English Free Article | Policy | VOL. 11, ISSUE 65, March-April 2011 |

Norms, Obligations and Climate Negotiations

A Perspective for Emerging Economies

Climate Change poses a serious threat in terms of breakdown of agrarian systems through erratic rainfall, more frequent occurrence of droughts and floods; jeopardising the economies in coastal cities through rise in sea level. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has predicted a significant disruption of livelihood opportunities in its Human Development Report Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World, 2008. The Report shows how 600 million people are likely to be pushed into a malnutrition trap while 300 million people in coastal and low-lying areas would be displaced from their habitation. Confronted with these problems, meeting the millennium development goals (MDG) relating to poverty, reduction in mortality and provision of basic amenities would be much more challenging

A large segment of the affected population would be the citizens of Asia; India having a disproportionate share in it. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC4) holds that future climate change would seriously affect melting of glaciers in the Himalaya, sea level, forest cover and overall biodiversity resulting in displacement of population in the region. Scholars have documented the increasing intensity and frequency of many extreme weather events including heat waves, tropical cyclones, prolonged dry spells and severe dust storms etc. leading to a rise in the snowline and disappearance of many glaciers, which have serious impacts on the population relying on the main river systems. Many other Asian countries, i.e., the island states and those having large coastal areas, forests and mountainous terrain would also be severely affected. The IPCC4 predicts that rapid industrialisation and urbanisation would compound the pressures on natural resources and adversely affect future economic growth in the region.

The immediate impacts of climate change in Asia would be on health with increased epidemics of malaria, dengue, and other vector-borne diseases. Besides, the frequency and duration of severe heat waves and humid conditions are likely to increase the mortality and morbidity rates affecting the urban poor and slum populations. Increased flooding and intensification of tropical cyclones would compound climate related injuries and deaths. Poor urban air quality in several metro cities in China, India and Indonesia could contribute to widespread heat stress and smog induced illnesses. Similarly, the health and livelihood vulnerability in coastal cities would increase.

Many among the policy makers and researchers, however, argue that the future is unlikely to be so alarming given the policy changes and innovations already underway in several rapidly growing middle income countries like China, Brazil, India, and Indonesia often described as emerging economies. Given this, one would expect greater compliance of the emission norms on a voluntary basis. Indeed, the best way of moving forward in this regard would be increasing awareness among the policy makers and the governments in the region so as to adopt low carbon and climate resilient strategies of development without any external pressure.


Global Architecture for Tackling Climate Change around Kyoto Protocol

The international political response to climate change began in earnest with the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 with 194 countries endorsing it as Parties. It put forward a framework for action aimed at stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. A landmark Protocol was signed in 1997 at the Third Conference of the Parties (COP 3) of the UNFCCC in Kyoto. It made the industrialised countries and countries in transition commit to significant emission reduction within a timeframe. The 39 developed and transitional countries agreed to reduce by 2012, their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 per cent below the 1990 levels. The spirit of the Protocol was apportionment of responsibility on major polluting countries based on historical data and norms of per capita emission.

Although equity concerns were present, grievances were expressed that the Protocol did not adequately address the problems of the developing countries, particularly the small island states. The Protocol, nonetheless, has been credited for boldly raising a number of complex political, technical and legal issues. These are yet to be resolved in the context of the differing perspectives of the nations stemming from their geophysical character, nature and degree of exposure to climatic factors and current levels and future strategies of economic development. While Australia and Japan made a strong plea to use carbon sinks to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, India and China took an official position that they must be exempt from the conditionalities as their per capita emissions were far below those of developed nations, notwithstanding the significant rise in their figures in the recent past. Indonesia, the third biggest carbon emitter in the world after the United States (US) and China and experiencing rapid deforestation, had reservations in compromising with its high growth perspective. In contrast, a large number of small island states and low lying nations wanted the targets of temperature rise to be fixed at 1.5°C by the turn of the century. They were vocal and demanded the monitoring of certain indicators in relation to the global goal for all countries.

Environmental vulnerability of these states is basically due to limited assimilative and carrying capacity in physical terms and fragile ecosystems that reflect the exposure factor whereas economic vulnerability stems from their limited economies of scale, remoteness resulting in high transport costs and dependence on exports of a few commodities. Understandably, they pleaded inclusion of indicators reflecting their specific vulnerabilities in the context of climate related negotiations. However, fixing the global target at 2 degrees, as pleaded explicitly or implicitly by the emerging economies, changed the reference point for constructing these indicators. Although the rate of growth in emissions in the post Kyoto Protocol phase has been less than what was noted during several preceding decades, the incremental emissions in per capita terms are much higher in the developed countries compared to less developed ones.

The developing countries have been emphasising the need to transfer technology for assisting them in their adaptation strategies by replacing the Kyoto protocol by another, which hopefully is more stringent. The US is not signing the Protocol because it may have an adverse impact on American economy. For a few other developed countries, downward revision in emission reduction targets has been a handicap in pushing this agenda at a global level. An emerging lobby holds that selective inclusion of countries within this ‘regulatory framework’ does not convey seriousness of environmental concern. It is demanding that rapidly industrialising countries that are reporting significant increases in their emission levels, even as their current emissions are low, should be included within the regularity framework.

The European Union (EU) reducing its emissions by about 8 per cent below that of 1990 in 2009 and the US announcing before the summit that it can cut down emissions by 17 per cent in 2020 from the level in 2005 and by another 83 per cent by 2050 seemed to suggest the beginning of an era of ending the conservative mindset at the time of the Copenhagen summit (COP 15). And yet, the summit failed to operationalise a treaty to supplant or supplement the Kyoto Protocol or even to set a timetable for working out such a treaty. Importantly, the agreement made no mention of the developed countries contributing 1.5 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to the UN managed Green Climate Fund.


International expectation from the COP16 summit at Cancun was low. Its outcome, indeed, has disappointed many as it has come as an agreement and not as a binding treaty. It has been criticised for not proposing a timetable and a legal frame of emission reduction and not deciding on how to extend the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement has, however, been seen by UN agencies as a ‘step forward’ given that international negotiations had stumbled in recent years. Although the countries merely ‘took note’ of the accord, UN believes it to be as good as their ‘accepting’ the document. The Secretary General Ban Ki-moon holds that ‘it is a real deal. And we will try to have legally binding [language] as soon as possible’. It is argued that the international community must respect ‘this product’ of the UN process and build on it.

It would be dangerous to be complacent as far as environmental future is concerned, by relegating the responsibility of saving the world from environmental disaster onto the developed countries, especially because the less developed countries have a greater stake in it. It would also be unrealistic to assume that a protocol with more stringent provisions can be agreed upon without a system, which enables the countries to exhibit their efforts at tackling the problem of climate change in a credible fashion, being in place. Given the compulsions to usher in fiscal and financial reforms at global and national level and set up a mechanism to conduct carbon trading within and across the countries, it would be important to determine the differential exposure and impact of climatic change across different countries. Without reliable statistics on these, the environmental discourse cannot rise above emotional appeal and policy exhortations.


Negotiations without a Treaty: Treading a difficult Terrain

It is important to note that discussions are now taking place outside the UNFCCC umbrella. The key message emerging from the summits is that the issue is complicated and that global leaders will have to work not only within the framework of UN negotiations, but also outside it – more directly and pragmatically on multilateral and even a bilateral basis. The process of negotiations, however, can lead to meaningful results only if the basic parameters that describe the state of the environment in different countries and their efforts to put in action mitigation and adaptive programmes are defined with specificity. Such assessments are important in the contemporary context especially because the sovereign countries have expressed reservations in accepting dictates of any international agency. Building up indicators on the basis of robust and temporally comparable databases which capture the cause and impact of climate change and the remedial measures launched by different countries would help the negotiation processes and facilitate drawing up of a road map for building a climate resilient world system.

The need of the hour is to devise a system of incentives for the countries to go in for environment friendly technologies and restructure growth pattern so that there is less pressure on natural resources. For this, it would be important to quantify the impact and implications of changes, to the extent technology makes it possible, in order to develop a strategy on climatic parameters and vice-versa. Despite increasing awareness among national and international governments, however, the methodology for assessing the parameters has not been worked out in a manner that can be incorporated into the global decision making.


A Proposed Framework

The less developed countries, vulnerable to climate change, have made a strong case for development assistance, based on their historical and current data on carbon emission, without entailing any environmental compliance. For operationalising this, it would be important to unambiguously determine the parameters of climate change and their impact on the economy, society and system of governance. The degree of exposure and natural capacity to absorb the impact vary across countries due to their physiographic conditions and growth strategy and these need to be quantitatively determined. A number of UN, governmental and non governmental agencies have taken up the task of building climate change vulnerability indices taking all these factors into consideration. Similarly, effectiveness of the current adaptation and mitigation strategies and the capacity to sustain these needs have to be quantitatively determined. It would be possible to make a strong case for adoption of a Kyoto type Protocol or ensuring its compliance by the developed countries if the developing nations can demonstrate that the opportunity of exemption and the accessed adaptation funds are being utilised for restructuring their development strategy to reflect the concern for both, sustainability and MDGs. This requires building a clearly spelt-out transparent system of indicator linked development assistance, which can be updated at regular intervals as technical knowledge regarding the parameters of costs and benefits advances over time.

The proposition of assistance being linked only to vulnerability computed within a human development framework, however, has been contested by the lobby of economically developed countries on the ground that it would make the recipient countries complacent with regard to adaptation measures. A case is, therefore made for developing separate indices in a similar manner to assess the scale and effectiveness of adaptation/mitigation efforts. These indices must consider production technology in different sectors, institutional sensitivity to climatic changes, state policies, programmes and allocation pattern. A number of regionally or socially disaggregated indices can also be constructed instead of depending on a single national level figure.

The success of the approach would depend on creation of an apex level institution to formalise the methodology of working out the indices taking into account both, the concerns for sustainability and the MDGs. An expert body may be established as a part of the institution through intergovernmental negotiations that can build a global consensus on the methodology. Apportionment of global or regional green funds can be proposed based on its recommendations.


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