ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dithering on Climate Change

India failed to put forward a well thought out, coherent and long-term climate strategy at the recent UN climate change conference in Delhi and missed an opportunity to jumpstart the climate change negotiations that have been stalled since the last important milestone at Kyoto, Japan five years ago.

Some nations acquire empires in a fit of absent mindedness, others simply host conferences. From October 23 to November 1 this year, India hosted the eighth annual meeting of 185 countries that are signatories to a non-binding 1992 UN Convention on Global Warming. In the jargon-ridden world of international diplomacy, this was the eighth annual Conference of Parties (COP 8) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Deep inside Lutyens’ New Delhi in the cloistered confines of Vigyan Bhavan, over 4,000 government and non-governmental delegates from the north and south expended hot air for 10 days debating passionately ‘bracketed text’ and parsing the distinction between ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’. Outside, for the people of Bharat and India preoccupied with Cauvery, Kashmir and cricket, respectively, the climate shenanigans barely registered a blip on their consciousness. Apart from the predictable editorials and op-ed pieces in newspapers and familiar faces of ‘experts’ doing the rounds of television channels, COP 8 might have well been held on Mars. This is not to argue that climate change (global warming for the scientifically challenged) is not serious business. On the contrary, it is possibly the most serious environmental challenge humanity has ever faced and for which global collective action is imperative. While the extent of climate change and its environmental and economic impact are subject to debate, it is, nevertheless, clear that humans are altering the earth’s climate in profound ways through burning fossil fuels that produce carbon dioxide, and from activities such as cutting of forests and agriculture that produce methane-another greenhouse gas.1 It is too much, however, to expect a well thought out, coherent and long-term climate strategy from a government that cannot see beyond the next round of elections and its narrow parochial interests. Therefore, India missed an opportunity to jumpstart the climate change negotiations that have been stalled since the last important milestone at Kyoto, Japan five years ago.

At the COP 3 meeting at Kyoto in 1997, 34 of the world’s industrialised countries agreed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – mainly carbon dioxide or CO2, by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels, over a five-year period from 2008- 2012. Much attention since has been focused on making the so-called Kyoto Protocol happen. In order to make the targets legally binding, at least 55 countries among 185 signatories to the UNFCCC have to ratify the Protocol. In addition, these must include industrialised countries (Annex I Parties to UNFCCC in climatespeak) accounting for 55 per cent of that group’s carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. So far, 96 countries have ratified the Protocol including 25 Annex I Parties that account for about 37.4 per cent of total Annex I carbon dioxide emissions (see the Kyoto Protocol ‘thermometer’ at kpthermo.html). In addition to the incorrigible US that accounts for 36 per cent of Annex I emissions, other important holdouts in this group are Russia (17.4 per cent) and Poland, Canada and Australia (about 2-3 per cent each). While the oil lobby dominated Bush administration has flatly refused to sign the Protocol on the specious plea that it is ‘fatally flawed’ and would harm the US economy (!), other laggards, Russia in particular, are simply manoeuvring for the maximum concessions they can extract. Though it seems likely that the Kyoto Protocol may yet come into force if Russia can be cajoled to join, the road from Kyoto to Delhi and beyond has been slow and tortured. The nadir was reached at COP 6 at The Hague in November 2000 when a sensible compromise offered by the Clinton administration was rejected by the European Union. Soon after, the Bush nightmare started with the US pulling out of the Protocol completely in March 2001. Ironically, the compromise hammered out at Bonn later that year watered down the Protocol to include carbon ‘sinks’ (forests and such like that absorb or ‘sequester’ carbon dioxide) and dropped any requirement of ‘supplementarity’ – that is, the limits on the extent to which a country’s commitment to reduce GHGs could be met through various flexibility mechanisms. In the ultimate analysis, the agreements at Bonn and at Marrakech (COP 7) looked very much like the version that America could have signed (2). 

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