Climate Change

India and the new climate deal: walking the talk on equity

Known for its adamant advocacy in the climate negotiations, India now has a chance to put its best foot forward and lead talks towards constructive dialogue

By Ximena Carranza Risco
Published: Monday 20 July 2015

Throughout the United Nations’ international negotiations on climate change, going back to 1992, major red lines have been drawn with regards to how the global regime under negotiations to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius is effectively building on two core principles of the negotiations: equity and “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR). The premise is simple: the industrialised nations that have polluted the most will need to bear the greatest burden of the global mitigation effort, allowing the developing world to have space to grow and meet their development needs while more gradually easing into a low-carbon development path. To date, however, there has been little consensus between developed and developing country parties on how to operationalise equity and reflect CBDR both in the substance of actions to be taken and the legal implications, if any, of non-compliance. And time is dangerously running out.


Some genuine concerns

India has been at the centre stage of the equity battle for years, coming to be known as one of its most adamant advocates in the climate negotiations. On many occasions, it has played a vital role to keep equity and CBDR on the table, garnering support from several other developing countries. Yet, it has also received harsh criticism for adopting what some consider as an inflexible position that is not leading to concrete solutions, and for waving the equity flag as “a shield rather than a sword”. Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister of India, also criticised the government for its “ostrich-like” stance at the negotiations, and feared that India’s approach may lead it to be “the last man standing” in the coming climate talks in Paris.

Undoubtedly, there are well-grounded reasons for India to insist on putting its foot down when it comes to these two core principles. While India is indeed the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter, set on a trajectory to double or even triple its emissions by 2030 if no action is taken, its historical responsibility for climate change is marginal in comparison with that of developed countries. According to the World Resources Institute, if India accounts for only 2.6 per cent of the world’s cumulative CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2010, the US accounts for a whopping 28 per cent. An even greater disparity arises when looking at India’s per capita emissions, which are ten times lower than those of the US (1.68 tCO2, as compared to 16.31 tCO2 respectively in 2012). India’s capacity to take on mitigation commitments is further hampered by a low per capita GDP, which is also more than 30 times below that of developed countries (ranking it 132 out of 184 countries in 2010) and high poverty levels, with approximately 300 million people still living in extreme poverty.

It is in fact India’s large population, at 1.25 billion, which makes it one of world’s largest economies and emitters, yet the net figures still clearly paint an incomplete picture of India’s ongoing struggles. India’s strive to rise as one of the world’s powers and elevate its profile in the international arena has come with responsibilities and expectations that it is now struggling to contextualise in the climate talks, particularly as these continue to move towards a new climate agreement that is increasingly putting pressure on the emerging economies to do their part.

Chasing equity: from Copenhagen to Paris

The 2009 UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen marked a decisive shift in the direction that the global climate regime was to take, bringing with it new concerns over how equity and CBDR would be upheld. The Copenhagen Accord, controversially drafted in a closed meeting of 26 major economies, which India was part of, suggested a new emission-control architecture following a bottom-up approach in which countries would make voluntary pledges, rather than having to comply with top-down targets agreed internationally.

The Accord was certainly a compromise for India, who had made it clear that it would not support negotiating a new instrument with weak commitments, risking having to renegotiate how equity and CBDR would be embedded into it. India instead wanted to focus on strengthening the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) that is to finish in 2020—which only a handful of countries had ratified at that time—as it already made an equitable differentiation between the commitments and legal obligations of developed and developing countries.

Yet, after Copenhagen, the road was set for countries to put forward their pledges for 2020, albeit with little clarity on how an adequate level of ambition could be kept on track or how individual efforts would reflect an equitable share of the remaining carbon space. In an unprecedented move, India, which before Copenhagen had stated it would not be setting any targets any time soon, put forward a quantifiable pledge: a 20-25 per cent reduction of its economy’s carbon intensity by 2020, over 2005 levels. This came as a surprising positive change to India’s long-held “do nothing” stance, giving a signal to the international community that it was ready to be proactive in the fight against climate change—not only as a response to increasing international pressure, but also out of India’s self-interest given its severe vulnerability to climate change. Certainly, the fact that these pledges were not subject to any legal repercussions at the international stage may have helped to give India the final push that it needed to put forth an intended target.

Nonetheless, in the Cancun negotiations the following year, India continued to plea not to “dilute, supplant or marginalise the Kyoto Protocol” with a new instrument, even while it was becoming clear that strengthening the KP was to fall to a secondary stage. Concerned about how equity and differentiation were to be reflected in the new deal, India showed itself reluctant to engage in talks on the legal nature of the new regime, encouraging parties to focus first “on the substance, and then the form will follow”. But this defensive stance was a lost opportunity for India: had it played a more proactive role at the climate talks to shape the agenda of the negotiations as they moved towards a new climate regime, India may have avoided finding itself as isolated from the international community as it did in Durban in 2011.

India’s dissatisfaction with the way the legal nature of the new agreement was being shaped dragged on and peaked in Durban. Moreover, as the talks were close to wrap up, the lack of clear reference to the principles of equity and CBDR in the text, which was to be the foundation for the negotiation of a new deal post-2020, deeply alarmed the Indian delegation, who refused to adopt it. While the EU teamed up with the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States to put forth a proposal for a legally binding agreement for all parties post-2020, India remained firm in its indisposition to accept such a deal.

Probably one of the most iconic moments at the Durban talks was India’s environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, being surrounded by all other major parties asking her to agree to sign the text, which India alone had refused to do—truly “the last man standing”. In an impassioned plea, Natarajan asked to keep all legal options on the table and called on parties to ensure that the climate change debate has equity and CBDR as its core.

“Does climate change mean we give up equity? How do I give a blank check and sign away the livelihoods of 1.2 billion people and many other people in the developing world? Is that equity?” Natarajan said.

A compromise was finally reached to include a third option for the legal architecture of the regime proposed by India – an “agreed outcome with legal force”. Many argue, however, that India did not gain much from this third option, as it may not be significantly different in legal terms than the other two, “a protocol” or “another legal instrument”. Unfortunately, the following climate talks in Doha (2012) and Warsaw (2013) saw little progress on concrete ways to operationalise equity in the new climate regime, which was moving closer towards a “pledge and review” system that still had unclear rules.

In a rather surprising move, India, the once “equity champion” in Durban, opposed a proposal made by the African Group to operationalise equity. The Group had proposed adopting a common “Equity Reference Framework” that would have a basket of indicators against which the adequacy of countries’ pledges could be assessed. India, together with the group of Like-Minded Developing Countries, stated that “any framework, which seeks to determine for developing countries what they should contribute in any future regime, goes against the principle of equity and CBDR based on historical responsibility.” India further argued that “historical responsibility is the only key” to determine commitments, and that they would not “accept a framework or structure that will redistribute the ambition gap to developing countries as well. If the developed countries truly respect CBDR and equity, they should raise their ambitions to fill the gap.”

An equity reference framework never materialised.

What next?

India’s defensive and reactionary stance at the international negotiations has proven to be an unsuccessful strategy to achieve the equitable agreement it so fervently seeks. Key opportunities were missed over the past few years for India to shape the agenda of the new climate deal, which has resulted in frequent lock-ins that have thus far been left largely unresolved. Certainly, developed countries have often failed to do their part in the negotiations too, reluctant to show the serious commitment that it is required of them as the biggest contributors to the climate problem.

Then how do we move forward when both sides seem to be waiting for the other to step forward first?

The bottom-up approach that the new climate deal is following may provide an interesting window of opportunity. Countries are required to submit their pledges (the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) by October, ahead of the Paris climate talks. This way, they shall be laying all their cards on the table. While no formal process of review is in place, ambitious INDCs from the key players in the debate may be the first step towards more constructive dialogue between parties to reconcile the differences and show that there is genuine willingness to solve the problem.

A proactive rather than a reactionary approach to solving the climate problem could help India stir the negotiations towards a regime that better reflects its equity concerns. As the negotiations hone in on a new climate deal to be signed in December 2015 in Paris, India will need to be ready to show the world that it can walk the talk to operationalise equity. This will begin with an ambitious and adequate INDC that maximises India’s mitigation potential, but will need to continue in the discussions in Paris as countries dive into figuring out how the ambition gap left after adding up individual contributions will be filled. It is highly unlikely that developed countries will agree to take on the full burden of the emissions gap as India has argued it should happen. It is in India’s best interest to be a part of this discussion and lead parties towards a way to operationalise equity if it wants to avoid being “the last man standing”, yet again. As one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, the stakes are high for India if the gap is not filled and warming is not kept below 2 degrees Celsius. Yet, there could be much to gain if India decides to put its best foot forward and propose a way to handle this challenge in a manner that is aligned with a clear definition of equity and CBDR that it can contribute in jotting down.

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