ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Vaunting Rhetoric versus Grim Realities

Assessing the 25th Conference of Parties

T Jayaraman ( teaches at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


While the rhetoric of collective responsibility to achieve “ambitious outcomes” in terms of climate action to address the “climate emergency” stands questioned in the 25th Conference of Parties, the grim realities of the inequalities between countries and the evasion of responsibilities and commitments by the developed countries point towards the fundamental role and continued importance of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that remains wider in its scope and broader in its vision than the Paris Agreement. The developed countries are also seeking to manipulate the science–policy interface in an attempt to sideline the equity and climate justice-related perspectives of the developing countries.

The 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the annual climate summit of the countries that are signatories to the Convention, recently concluded at Madrid in December 2019. Instead of being hailed as a milestone, almost universally, it has been held to be a failure. A remarkable range of opinions appears to concur on this view, from the United Nations Secretary–General to a number of governments, including the European Union (EU) and some of the small island states, and a range of non-governmental organisations, including some of the biggest international players.

Referring to the year-long wave of public action preceding COP25, especially by students and youth in the developed countries, this narrative of failure has held all countries responsible for the lack of “ambitious” outcomes adequate to dealing with the “climate emergency.” While some accounts have justifiably noted the role of the United States (US) in the overall outcome, others have also targeted Brazil, and China, and even India by innuendo. This narrative of collective responsibility for the outcome has dominated the global media too and has been uncritically echoed in the national media in countries like India.

But if COP25 was indeed the failure it is perhaps justifiably held to be, why indeed did it fail and what precisely was the anatomy of the failure? Despite the incessant rhetoric of “ambition” to face the “climate emergency,” why indeed were the outcomes so meagre, and where does the responsibility lie?

An Unequal World

Unfortunately, the understanding of the challenge of global warming has been made considerably more difficult by the widespread tendency to ignore the reality of the grossly unequal world in which we live. The UNFCCC recognises this in its explicit articulation of the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities as the basis for climate action, and thus, calls on the developed countries to take the lead. However, all too often the argument is made that these principles and their implementation in the differentiation between developed and developing countries in climate action has somehow become outdated. This is, however, simply not true. Studies of global inequality show that while both within-country and between-country inequalities exist, the major contribution to global inequality, above 60% by conservative estimates, comes from the latter, even if its relative share has been going down in recent times.

A more striking manifestation of inequality can be seen in the global distribution of wealth (and not merely gross domestic product), which is particularly apt in the context of global warming. The Global Wealth Report 2019 by the Credit Suisse Research Institute shows that 57% of global wealth is concentrated in Europe and North America alone. The per adult distribution of wealth is even more skewed, with North America having 5.9 times the global average of $70,849 per adult. Europe has 2.2 times the world average, while all other nations in the world are below this global average. India’s wealth per adult is only one-fifth of the global average figure. Acknowledging the continuing validity of the differentiation of developed and developing countries is, therefore, essential to making sense of the global politics of climate change.

Unfulfilled Commitments

In the background of worldwide calls for increased and urgent climate action, the issue of what has been done so far, especially by developed countries, was, of course, one of the foremost questions before COP25. This was especially important since the developed countries agreed at Paris, in the Paris Agreement and the decisions accompanying it, to fulfilling their pre-2020 commitments before the start of the implementation of the Paris Agreement in 2020. These commitments were made at Copenhagen in 2009 and were officially made part of the UNFCCC process at Cancún the next year. Another set of commitments were also made as part of the second period of the Kyoto Protocol from 2013 to 2020.

Quite shockingly, the compilation and synthesis (C&S) report on the Biennial Reports of the developed countries and their National Greenhouse Gas Inventories showed that, by 2017, they had reduced their annual emissions only by some 13% below the 1990 levels. This in itself is quite inadequate in view of the 25% to 40% reduction by 2020 that is required of these countries, according to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But even more dramatically, if the former Soviet-bloc countries, the so-called Economies in Transition (EIT) Parties, are excluded, whose emissions fell sharply due to the post-Soviet economic contraction, the rest have reduced their emissions only by a measly 1.6%. Keeping in mind the uncertainties in such estimations, the reduction is virtually nil. Persistently delaying a discussion on the C&S reports in the negotiations, the developed countries sought to close the agenda item itself, a move concertedly thwarted by the developing countries.

The C&S reports also showed how little the developed countries had done in meeting their other obligations. In the matter of finance for climate action, the Copenhagen pledge by the developed countries of mobilising $100 billion annually by 2020 is nowhere near being kept. The total financial support cited in the reports amounted to only $37.5 million in 2016. This figure, while far short of the target, is not even entirely credible, as the method of accounting is far from transparent. Taking the numbers at face value, it turns out that almost 80% of even this “assistance” to developing countries is mitigation-linked with only 15% for adaptation, while the major part of what has been disbursed is in the form of loans rather than grants.

Despite this, the developed countries came to COP25 determined to undermine consideration of their pre-2020 commitments. They have, of course, also concurrently held up the implementation of the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol and thoroughly sabotaged it in the bargain. The global North and their apologists even sought to make the argument that since 2020 has arrived, the commitments had no meaning. Developing countries replied uncharacteristically sharply, pointing out that the significance of pre-2020 lay not in the date but in a set of commitments that should not be subsumed into the Paris Agreement framework as this would be tantamount to passing on the burden of their inaction to developing countries.

In the end, the developing countries managed to keep discussion of this issue on the agenda for the next year, though not in as thoroughgoing a way as they had originally proposed. There is also a continuing lack of clarity on the extent to which developed countries will be able to absorb their pre-2020 commitments into their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, and this will be a key confrontation next year.

Sidelining the Convention

Another integral part of the story at COP25 was the continuing attempt by the global North to set aside the Convention in practice and push all considerations into the framework of the Paris Agreement. Most developing countries, however, have increasingly become aware of this and have insisted on keeping the overarching role and significance of the Convention very much in place. This is particularly important since the vision of the Paris Agreement is limited and specific, while a far greater scope and a much broader and insightful vision characterises the Convention.

While this was the larger confrontation, the specific issue where it came to a head was the second periodic review of what countries are doing to achieve the objectives of the Convention in the light of the long-term goals that have been set. Currently, this long-term goal is the Paris decision (also part of the Paris Agreement) to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The first periodic review, agreed to at COP16 in Cancún in 2010, was held between 2013 and 2015 and indeed paved the way for tightening the 2°C temperature goal to include mention of 1.5°C temperature rise as well.

The developed countries universally attempted to get rid of the second periodic review claiming that it would duplicate the first review of the performance under the Paris Agreement, known as the Global Stocktake that is to take place in 2023. However, this was a patently specious argument, since the only way to maintain pressure on the US is through the Convention and the processes under it, as it is set to withdraw from the Paris Agreement by 2020. The second periodic review is also critical since the Paris Agreement still is, despite all the hype, a weak agreement that provides no legally binding commitments on developed countries, while the collective commitments of the NDCs are nowhere near ensuring that the global temperature targets will be met. Even worse, all independent critical assessments agree that a number of developed countries are not even on track for fulfilling their already weak voluntary commitments. The EU’s support of this whole effort also exposed the reality behind their apparent readiness to confront the US on climate change in forums such as the Group of Seven (G7).

In the event the developing countries succeeded in keeping the second periodic review on board in the UNFCCC process, to be conducted between 2020 and 2022, a success whose significance should not be underestimated.

The Myth of ‘Article 6’

Thanks to the global media, there is universal awareness that the negotiations on the implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which refers to carbon trading, did not reach a successful conclusion in Paris. But what is missed in the hype is the simple fact that there is no bar on countries upscaling their efforts at a drastic reduction in emissions through independent domestic action, irrespective of the status of Article 6. After all, China and India, for instance, have taken a wide range of initiatives in mitigation, without the assistance of carbon trading. The insistence that the agreement on Article 6 is critical is, in reality, the desperate attempt of the richest countries to ensure that they can pass on their mitigation responsibilities, on terms beneficial to them, to others. Such efforts would target the poorer among the developed countries to start with and, in the longer term, all developing countries, beginning with the larger economies in their ranks.

The other unappreciated side to the Article 6 story was the consistent attempt of the developed countries to get rid of the carbon credits of the developing countries, accrued to them under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. Irrespective of the merits or otherwise of the CDM process, wiping out CDM credits constitutes a grave violation of a binding, multilaterally agreed decision.

As it turns out, the lack of agreement forced the carrying over of Article 6 issues to the next round of negotiations. Unfortunately, even the precise nature of the disagreements is not fully clear in the public domain. This is thanks to the non-transparent handling of the final negotiations by the Chilean presidency, which preferred a series of bilateral or small-group negotiations between countries rather than the all-party sessions that had become the norm since the disastrous experience of Copenhagen.

Misleading Signals from Science

One of the most disturbing recent developments is undoubtedly the manipulation of the science–policy interface to push the agenda of the developed countries. While this has been evident for some time now in the IPCC processes that led to the three special reports issued by it in the last one year, the full implications became evident at COP25. Three elements of the final decision bear special mention, apart from the uncharacteristic praise directed at the IPCC. These are:

(i) Para 15 of the decision that “Underlines the essential contribution of nature to addressing climate change and its impacts and the need to address biodiversity loss and climate change in an integrated manner,” (ii) Para 31 calls for a dialogue on the oceans and climate change “to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action in this context,” and (iii) Para 32 calls for a “dialogue on the relationship between land and climate change adaptation-related matters.”

There is a striking shift here from considering natural resources as essentially the site of adaptation as a consequence of industrial emissions, to regarding natural resources as the means of mopping up these emissions. In the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C as well as the IPCC special report on climate change and land, there has been a renewed emphasis on mitigation in the natural resources sector, especially in enhancing the carbon sink capabilities of the biosphere, including through so-called bio-energy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Currently, BECCS technologies are basically unproven, but nevertheless, there is widespread speculative work among the First World scientists, claiming that with BECCS as a crucial component of “negative emissions,” the world can stay below 1.5°C. What is evaded is the stark reality that without such speculative technologies being considered, the world’s cumulative emissions thus far make the 1.5°C temperature target virtually infeasible. Fortunately, the counter-thrust by some Latin American countries ensured that the climate and land reference was modified from its earlier version that referred to “mitigation and adaptation” to the final version quoted above.

This push at COP25 comes alongside the efforts of a section of scientists to cherry-pick the more alarming consequences of global warming while downplaying the uncertainties involved in such estimates. But, while scientists themselves begin to join and indeed drive the chorus of “climate emergency,” there is a remarkable silence in the more recent scientific literature on equity and climate justice, while considering possible solutions to achieve the 1.5°C temperature goals. In some instances, it is even suggested that greater mitigation by the developing countries is indeed the route to equity and climate justice, ignoring the bulk of evidence to the contrary. Scientists from the developed countries in the IPCC are also actively complicit in the evasion of the pre-2020 commitments by their own countries. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C issued in 2018 actually refuses to provide estimates of cumulative pre-2020 emissions (pre-2017 to be precise) in its “Summary for Policymakers” and insists on focusing solely on the remaining (post-2017) carbon budget for the world as a whole.

It is in this context that the rhetoric of “ambition,” which has found much purchase in the public sphere and in the global media, found few takers within the summit, where governments and negotiators come face-to-face with the harsh realities of taking real action. The irony, or indeed the hypocrisy, of First World governments making declarations of a “climate emergency,” declarations that are not linked to any legally binding climate actions, even domestically, was not missed by the developing country negotiators present, even if substantial sections of their own media at home parroted the global rhetoric. More specifically, much was made of promises of carbon neutrality in the future, by mid-century, while ignoring the truly pathetic performance through the 27 years since the climate convention came into existence.

Other familiar themes also continued to dominate the North–South face-off at COP25. Finance, loss and damage figured prominently among them, with progress being as frustratingly slow as ever. On loss and damage, there is much agreement on generalities, but little is forthcoming on specific matters, such as a separate stream of climate finance for this purpose, alongside mitigation and adaptation. In these negotiations, the US, backed by Japan and Australia as key supporters, continued to exert a dominating influence, with the EU in frequent alignment with them. On this issue too, the Paris outcome is the key spoiler, due, in particular, to the decision that no liability or compensation is implied in considerations of loss and damage due to climate impacts. This has come as a handy tool to undermine the broader scope of the so-called Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, adopted the year before Paris.

COP25 Game Plan and the Future

What emerged at COP25 were the contours of an evolving northern strategy that is totally at odds with their embrace of populist rhetoric, egged on by their non-governmental organisations. It is useful to summarise here the main points of this strategy that the Madrid outcomes indicate.

(i) If the signing of the Paris Agreement sought to erase the historical responsibility of the developed countries prior to 1990, in the implementation phase, all responsibility, even up to 2020, is sought to be erased.

(ii) There is an increasing effort to seize the agenda of the science–policy linkage in the IPCC by a narrow group of First World scientists, whose policy considerations align with their governments, lack plurality of outlook on economic, social and political aspects and which give short shrift to the perspectives from developing countries, especially on equity and climate justice. This regrettably trades on the genuinely significant role of the global scientific community in climate science and the accumulated prestige of the IPCC in providing their inputs through its reports, expressed in the recent climate protest slogan, “Follow the science.”

(iii) An integral part of the post-2020 agenda is to draw natural resources sharply into the domain of mitigation, sidelining adaptation. This would transfer the burden of mitigation on to all developing countries whose contribution to global warming thus far has been minimal, especially on to their substantial population of the poor and marginalised whose livelihoods are closely bound to low-technology utilisation of these resources. Most long-term scenarios from developed country sources assign for themselves, instead, a continuing role for fossil fuels, in the form of natural gas (backed by talk of “clean” energy and an anti-coal rhetoric), well into mid-century, while looking forward to the “negative emissions” due to carbon sequestration in
the biosphere.

(iv) Market-based approaches to climate mitigation will dominate the agenda of the developed countries, that in a world of gross economic inequalities, including a range of inequitable trade and tariff policies, implies considerable disadvantages for the developing countries in the future.

(v) Financial, technical and capacity-building support will continue to grow slowly, increasingly dominated by private sector flows, mostly in the form of loans and not grants, which will be predominantly mitigation-centric.

(vi) The dominant influence of the US would continue to have severe negative consequences for developing countries, whether it stays out or enters into serious participation in multilateral climate action, since even in the latter case it would seek to pass on the burden significantly to the rest of the world. The current US strategy at the negotiations is very much open to either option.

Many developing country think tanks, academics and environmental activists, especially in India, have run with the notion that the Paris Agreement marks a turning point in effective climate action and that the door has been opened to a more cooperative approach to climate action on the global scale. Many in India have also tended to the view that the developed–developing divide at the UNFCCC is a thing of the past (the “viewpoint of the last decade” as some have sneered) and that India’s climate strategy should no longer be framed in these terms. COP25 provided a striking demonstration that this is wishful thinking and that the Paris Agreement too will be implemented in an equal world. India, and other developing countries (with the partial exception of China), need to persist with the strategy of prioritising sustainable development while using multilateral fora for maintaining pressure on the developed countries to take the lead in climate action. In the absence of such a strategy, the costs of climate action on the Indian economy, already not inconsiderable, will continue to rise, with serious consequences for the well-being of the bulk of its population. While fulfilling our global responsibilities and commitments, India cannot forget that the challenge of global warming can only be met through global collective action based on equity, driven by a clear commitment to multilateralism by all nations.

Updated On : 6th Jan, 2020


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top