COP 21: Anything but a legally binding agreement would be deemed a failure

The well-attended 21st United Nations Climate Change Summit (COP 21) opened in Paris at the beginning of this week. Just a tad of over-dramatization leads one to state that the future of humanity may well be resting in the hands of some of the principal participants to that event, namely, US President Barack Obama, the Chinese President Xi and the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi among others. Failure to reach a viable and acceptable compromise, which can reconcile the interests of these nations, has been the biggest obstacle to the finding of a solution to the menace for more than twenty years.

It all started with the Rio Conference in 1992 which had raised high hopes of defining a workable framework for dealing with the impending catastrophic situation. Since those early days, emission of CO2 in the atmosphere has been clearly identified as the major culprit in the process of global warming (although it must be admitted that in those days the ranks of the sceptics were quite significant).

The different Summits, which have been held since, have therefore aimed at finding agreement for reducing CO2 emissions, mainly through the transition to renewable energy. Unfortunately there is very little to show for all these efforts. The concrete aim has been to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees centigrade. Sadly, the fact is that, over the period ranging from 1992 to 2014, CO2 emissions have actually risen by more than 60%. Their deleterious effects are presently everywhere to see – natural catastrophes linked to extreme weather are commonplace and affect all parts of the planet indiscriminately in the form of frequent and ever more violent cyclones in the US (remember Katrina), peak temperatures never witnessed before in Europe, droughts in large parts of Africa.

Closer to home the flash rains which led to severe floods and the death of many of our compatriots in 2013 are, in the view of many experts, certainly not foreign to these phenomena. The meltdown of the Polar regions contributing to rising sea levels represent a clear and present danger to islands of the Indian Ocean, the most dramatic case being that of the Maldives.

The obvious question which arises then is why is it that in the light of such obvious impending planetary catastrophe we are still unable to find an acceptable and effective way forward?

At a very general, even philosophical, level it can be postulated that the Commonwealth of nations have not managed to evolve the kind of global institutions – values and instruments — which will allow it to cope with such issues, which while planetary in nature can only be solved through national-local initiatives. In the absence of such mechanisms it is unfortunately the same instinctive reflexes of protection of national short-term or even purely commercial interests which dictate the actions/decisions of policy-makers.

The main reason for this failure is probably the most obvious yet most difficult one to confront. Out of the ten biggest and most powerful industries in the world, seven are oil companies. They have been using their influence to ensure that policies that can hurt their economic interests (huge investments in the fossil fuel industry) are not adopted. For the US and other developed nations this is probably the main determinant of their positions during the on-going negotiations. Confronted with real and mounting threats to the lives of their population and to concerned public opinion though, even these governments are now struggling to find a compromise which will at least placate their electorates.

On the other side is what could be described as the rest of the world, constituted of “developing nations” at different stages of economic development and with specificities regarding the threats posed by Global Warming. It would therefore be a mistake to treat all the nations making up this general category as an amorphous undifferentiated lot. Only a discerning approach, which takes into account the specific needs of different sub-categories, is likely to produce the expected effects.

The general stand taken by developing nations until now has been that since the crux of the problem is CO2 emissions they should not now be made to pay for the sins of the already developed nations which have caused the problem in the first place. True as this may be, it would nevertheless be totally irresponsible to use this as an excuse for continued reckless levels of emissions to be justified. And this is where among the group of “developing nations” there are a number that are highly dependent on fossil fuels for their competitiveness in the global markets and which are large and increasingly so, contributors to CO 2 emissions in the atmosphere.

Although China and India are usually mentioned as the typical archetype of such nations there are others such as Mexico and Brazil that are more or less facing the same dilemma. In these cases clearly the solution resides in some form of compensatory measures to be taken so that they can achieve their goals of reducing emission levels without harming their national development objectives of industrialization, employment creation and poverty reduction. Such measures would have the added benefit of making those who benefited the most from such emissions to participate directly and financially in the burden of finding rightful solutions.

Last but not least will come those who in the development jargon are defined as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to which we would add the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These countries irrespective of their differentiated levels of development hardly contribute to the problem at all. In any scenario where a global agreement would have been reached the quantum of reduction in emissions should largely compensate for any addition caused by their eventual economic growth.

This is where our assuredly well-intentioned friends in Mauritius who indiscriminately demonstrate against development projects solely because these are based on fossil fuel consumption are not necessarily right when one objectively weighs the gains from employment creation and other benefits of industrialization against our contribution to the global problem. Our contribution to CO 2 as is the case for all the LDCs and SIDs will always remain so insignificant that it would make no difference at all if the rich, developed nations fail to find an agreement.

To come back to the Paris COP 21, from pre-Summit meetings and sound bites it is looking most likely that some sort of agreement will be reached. However there is little conviction that those would be legally binding. In which case they will continue to be based on the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and will probably continue to be as ineffective and futile as they have been up to now.

 

* Published in print edition on 4 December 2015

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