The endgame at Cancun

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageAs I write this, some 24 hours are left to finalise the agreement at the 16th Conference of Parties to the climate change convention being held in Cancun.

At this moment it seems the predictable deadlock in talks will continue. Like all other global climate meetings, the world remains deeply divided on the matter of how to cut emissions of greenhouse gases that even today determine economic growth. Not much is expected to happen at the beach city of Cancun.

But this assessment borders on the simplistic. Over the past three years—since the meeting held in Bali—much has changed in the negotiations and much will change in Cancun. In the past years developing countries have done all they can to break the deadlock; they have budged from their held positions, they have been proactive in international negotiations and they have developed a domestic agenda for climate change mitigation. But each forward shift in the position of the emerging world has only meant a backward slide and hardening of position of the rich countries. Worse, there has been aggressive and often clandestine movement to shift the very nature of the global climate agreement to suit the US. This is the endgame of Cancun. We need to understand this.

2007, Bali: The draft resolution asked for deep emission reduction cuts from the industrialised world—up to 20 per cent by 2020. The US was rigid in its stance that it would do nothing within a legal framework and nothing till China and India were similarly committed. There was much at stake as the world climate was clearly heating up. There was pressure to act. By now the global (read western) media had successfully painted China and India as the villains in the climate pack. They had shifted public opinion away from the historical and rising pollution of the US to the chimneys of Beijing.

The developing world made a drastic shift in its position to bring the US on board. One, it agreed to a separate regime for the US based on its domestic actions that would not be legally binding. Two, it agreed to take on national actions to mitigate emissions, but underlined that these would have to be enabled by technology and funding. It also agreed that the supported actions would be subject to an international regime for monitoring and verification. The world was given two years to firm up this action plan.

2009: By now it was clear that the Democratic government of Obama was not different from its predecessor Bush’s. It was only more visible and more determined to have its way. The bar of compromise was shifted again. The concession made by the developing world at Bali was brushed aside as too little. The shrill call went out: China and India and others in our part of the world should state their emission reduction targets. Nobody asked what was the target the US was willing to put on the table. The pressure was on us to respond. It was also repeated that we were the deal breakers. India and China wanted growth at all costs. This line was fed to and swallowed by many Indian commentators and politicians alike.

So we caved in and complied once again. India put out its energy intensity reduction target and a national action plan on climate change. China went aggressive in building a renewable energy portfolio. Brazil went on to cut its rates of deforestation. All this was done without any matching commitments from the US. The US continued to commission and build coal-based power stations and increase its gas-guzzling vehicle fleet.

2009, Copenhagen: By now the goal posts had been shifted again. The Obama administration made it clear: nothing or all. It also stitched up a coalition of the willing with the Bush-like motto, “with us or against us”. At this meeting the terms of the new agreement were revealed. It was simple: no global agreements would be legally binding on the rich countries. Instead, there would be one agreement for all. This would be based on domestic actions, not determined by historical emissions but by the willingness of each country to act. But all these actions would be measured, reported and verified. It would internationalise domestic actions. There would be no distinction between the industrialised world and the rest. There would be no promise of money or technology. All this added up to a weak and effective deal, designed by and for polluters.

In Copenhagen, in spite of the Obama touch (he came, bullied and charmed), there was no agreement on this non-deal. Now in Cancun the negotiations are designed to move the pieces ahead. The goal is clear: by the next meeting in Durban all opposition to the new deal should be removed, even at the cost of making the world bleed.

But the question remains: now that the US has got the world to sink even lower in its expectations for an agreement that will be effective or equitable, will it honour its side of the bargain? Till now there is little evidence to suggest that it will take on emission reduction targets commensurate with its historical responsibility. Till now there is every evidence that it will wreak the agreement and then walk out of doing even the little it has promised.

Then why should the world give up its chance to build an agreement on climate that will work effectively? Why?

—Sunita Narain

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  • Just the fact that this

    Just the fact that this service keeps reporting on the CO2 mistake, makes journalists just baton passers, nothing more, noting less. In effect, choosing to report this CO2 insanity, this late in the game, makes this news service complicit in what was the Iraq War of WMD Climate Lies and fear mongering. Scientists will most certainly be prosecuted for this, but you in the media get a free pass as we watch the re-branding of journalism and news editors in the mainscream media to that of mere paperboys.
    Turns out climate change has done to journalism and science what abusive priests did to religion.
    -Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of population control. Nice job.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • "Then why should the world

    "Then why should the world give up its chance to build an agreement on climate that will work effectively? Why?"

    I almost always understand yr editorials, but do not comprehend this last sentence. R u suggesting leave out the US? It is not clear.

    Rgdes Brian

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks. But please write a

    Thanks. But please write a revised one after it has concluded.
    Aju Mukhopadhyay

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita ji, This is

    Dear Sunita ji,
    This is sad story of bad environmental intentions of the developed world especially USA. I think that USA can only be forced by the developed 'polar' countries. By polar I mean those countries which fall near the polar circles and who have bear the brunt of gaping Ozone Holes every year. These include Canada USA mainly lies (Only Alaska is in that danger zone)in the lower lattitudes and is not being affected by the ozone depletion at present. So, they can push around for sometime like this. We must keep in mind that USA is being lead (India too) by the big companies. Every deal or agreement they reach is according to their companies' directions. It is not done on the basis of global conditions. That's why we are in such a situation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • I am by no means an expert on

    I am by no means an expert on climate change but the present stage of negotiations brings to my mind a play I saw in London some years ago. The principal actor commented that disarmament talks may progress faster if they were conducted at the bottom of a missile silo rather than in a five-star hotel. This sounds rather cynical but there may be a germ of truth in it. Rather than continuing to hold negotiations relating to climate change in plush surroundings in beach cities, could some other mechanism be explored (tele-conferencing for all but the point at which the final deal is signed?)? At least, this will reduce the costs and environmental problems associated with staging major conferences. Happy New Year to all - Rohan Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with Brian. I did not

    I agree with Brian. I did not quite comprehend the last sentence. Is Sunita hinting at a deal without the US? Yes, quite possible. My question is whether we need to wait for a global agreement at home? Has India thought of any alternative model of development? Has Indian scientists developed a cheap renewable energy technology? What exactly is the path we have to follow so that all families in India can lead a decent life? Is it possible to turn all poor families to those with middle class income?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply