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Paris - The endgame for climate justice

 Business Standard, Sunita Narain, 20th December 2015



The Paris climate conference has been feted as historic and ambitious. US President Barack Obama has personally called Prime Minister Narendra Modi to thank him for India's cooperation to make the deal successful. But read the fine print, and it becomes clear that poorer countries have lost big time. This battle is to save the world from catastrophic climate change impacts so that rich industrialised countries do their fair share to reduce emissions and the emerging world gets its right to development and support to develop differently. The most important element of the Paris agreement is that it endorses the need for the world to keep temperature increase below 1.5°Celsius - this is crucial, as we in India are already seeing devastating impacts of weird weather events when the temperature increase is a mere 0.8-1°C since pre-industrial era. So capping temperatures has to be welcomed.

But, if the world wants to cap temperatures then it must also agree to an ambitious plan to cap greenhouse emissions - which trap heat and cause increases in temperatures. The Paris agreement fails in this totally. In fact, the aggregate of all the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) adds up to a minimum increase of 3°C or much more. There is no target set for developed countries to take more aggressive cuts to reduce their contributions to the growing stock of emissions in the atmosphere.

What is even worse is that Paris cements climate apartheid - so that the historical responsibility of the developed world of creating the problem of emissions is erased. Worse, the burden of future transition moves to the still developing world.

The fact is that if temperature increase is capped at 1.5°C, then the carbon budget - how much the world can emit to cap that temperature rise - is limited even further. If the world was capping temperatures at 2°C, then the remaining budget - from 2011-2100 - would be roughly 1,000 billion tonnes and when temperature is capped at 1.5°C then the remaining budget shrinks to a mere 400-550 billion tonnes. What is also clear is that at current rates of emissions this 'budget' will be more or less exhausted by 2020. This means that by the time the Paris agreement begins in 2020 there is no right left for the bulk of the world to its development.

Nowhere in the Paris draft, other than a weak sentence about "enhanced pre-2020 ambition that can lay a solid foundation for enhanced post-2020 ambition" is the fact mentioned that the already rich countries have to reduce now to leave space for the rest to grow. It is a known fact that the US action plan on climate change is nothing more than business as usual. It is also known that countries like the US have already appropriated some 21 per cent of the budget already spent and will use up another 10 per cent by 2030. The Paris agreement wipes this clean. In fact, what it does is to universalise action to reduce emissions, without apportioning the responsibilities or rights of countries for creating the problem or reducing emissions.

In this situation, what countries like India have got are sweet nothings about 'equity' and 'climate justice', which the agreement says is important for 'some'. The agreement does not operationalise equity by asking for the carbon budget to be shared fairly between nations. All it does is to make some vague promises about funds and technology that will be available in the distant future to developing countries for low-carbon growth. In this way, justice is kept as an illusion. The reality is that it is a deal that is inequitable and unambitious.

The only way Indian diplomats can call the Paris agreement a victory is by arguing that they did all they can in a situation where the dice was already loaded against them. They stopped complete annihilation. This is indeed true. The question is why does this happen? In my view, there are two reasons.

First global negotiations reflect the growing inequality and intolerance in the world. In Paris, for the first time since the beginning of climate negotiations, the erstwhile climate renegades were in control of the dialogue, narrative and the audience. The Umbrella Group is a grouping led by the US and includes the biggest rich polluters, such as Australia and Japan, who have always been in the dock for not taking action to combat climate change. In Paris, these countries had done an image change so that they were pushing for aggressive and ambitious action.

Their makeover was not overnight, or sudden. These countries had done their homework, so that the script was crafted skilfully and the propaganda spread. Audaciously. Their civil society had been cajoled into believing that this is their time. The US non-governmental organisations' allegiance was absolute because they (genuinely and naively) believe their government is doing all it can in spite of Republican Party opposition. Their media was in full attention - the likes of The New York Times and BBC had been seconded to scold and reprimand the governments of developing countries like India for misbehavior. So, what US government officials could not say, their media spelt out.

But, there is a second reason why we lose. It is also because Indian negotiators always fight with their backs against the wall; over time they have no wriggle room left. They collapse and we all fall down. Let's discuss this further in the New Year.