Not making the cut

The road from Copenhagen, where the United Nations climate meet four years ago promised so much but delivered nothing, has been steadily downhill. It was only an ‘accord’ — as distinct from a binding treaty — hammered out literally at midnight of the concluding day, with President Barack Obama playing an uninvited but bullying midwife. The following year in Cancun, Mexico, the continuation of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement which most nations barring the US signed and is due to expire at the end of this month, eluded negotiators. They could only come up with an agreement that once again did not compel industrial countries to commit to deadlines for reducing emissions. The third year, there was merely a Durban ‘platform’ and the Doha conclave which ended last week turned out to be a damp squib.

This is, by no means a gross exaggeration but almost literally, the road to certain perdition. While developed and developing nations bicker over who is to do what, the science on how human intervention is causing irretrievable harm to the planet is incontrovertible. According to the World Bank, which is not given to making sensational pronouncements, the globe is likely to face an average increase of 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, double what it should be at 2050. It has just been reported that global carbon dioxide emissions have risen by a record 35.5 billion tonnes this year, a 2.6% rise. These are nearly 60% more than 1990 levels, from which date developed countries are required to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

The US, faced with an intransigent Congress for which the Kyoto Protocol is anathema, has dug in its heels. Analysts assert that Mitt Romney’s obscurantist views on the subject were one of the reasons why he lost, particularly after Superstorm Sandy. However, going by past experiences, President Obama’s record has not been that different from Bush. He may well be trying to revive the economy and thus resist any cut on emissions. But the world’s second biggest polluter — China is the first — ought to realise that such a blinkered approach will actually cost more in the long run in purely financial terms, let alone damage to humans and property. In 2005, Katrina’s insured losses were $62 billion and overall losses $125 billion. India is now the world’s third largest emitter, though way down in per capita terms.

The central issue at Doha was the agreement on a long-term cooperative action, the tenure of which expired last week. It is a depressingly familiar story: how developed countries are backing out of commitments on funding, intellectual property rights, transfer of technologies and equity among nations. The US is for scuttling UN or multilateral agreements in favour of bilateral deals. It opts for a ‘building block’ approach, to establish standards in various sectors like energy, building and cook stoves to make progress incrementally. The bonus is that it can permit the US to sell its clean energy and similar technologies.

Canada has now opted out of Kyoto, emulating the US, while Russia, Japan and New Zealand have refused to make cuts. The European Union, the most proactive by promising to cut emissions by 20% by 2020, rising to 30% if the US comes on board, is now backtracking. All that the first phase of Kyoto compelled industrial countries was to cut 5% by 2008-12, which has been honoured more in the breach. The Geneva-based South Centre put it tellingly: “If you are adamant in doing away with the life in the body, at least make sure there is a proper allocation of its property and continuity of its heritage, and then give it a proper burial.”

As always, and in the trajectory of the climate negotiations, one should follow the money. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton triumphantly mounted the stage at Copenhagen and promised $100 billion by way of helping developing countries adapt to global warming. Other leaders clarified that sum would materialise only in 2020; between 2010 and 2012, there would be a yearly infusion of $10 billion as ‘fast-start finance’. When observers read the not-so-fine print, this would incorporate existing overseas development assistance, private sector investment in clean technologies or, worst, loans. While the US is dreading its ‘fiscal cliff’ by the end of this month, it — along with other developed countries — is propelling the planet out of control by refusing progressively to cut emissions by half by 2050 over 1990 levels, as science compels them to.

India, meanwhile, can be accused of grandstanding by sticking to rhetoric abroad and, when push comes to shove, ditching the G77 developing countries for its alliance with the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia and China. While much has been made of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, emissions rose by 7.5% last year. Why India is the third largest polluter even though it has over six decades permitted 600 million people to exist without buying any form of energy, and 450 million of them without electricity, but is now firing over their shoulders, is a question only its elite can answer.

Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India

The views expressed by the author are personal


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