Climate Change

Post-Paris: climate realpolitik

India needs a new narrative, a new strategy and new allies

By Chandra Bhushan
Published: Tuesday 22 December 2015
Glaciers on the Melchoir Islands off Antarctica Credit: David Stanley, Flickr

It is universally acknowledged that at climate conferences, politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of power and on practical and material factors overrides explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. CoP 21, or the 21st conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that wrapped up in Paris on December 12, 2015, was no different. But somehow we in India, continue to believe otherwise or pretend to believe otherwise. In both cases, we lose. For one, realpolitik always triumphs. In the second case, our continued pretense of a principled approach to climate negotiations has now been completely exposed for what it has been: status-quoist.

Let me illustrate how realpolitik triumphs by taking the case of China. After that, I will discuss India’s past, present and future climate diplomacy.

China’s climate shenanigans

Two bits of information caught my attention, post-Paris climate conference, which illustrates the role of China there.

On Monday December 14, an article headlined "Obama praises China’s role in climate talks" appeared in the Hindustan Times. The gist of the story was that US President Obama had called President Xi Jinping of China and expressed appreciation for the important role China had played in securing the Paris Agreement. According to a statement the White House released, both leaders recognised "close coordination" among their negotiating teams had helped close the deal in Paris (emphasis added).

On Wednesday December 16, India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar held a press briefing on the Paris outcome, where he said there was unity within the BASIC countries (a developing country negotiating sub-bloc, comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China), even on the last day of the climate conference. According to Javadekar, on the last day, all four had collectively presented their views to CoP 21 president and France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius.

I believe the first piece of information was reality, whereas the second was illusion. Pure optics.

If there was a country sitting pretty at CoP 21, it was China. Everyone was doing China’s bidding. India was fighting, tooth and nail, to retain the last vestige of "differentiation" (a pillar of the climate convention, according to which industrialised nations were primarily responsible in taking the lead in mitigating climate change, and providing poorer countries with money and technology to help them adapt). That suited the Chinese. The US, on the other hand, wanted a free-for-all future climate regime where no one could tell any one else to cut emissions. That, too, suited the Chinese. After all, they were the biggest current polluters and had announced their emissions would peak only as late as 2030. They hardly had any interest in pushing developed countries to do more, for that would have a rebound effect. The Chinese, therefore, had nothing to lose. The Paris climate conference was a win-win for them.

The fact is China and the US had done a "parity deal" well before the Paris conference. In November 2014, President Obama and President Xi Jinping announced a joint plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The unspoken crux of the deal was that, in 2030, per capita emissions of both countries would be equal at 12 tonnes. In other words, both countries could continue to emit like hell till that time and misappropriate most of the remaining carbon budget.

Then, in a September 2015 China-US joint presidential statement, China pledged a US $3 billion fund, called the China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund, to help poorer developing countries combat climate change. The fund would enhance poorer-country capacity to access the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Interestingly, the US, too, promised it would put US $3 billion into the GCF (It is a different matter nothing came of that: the US Congress blocked it, and in Paris, Obama could only promise a paltry US $51 million to the Least Developing Country Fund).

Thus, I believe, even before countries convened in Paris, China and the US had already decided what the main elements of the Paris Agreement would be. In Paris, they merely performed as adversaries, merely acted out the "role" expected of them.

I heard China twice in Paris. The first time was at a BASIC press briefing of December 8. It was a well-orchestrated performance. All the ministers waxed eloquent about how equity, common but differentiated responsibilities and the sanctity of the UN climate convention were redlines nobody dared cross. China said what India wanted to hear. The "breaking news" everywhere was that BASIC was united. But I saw otherwise.

On the penultimate day of the Paris conference, a draft of the Paris agreement was handed out for country diplomats to pore over. A Comité de Paris meeting (CoP President Fabius had organised this committee to oversee, everyday during the second crucial week, the state of negotiations) was held, at 10 pm Paris time, for country representatives to express their opinion. Although Fabius had promised that all Comité de Paris meetings would be televised, this one wasn’t. Non-state people were not allowed to enter. But I slipped in.

In that room, I heard the Chinese chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua object to almost everything in the draft text. He even demanded deletion of an article that said developing countries could voluntarily contribute to the south-south fund (something they had already done). Amazingly, when the final text was put out, it was little different than the previous draft. Most of China’s objections were retained, including on the provision of a South-South voluntary fund.

I wasn’t surprised. In an article I wrote at the beginning of CoP 21, I had predicted that in the last few days, the US and China would come together and foist a deal, with the active collusion of the French and the EU. Something similar happened in Paris.

Through out the first week of CoP 21, China was unusually quite. Then, in the second week, the media began reporting on how China was demanding stronger differentiation between developed and developing countries, and was fiercely sparring with the US on the review mechanism design. On the evening of December 11, for instance, the Associated Press reported that China was standing firm "on its demand that rich countries should bear a greater burden than developing ones in reducing emissions and helping countries cope with global warming". Liu Zhenmin, deputy chief of the Chinese delegation, told reporters this was the "core of our concern for the Paris agreement".

Later that day, however, the penny dropped. China’s state news agency reported President Xi Jinping had talked on the phone with President Obama. "China and the United States must strengthen coordination with all parties and work together to ensure the Paris climate summit reaches an accord as scheduled," Xi told Obama, according to Xinhua.

So, what exactly was China’s role in Paris?

I believe that, at CoP 21, China was the Straw Man. It made everyone feel it was opposing the US, while actually supporting it. We were lured into believing China was on our side. The end result was that both the US and China got almost everything they wanted: no legally binding emissions reduction target post-2020; no enhancement of emissions reduction target at all, pre-2020; no legally binding financial commitment; a much watered-down retention of the "differentiation" principle, based only on "respective capability" and "national circumstances". Most importantly, the Paris deal ensured climate change worries were not going to hinder economic development, or gregarious consumption, in both the US and China, for the next 10-15 years. China played realpolitik and succeeded.

BASIC demolished

But it was not only the Chinese that played realpolitik. On December 8, Brazil teamed up with the EU and announced a formulation on retaining, and providing a future boost to, market mechanisms. After all, Brazil had a lot to gain from selling carbon credits from its forests. The text they suggested is now enshrined in Article 6 of the Paris agreement. On December 10, Brazil went a step ahead and actually joined the "High ambition coalition", a coalition of developed countries and a large number of African countries all of whom were supporting the US (read my article on the travesty this coalition represented).

South Africa, too, resolutely kept to the sidelines, avoiding India’s stance. I think this was because of what had happened during the final plenary in the CoP at Durban, South Africa, in 2011. There, (then) environment minister JayanthiNatarajan was literally bullied into giving her consent to that CoP’s decisions. Indeed, post-Durban, Indian negotiators were clear that South Africa was not to be trusted anymore.

And so, the reality was that, by the end of the Paris climate conference, there was no BASIC. By the end of the conference, even the G-77+China bloc of more than 134 countries was rent asunder. Many of this bloc actually joined the US-led, and Umbrella Group/EU-promoted, High ambition coalition.

In Paris, therefore, India had no choice but to align itself with a developing country sub-bloc called the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC).

Unlike Like Minded Countries

LMDC consisted of Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, India, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Mali, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Vietnam. What brought this group together was that they believed that the 1992 UN climate convention was a "Bible" that could not be tampered with.

But it was a bloc riddled with contradiction. It had all the major oil-producing nations, who did not want any action on climate change that would affect their economy. According to the 1992 climate convention, these countries were categorised as "developing countries"—at that time, only the OECD countries were categorised as "industrialised", or "developed"—but were, now, among the richest countries of the world. Saudi Arabia was the most active member of the LMDC, and was known to block everything. It was, therefore, also the most unpopular country at CoP 21.

The other extreme in this group were countries such as Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, and Ecuador. They were part of the ALBA group or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. They do not exactly have friendly relations with the US and wanted to continue with core Convention principles to make sure that the US took the biggest responsibility of solving climate change, since the US was the biggest historical polluter. They also believed in "Rights of Mother Earth" and hence pushed for an ambitious deal of their own making. This was in exact contradiction to the position of the Gulf countries.

Then there were a few SAARC countries—Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. But Bangladesh also belonged to the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Least Developing Countries group that were demanding more climate ambition from countries like India. China was there, too, in this sub-bloc.

In short, a bunch of countries at complete variance with each other. I am amazed that anyone, with even a modicum of climate realpolitik knowledge, could believe that such a group would deliver. The fact is, ultimately, India’s strongest allies were the Gulf countries—not exactly a good advertisement for its climate change intentions and actions. So, in the end, what India got was probably the best it could have.

Why do we end-up, where we end-up?

As an environmental organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has, in many ways, been instrumental in shaping India’s position on climate change. Our 1991 report Global warming in an unequal world: A case of environmental colonialism brought to the fore the issue of equity and of equal rights to the remaining atmospheric commons, even as the text of the 1992 UN Climate Convention was being finalised. Since then, India has been championing the cause of equity in climate negotiations. It has got wedded to the UN convention and seeks continuation of the convention as the only insurance to protect the interests of India and other developing countries. The UN Climate Convention is the "Bible" and India its evangelist.

At CSE, however, we soon realised that using words like "equity" and phrases such as "common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)" were necessary, but increasingly insufficient. That India had to operationalise these principles if it actually wanted an equitable climate solution for the world became quite clear to us. We, therefore, started advocating for the operationalisation of equity principles, post-Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. Post-Copenhagen, it became quite clear to us that the US would slowly demolish the UN Convention and therefore we needed a different game plan to safeguard the interests of the developing countries.

But the exact opposite happened. Post-Copenhagen, words and phrases became even more important for the Indian negotiators. After every CoP, negotiators would come and boast how they had managed to keep equity and CBDR in CoP decisions and agreements and safeguarded India’s interests. Our analysis was to the contrary. After every CoP since Copenhagen, we felt we had lost some more ground to developed countries.

There was obviously a difference in the way we defined India’s interest. We believe it is in India’s interest to ensure ambitious global action on climate change wherein every country will have limits. These limits would be decided by taking into account a country’s responsibility in causing climate change and their capability in solving it. The more responsible and capable would do more and vice-versa. This would protect India’s "development space" as well as its poor from the worst impacts of climate change. We were well aware that we would never have a formula for this, but we were quite clear that a formula-like approach was possible, under which developed countries would take ambitious actions to cut their emissions and developing countries would build a low carbon economy, under a co-operative global framework.  

But, what was the definition of India’s interest our governmentwas safeguarding?

This was explained to me by an ex-chief climate negotiator (he was also an ex-secretary to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change). He told me, "We do not know what is equitable, but we do know what is inequitable and a deal should not be inequitable". This essentially meant, as he explained, that India was quite happy to see weak commitments from developed countries so long as they didn’t oblige India to do anything significant, or anything that would appear to, or actually, hurt India’s growth. India, therefore, has remained stuck to the UN Convention, maintaining status quo in climate talks, so that it does not get pushed to do more.

Indeed, not being obliged to do more became the cornerstone of India’s stance in climate conferences. Even if that meant that the developed world didn’t do anything, or got away with climate action murder.

Let me put on record that India, at the Warsaw CoP of 2013, actually opposed any mention of the "Equity Reference Framework"—a framework proposed by the Africa Group to operationalise equity. And India actually proposed, again at the Warsaw CoP, the name "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" or INDCs, which has led to developed countries walking away without any mitigation targets and has ensured that historical responsibility is now in the dustbin of multilateral history. India, therefore, played a key role in arriving at a voluntary, bottom-up, self-differentiated climate regime agreed at Paris that endangers India’s "development space" as well as the lives and livelihoods of its poor from the increasing impacts of climate change.

India’s status-quoist, don’t-ask-me-to-do-more approach has meant that we have always lost, bit by bit, CoP by CoP, year after year. This has also meant that countries who should have been on India’s side believe India has a very self-centered approach to climate negotiations. Those who are our opposition brand us as reactionary and obstructionist. We, therefore, need to change.

What next?

The Paris Agreement is not the end, but the beginning of negotiating future action. Many important components of the Paris agreement—review and ratcheting-up INDC ambition; how finance will be delivered and reported, how reporting and transparency will be enabled; how the carbon market will function—are still to be negotiated. Negotiations in the coming few years, therefore, are going to be very important.

I do believe that, at the Paris conference, the current Indian negotiating team did try doing things differently. For instance, it did use the idiom of carbon space smartly as a bulwark to get equity or CBDR mentioned in the text. It could not do more because it was too saddled with the burden of its negotiating-position history and its past intransigence and collusion. We will have to forget the past and look to the future. We have enough hooks in the Paris agreement to shape it our advantage. But to do that, we will need a new narrative, a new strategy and new allies. We will also need serious institutional support to do all these.

It is important for India to realise that it goes to negotiations and raises issues related to the poor—equity, for one, or climate justice etc—but aligns itself to and negotiates along with rich developing countries like China or Saudi Arabia. Today, poorer countries do not trust India at all. They see India as part of the problem and not the solution. At the same time, India hardly has anything in common with the rich, developing countries. This is a mismatch we need to recognise.

The fact is China, Brazil and South Africa made deals with the US and EU and have moved on. India has to decide what it wants. The call that India has to take is whether it wants to remain with the poor or with the rich. It can’t ride both horses. And only realpolitik, not false or smug morality, shall determine what India shall do in the future.

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