Cold facts of a warming world

Updated: 2012-12-04 08:01

By Suhit Sen (China Daily)

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The Doha climate change conference - the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - is barely halfway through, but it has become abundantly clear already that a resolution on any key issue is unlikely to transpire. It is equally clear that the confabulations on climate change have become a reenactment of history - annually as farce.

The line of divide between the developed world and the global South has become more entrenched than ever and every year the trenches keep getting dug deeper. That is especially so because Europe - which started out with moderate and environmentally sensible positions - is now following the lead of the climate hardliners in the developed world, especially the United States, Canada and Australia. In such a situation, compromise is nearly impossible and, most unfortunately, all negotiations are as spurious as they are meaningless.

Let us then look at what the global South under the leadership of China, India, Brazil and South Africa must do on some of the key issues. First, of course, is the small matter of the Kyoto Protocol itself. Southern negotiators have so far been steadfast on one point, with some unfortunate lapses, and must remain so. It is up to the developing world - led or not by the BASIC group - to reiterate this principle.

Principally, the basic tenets of the Kyoto Protocol are not up for grabs in any way and neither is the Bali Action Plan. Therefore, first, Annex I countries must reaffirm binding and deep cuts in their emissions and deliver on them. In this respect, there is very little difference, in practice, between the hardliners and the "moderates".

So, while the US refuses to take on board meaning targets, Europe has historically done so, without, however, even or ever trying to deliver the goods. The necessary corollary is that the developing world must continue to commit itself only to voluntary actions - whether scrutinized by the international community or not. We shall return to this aspect later.

Underlying this unbending position are a few fundamental propositions that remain non-negotiable - those of historical responsibility and equity. The developed world cannot get away from the cold fact, no pun intended, that global warming or climate change more generally is being and has been caused preponderantly by greenhouse gases that have been sent up by the developed countries over the past two centuries, most of which still remain in the atmosphere. They must, therefore, cut their emissions to cede "emissions space" to developing countries.

The principle of equity is so obviously interrelated that there is hardly any need to expound it in any great detail. Nevertheless, briefly, the developing world has the right to develop and must do so if poverty has to be tackled as a global problem. In theory, the developing world acknowledges that with its "Make Poverty History" campaign and its stated commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals. It must put its money where its mouth is.

Does all this mean that the developing world must follow the energy-inefficient, carbon-heavy and environmentally unsustainable paths of growth and development that the developed world has historically followed? In other words, must the developing world pay no heed to the gigantic problem of climate change? The answer must surely be "no". That is where the Bali Action Plan comes into play.

The program envisaged under the Bali plan remains, unfortunately, a dead letter. The developed countries were supposed to transfer green technologies and funds to developing nations, especially the poorer ones, to forge "green" growth paths. That has not happened. Transfer of technologies has run up against the issue of privately held intellectual property rights and royalties that the governments of the rich nations will not help address.

The transfer of funds, too, is stalled. While the US along with some other countries, refuses to take the Bali Action Plan seriously, many European nations have reneged on promises, without getting into too many details, by packaging old aid programs as new climate change-related transfers.

Given such a situation, it is hardly surprising that the developed world in its entirety, but led by the US and the other usual suspects, are now arguing that all unresolved issues, meaning essentially the Kyoto Protocol itself, should be junked and all further negotiations should proceed on a new basis, which will mean that all countries will be on the same footing as far as emission targets are concerned.

The US's chief negotiator has been blunt. At a closed-door meeting in Doha, according to media reports, he said that the notions of equity and historical responsibility cannot be sustained and that his country will not sign up to deeper cuts as envisaged in the Kyoto Protocol, because they cannot be sold to domestic constituencies. He has, thus, in essence, revisited what former US president George H. W. Bush had said at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - the American way of life is not up for negotiation.

If this, indeed, is the case, then the charade of annual negotiations may as well be jettisoned. First, if the US refuses to undertake stringent cuts, action on climate change will be meaningless. Second, if the developed world will not discharge its obligations there is no reason for developing countries to sign up to anything. In a sense, the US negotiator is right. Given geopolitical realities and those of international and national political economies, no significant action on climate change is really possible. That might sound pessimistic, but, unfortunately, given also the trajectory of human civilization, it is possibly true.

Since the developed countries have closed ranks, it is absolutely imperative that developing countries do the same. What is possible is a grouping within the global South that attempts to multilaterally negotiate what is best for itself. It's not going to be easy because such a solution will offer the coldest comforts to the most vulnerable, for instance, island nations or nations like Bangladesh that have historically been susceptible to natural disasters in any case.

The author is a senior journalist and independent research scholar based in India.

(China Daily 12/04/2012 page9)