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It's all atmospherics

The Cancun climate meet begins today. The US is again trying to scuttle the Kyoto Protocol but the developing nations must stick to it, writes Darryl D'Monte.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:01 IST

Commentators will be forgiven for mixing their metaphors when it comes to Cancun, the coastal resort in Mexico. It is here that the second act of the tragedy — which began, with true Hamlet-like indecision, in Copenhagen exactly a year ago, will unfold. There was also an element of black humour when the impasse among the 190-odd countries was broken by President Barack Obama gatecrashing the midnight conclave that Basic countries — Brazil, South Africa, China and India — had summoned and brokered a so-called 'accord'.

Cancun may well be the night after, a long hangover which no amount of platitudes will cure. It is going to be a beach party where the elephant in the room, the US, isn't going to play a major role because President Obama is far too tangled with Congress to be able to push through a domestic cap-and-trade policy, let alone one on a global scale. The final denouement will be in South Africa in 2011.

Only last month, the president of the authoritative Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Eileen Claussen, former assistant secretary of state for international environmental affairs, made this clear. "Continued economic struggles and political changes expected after the US congressional elections are likely to make advancing climate policy an even tougher fight than we experienced over the last two years,” she said. "I think I speak for most of those working on this issue in Washington when I say the chances of passing a major climate bill in the next two years are nearly zero.”

Todd Stern, Obama's special envoy for climate change, and the most prominent actor in this tragedy, displays no such pessimism. Speaking at the University of Michigan, also in October, he asserted that US domestic politics was not a "stumbling block”. Though the US has made way for China as the country with the most emissions — India now figures third, because of the recession in Russia, where industries and coal-powered power stations have been hit — the average American emits much more, with only a quarter of China's people.

He went on to make several assertions, each of which can be challenged. He wondered whether Copenhagen marked a new paradigm in climate diplomacy, which is shorthand for scuttling the protracted UN-led negotiations since the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 1997, but abhorred by the US (President Bush was allergic to it, as are most US politicians, Obama being no exception). Stern referred to a "Berlin wall” between developed and developing countries which was fostered by the protocol.

This strikes at the heart of the debate on global warming. As enunciated most clearly on the global stage by none other than the late Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi in 1991, industrial countries should not only pay for their current pollution, but are responsible for "historical emissions", referring to the build-up in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide that will last for generations, even if all industries throughout the world downed their shutters tomorrow.

Stern questioned the long-debated and widely accepted Kyoto mantra: that all countries had "common but differentiated responsibilities". As he put it, "Over time, many countries stretched this paradigm to say that developed countries have legally binding obligations, while developing countries are asked only to act voluntarily. But this claim has no textual support." How can he brazenly challenge what 191 countries have signed, and since its first phase ends in 2012, these countries have been doggedly negotiating the second.

Secondly, he asserted that no deal which didn't include China and other "emerging markets" (note the term) was a non-starter. He ought to remember that while China emits 23 per cent of global greenhouse gases, the US emits 22 per cent. India is far lower, with only 5 per cent of emissions. The US is targeting China as the world's dirtiest country, claiming that it is the second largest historic emitter (after itself, presumably due to its huge population) and will in 2020 be emitting 60 per cent more than the US.

It is clear that it is a share of the atmospheric space which countries that have not industrialised — China is still predominantly rural and poor by any reckoning — are demanding. In India, 600 million people don't purchase any form of energy (including wood or coal), while 400 million don't have a bulb to switch on at night. While we figure third in the list in absolute terms, we are towards the bottom in per capita terms, which is surely the index to measure.

There ought to be, a la the Kyoto Protocol, differentiated liabilities. Industrial countries, following the lead of the EU which has unilaterally agreed to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 — 30 per cent if the US comes on board — have to agree to quantitative cuts, while developing countries have to reduce the energy intensity of their industries even as they move towards a reduction regime within a deadline. And despite the OECD countries' own commitments to provide $30 billion till 2012 to most vulnerable countries, only $3 billion has been coughed up. Will we ever see that $100 billion a year from 2020 that Obama and others have promised?

Darryl D'Monte is chairman, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.