not legally binding internationally as it was not accepted by all the countries present, and thus not seen to be based on consensus, it is nevertheless widely seen as a document that contains some guiding principles that will serve as the basis for further negotiations, most immediately in CoP 16 at Mexico City later this year.


The accord, as an outcome of Copenhagen, has been variously dubbed as a success by some, and a failure by others. Comments ranged from a ‘huge breakthrough’, to being a ‘disaster’, depending on where one stood in the spectrum of expectations of Copenhagen. The debate and negotiations on climate change have created cleavages in terms of global concerns and national interests of countries. A single-minded pursuit of national interest may well create difficulties for long term cooperation on an issue that has existential proportions. The negotiations, as we saw them play out and reported, were acrimonious, deeply divided along several ‘fault lines’, and never really took off.

Forces were at play to divide the G-77, to make clear that the developing world is no longer a homogenous bloc, but one with as many economic and environmental asymmetries as the traditional North-South divide. The same forces worked hard through the two year run up to Copenhagen to play on the fears of small island developing states and other developing countries on the impacts of climate change, with a view to not only create divisions within the developing country bloc but also create domestic lobbies to press for more action by developing country governments based on potential security aspects of climate change.


The accord refers to the extant science and seeks to limit temperature increases to 2°c, but there is no reference to a global GHG emission reduction target or the year by which it is to be accomplished. It speaks of mitigation commitments, transparency of actions, and financing for mitigation and adaptation. It requires that the Annex I parties commit to implement individually or jointly quantified economy-wide emission targets for 2020 to be submitted by 31 January 2010, and that countries party to the Kyoto Protocol strengthen emission reduction initiated by the protocol.

This can be interpreted to imply that trivial individual or collective emission targets by Annex I parties may be consistent with these provisions.1 Non Annex I parties to the UNFCCC are required to implement mitigation actions, including those to be submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat by 31/1/10 consistent with Article 4.1 and 4.7 of the conventions, and agree to a new provision for some form of external review, ‘international consultations and analysis’ of how effectively these actions are being implemented.

The accord departs significantly from the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol as it creates a new grouping of emerging economies between the developed and developing countries, with new responsibilities for the emerging economies. As such it practically does away with the erstwhile distinction between historic and future responsibilities, as it tends to focus more on ‘common but differentiated responses’, as referred to in President Obama’s opening statement at Copenhagen. Both as conceived and as it stands, it is more of a sub-global climate agreement, somewhat akin to the six nation Asia Pacific Pact on Clean Energy signed by USA, China, India, South Korea, Japan and Australia. It brings USA back to the mainstream of climate negotiations, after many years of being on the sidelines, and the promise of building new ‘green partnerships’ with the US at the core of it. To an extent it sidesteps the multilateral approach that is so required to address this problem in favour of a more strategic group approach.


That the climate negotiations have moved significantly from being about the environment and development, to being about the competitiveness of nations has been amply evident in the recently concluded Conference of Parties (CoP 15) at Copenhagen. Since the turn of the century, given the economic rise of China, and more recently of India, there has been increased pressure from the developed world on these two countries to accept legally binding carbon emission cuts.

The concerns of the developed world are linked to the argument, not always explicit, but increasingly evident, that cutting their emissions without the emerging world doing so would make them less competitive economically; while those of the emerging economies are that accepting emission cuts would make it more difficult for them to develop and reduce current poverty, and address the unmet energy needs of their populations. Given the large divide still evident on a number of human development indicators, this argument still holds for the emerging economies, and most certainly for India.

But all this kind of argumentation is being swept aside as being ‘obstructive’ and unconstructive, even if legitimate. Using science as a cover, and the argument that the emerging world is now emitting much more than in the early 1990s and hence needs to be made to commit to emission cuts, the hidden agenda of not ceding competitive advantage in trade to the emerging world is increasingly occupying policy and diplomatic space. As such, this is pushing out the centrality of the fairness and equity arguments from the climate discourse, leaving just the science and the economic arguments.


Take President Obama’s press statement prior to his departure from Copenhagen on 18 December:

‘But what’s happened obviously since 1992 is that you’ve got emerging countries like China and India and Brazil that have seen enormous economic growth and industrialization. So we know that moving forward it’s going to be necessary if we’re going to meet those targets for some changes to take place among those countries. It’s not enough just for the developed countries to make changes. Those countries are going to have to make some changes as well – not of the same pace, not in the same way, but they’re going to have to do something to assure that whatever carbon we’re taking out of the environment is not just simply dumped in by other parties.

‘On the other hand, from the perspective of the developing countries like China and India, they’re saying to themselves, our per capita carbon footprint remains very small, and we have hundreds of millions of people who don’t even have electricity yet, so for us to get bound by a set of legal obligations could potentially curtail our ability to develop, and that’s not fair.

‘So I think that you have a fundamental deadlock in perspectives that were brought to the discussions during the course of this week. And both sides have legitimate points.’ (Obama, 18 December 2009, Remarks by the President during press availability in Copenhagen. The White House.htm)


In contrast, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the CHOGM meeting at the Port of Spain on 27 November, stated that, ‘We acknowledge the imperative of science but science must not trump equity. Climate change action based on the perpetuation of poverty will simply not be sustainable.’ China, and increasingly India, while having no historic responsibility for the carbon dioxide stocks, will increasingly add to this stock through their annual flows as they develop their economies and increase their energy use. In 2006, the USA and China were at 20% of global emissions, but with vast differences in per capita emissions; according to the IEA, by 2030, China will overtake the USA to 29% as compared to the USA’s fall to 14% of global emissions. India’s global share, meanwhile is projected to rise from 4% to 6%.

While future responsibility is thus not to be denied, and action is clearly needed to reduce future carbon footprints of development, it is clear that there would be no future responsibility if there is no recognition of historic responsibility via the stocks of carbon created by the developed world. In other words, if the stocks were not causing a problem to climate, we would not need to worry about the flows. So these need to be read together in any apportionment of carbon space for the future, since the use of carbon space has allowed the current developed economies to grow without the additional costs that the emerging and developing economies will need to take on if they were to move to less carbon futures, without support. While this line of argument is a ground well-trodden, and is currently received with a kind of impatience from people who want to ‘get on with it’, it is an argument that on fairness grounds cannot be ignored. Moreover, while the fairness argument has been much discussed and articulated, what is less known is that the current increased pressure for action on climate change, even from the scientific community, is because we have lost many years of a climate response through the inaction on the part of the developed world to reduce emissions, thereby further reducing the carbon space available to the latecomers.


An analysis of developed country responses towards addressing historical responsibility as required under the UNFCCC, and of implementing the legally binding emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol reveals poor action. The US, hitherto most responsible for the carbon stocks, not only rejected the Kyoto Protocol as it would damage the US economy, it remained on the sidelines of the pre Copenhagen negotiations. The world’s hegemonic power thus walked away from addressing a global problem. Through its irresponsibility, it also set an example to other high per capita emitter countries such as Australia and Canada. The former too was not party to the protocol until the change in government in 2007; the latter did sign the protocol, but did little toward meeting its international obligations.

Analyzing 1990-2007 performance towards Kyoto commitments, including lulucf data, Canada posted a 46% increase over 1990 levels as against the Kyoto target of 6% reduction, and Australia (which became a Kyoto Party only in December 2007) an 82% increase over the 8% increase originally committed; a 5.6% reduction is noted for the EU as against the Kyoto target of 8% by 2012, and in Japan, an 8.2% increase as against Kyoto target of 6% reduction. The USA (not a party to the protocol) posted an increase of 15.8% as against a target of 7% reduction if it had ratified the protocol. The emissions are less if lulucf is not taken into account. (


Whatever achievements there have been towards Kyoto commitments from Annex I parties are due to the EIT countries, which are however on the rise as can be seen in Figure 1.


Trends in Aggregate GHG Emissions (1990-2007)

LULUCF - Total emissions and removals from forest and land use change activities (activities impact on three different carbon sources/sinks: aboveground biomass, belowground biomass and soil carbon).

EIT – economies in transition

What chance then remains of putting in place a culture of responsibility? While it is undeniable that emerging economies need to demonstrate a new culture of responsibility, those with historic responsibility too need to ensure that they do their bit to demonstrate their commitment to more just outcomes, by responding to the shrinking of carbon space by reducing their emissions in order to allow the developing world greater space for development. This has been at the heart of the UNFCCC, and still requires that national per capita emissions be the yardstick around which the fairness debate is pegged. While recognizing China is the largest absolute emitter, its per capita emissions in 2004 were 3.9t/c, below the world average of 4.3t/c, while that of India were 1.2t/c, and Brazil 1.8t/c. Meanwhile the USA was 20.6t/c, Canada 20t/c and Australia 16.2t/c.


But this fairness argument was buried in clever talk to break the impasse, and in the Copenhagen accord itself. The freedom to Annex I parties to arrive at emission targets without reference to a global target suggests that each nation may arrive at their own national commitments without a reference to others.2 It is not clear if this practice will allow carbon space to be opened up for low per capita emission counties such as India to be able to emit as they seek to address energy needs through current resource use and practice.


The Copenhagen Accord has evoked mixed feelings. The Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh was reportedly happy with the outcome and is quoted in the Financial Times of 22 December, as saying, ‘My mandate was to protect India’s right to development… India’s right to faster economic growth. We protected our national interest.’ The prime minister, on the other hand, while addressing the 97th Indian Science Congress on 3 January 2010 said, nations ‘made limited progress’ at the climate change conference at Copenhagen and that ‘no one was satisfied with the outcome.’

While there are those who talk of welcoming a green partnership with the US, Indian business remains concerned that the commitments (the earlier 25% reduction in carbon intensity in 2020 over 2005) will be a costly exercise for them. Business internationally feels that ‘investors are faced with an uncertain terrain of diverse national policies on climate change’ (Tim Copsey, China Dialogue).

A lot of what happened at Copenhagen was to set the stage for the safe passage through the US Senate of a climate bill that allows a 17% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, a lower cut than it would have were it to be party to the Kyoto Protocol. But the world still has to see if this will happen. Were this not to go through, we may well be facing the prospect of the climate negotiations on carbon emission mitigation grinding to a complete halt.



1. P. Ghosh, personal communication.

2. P. Ghosh, personal communication.