Had the world's leaders decided to ensure that global warming would increase to 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, perhaps to 5 degrees Celsius, instead of the 1.5-to-20 degrees Celsius threshold (over preindustrial temperatures) that scientists believe earth can tolerate, they couldn't have acted more purposively than they did at the Durban climate conference. If this sounds like a harsh judgement that radically differs from the official spin that Durban was a historic success, a victory for climate equity, and an Indian triumph, consider the following.
Durban was the world's last chance to make global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak by 2020, and breathe new life into the world's sole legally binding climate agreement — the Kyoto Protocol — beyond 2012, when its first phase ends. Unless industrialised countries of the North reduce their 1990-level emissions by 40-45% by 2020, and emissions start falling rapidly after that, irreversible, catastrophic climate change will become inevitable. But Durban decided to postpone any significant climate action till after 2020, when it would be too late. The decision on extending Kyoto, with stiff quantitative targets for northern countries, was also postponed to next year's climate conference. The protocol will become, in the graphic words of Bolivian negotiator Pablo Solon, a soulless "zombie" until replaced by an even weaker agreement.
Worse, the roadmap agreed four years ago at Bali, which erected a firewall between the North's obligations and the South's voluntary actions, will be abandoned next year. The Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action, established in Bali to strengthen the convention's implementation, will be "terminated". A new process will begin, with considerable dilution of the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle, which maintains that while all countries share a duty to protect the climate, their obligations are unequal: the North must do more than the South because it's responsible for nearly three-fourths of all GHGs accumulated in the atmosphere.
Durban, then, was a disaster for global climate protection. Another four-degree warming will cause devastation, and threaten the survival of a majority of the world's population, including poor, vulnerable Indians. Under the key outcome, ‘The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action', countries will negotiate by 2015 "a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all". This tortuous wording reflects India's last-ditch attempt to reject binding commitments, but effectively shifts climate responsibility from North to South. Durban thus sealed climate apartheid, under which rich polluters evade responsibility, but underprivileged people suffer the worst effects of climate change for which they are least responsible.
Yet, much of our media says India forced a "climate breakthrough" and "regained its position as the … moral voice of the developing world". According to environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, India "restored" equity, including CBDR, "as a central dimension" of the talks. However, the platform does not even mention equity or CBDR. The North wanted an altogether different climate regime from that defined by the 1992 Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Action Plan. Any CBDR mention, the North insisted, must be qualified by an interpretation based on "contemporary economic realities", including recent North-to-South power shifts, and China and India's emergence as top emitters. This would have opened a Pandora's Box.
The truth is, the rich countries, led by the European Union (EU), succeeded in cornering the BASIC (Brazil-South Africa-India-China) grouping, formed in 2009. The EU made its support for extending Kyoto conditional upon an agreement at Durban for all major emitters accepting climate obligations under a new deal to be signed by 2015. It shifted goalposts because of growing domestic climate pessimism amidst a massive economic crisis. The developing countries further split, with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the least developed countries (LDCs), allying with the EU. Some of them resented BASIC's insistence on "the right to develop". "While they develop, we die," Grenada's ambassador said.
Intra-BASIC differences widened. South Africa and Brazil were willing to accept binding commitments, but not China and India. South Africa, the conference host, was keen to declare it a success by supporting the EU-led bloc. China indicated "flexibility" by offering to accept binding commitments on certain conditions, including a Kyoto extension covering all Northern emitters, higher ambition, and immediate activation of the promised $100-billion Green Climate Fund for developing countries. These conditions weren't going to be fulfilled. And the fund remains an empty shell. But China's move highlighted differences with India. "Inflexible" India got isolated. India failed to anticipate and counter the EU's attempt to win over the most vulnerable and poorest of developing countries through financial promises, coercion and threats, similar to those used at and after the 2009 Copenhagen conference, as revealed by WikiLeaks.
There was much wrangling over the binding commitment language. India wanted "legal outcome" to follow "legal instrument" but settled for "agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all". Natarajan claims this means the obligations must be in keeping with the convention's principles, including CBDR, and "that this decision does not imply that India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020". But India's own BASIC partners disagree. More vitally, Durban's political context, with sharp divisions over CBDR's application, suggests that differentiation will undergo substantial revision in the North's favour.
India could have prepared itself better for Durban had it not put all its eggs in the BASIC basket, with the risk of being equated with China, the world's biggest emitter, with per capita emissions nearing Western Europe's while India's are close to the LDCs. India could have built a coalition by offering AOSIS and LDCs need-based financial and technological assistance in climate change adaptation, and strengthened the G-77 developing-country bloc. It could then have pressed the EU for supporting a Kyoto extension, and produced worthier results. India didn't summon up the policy independence and strategy this needed. It lost the plot.
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist. The views expressed by the author are personal.