Event ReportsPublished on Jan 31, 2015
India, China and the US share a similar perspective on balancing economic interests with climate-action, seeking a pragmatic approach to combat climate change through plausible self-determined contributions that are cognizant of national interests, says former Union Environment Secretary N R Krishnan.
Pragmatic approach to combat climate-change: Former Secretary
"India, China and the US share a similar perspective on balancing economic interests with climate-action, seeking a pragmatic approach to combat climate change through plausible self-determined contributions that are cognizant of national interests," said Mr N R Krishnan, former Environment Secretary, Government of India.

Initiating a discussion on "Whither Climate Negotiations, Now?" at the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on Saturday, January 31, Mr. Krishnan said "Climate-change discussions are dominated by economic and political considerations. Commercial, strategic and geopolitical interests drive and shape climate-change negotiations. Instead of setting international targets, individual countries must be allowed to determine their contributions, based on common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Voluntary contributions must be qualitative, measureable and verifiable."

The origins of climate change negotiations can be traced back to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiated at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The UNFCC recognised the disparity between the developed and developing nations in addressing climate change and acknowledged that contributions to climate- action must be based on the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities."

The Kyoto Protocol (1998) set tangible emission reduction targets for developed countries, based on 1990 levels, to be achieved by the year 2008 to 2012. Aside from the European Union, other developed countries have struggled to meet the targets. With the US failing to ratify the Protocol, and Canada, Japan and Russia refusing to make any further emission-reduction commitments in 2011, abutted by the formal withdrawal of Canada later that year, the Kyoto Protocol has been largely ineffective in reducing global carbon emissions," Mr. Krishnan recalled.

As he pointed out further, the Bali Action Plan (2007) produced the first breakthrough in climate negotiations, when member-countries agreed to prepare national action plans to mitigate, reduce and adapt to climate-change. The positivity espoused in the previous Conference of Parties (CoP) was absent in Copenhagen (2009), owing to serious differences between the EU, India and China. Despite the conspicuous absence of a binding agreement, the Copenhagen Accord set the tone for the current ongoing climate discussions, leading up to the Lima Climate Conference in 2014.

Lacking in consensus

Elucidating the perceptions on climate-change, Mr. Krishnan noted that there is no broad consensus on climate-change across the globe. While all nations agree on the social and environmental impact of increased global temperatures, they diverge on the causality aspect of climate-change. Even within nations, for instance in the US, the Republicans have been hard sceptics on climate-change, especially in attributing its causality to human actions and economic activities.

Russia and countries surrounding the Arctic Circle view increased global temperatures favourably. Melting of the Arctic ice is viewed as an opportunity to exploit the mineral wealth and gas resources trapped under vast sheets of ice. Further, it also opens up the Northern Sea Route that may become navigable throughout the year, accruing significant economic benefits to cargo haulage services.

Russia also considers the prospect of agriculture in the Siberian region, which may become cultivable if the permafrost is to melt away owing to increased global temperature. But this may also lead to further global-warming caused by the release of methane gas trapped under layers of permafrost.

Same umbrella

Mr Krishnan said that climate negotiations are shaped by strong economic and political reasons. The high growth rate coupled with rapid economic acceleration has resulted in higher carbon emissions by China and India, prompting the developed nations to expect a stronger commitment from them both in addressing climate-change. This was also reflected in the Lima discussions, whereby beyond 2020, the developed nations and the emerging economies will be brought under the same umbrella, governing climate agreements.

Binding commitments for climate actions beyond 2020 will be negotiated in the 21stCoP to be held in Paris this year. Commenting on legally enforceable emission reduction targets, Mr. Krishnan said that even if a legal instrument were to be negotiated and signed as envisioned by the Lima discussions, it might fail to serve the purpose in the absence of an enforceable mechanism such as sanctions and a dispute resolution body.

China pledged to cut its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels, ahead of the Lima conference last year. India has also agreed to cut its carbon intensity by 20-25% by 2020 based on 2005 levels. The US has welcomed these voluntary commitments. Climate talks also figured prominently in Obama’s recent visit to India.

Recent developments in the past couple of years display a pattern of coherence among India, China and the US in climate discussions. "Commonality of interests between India, China and the US with regard to climate-actions are very evident. Unlike the EU which seeks a strong positive action advocating legally enforceable targets, they (India, China and US) are leaning towards voluntary contributions that support national imperatives," observed Mr. Krishnan.

Speaking on the Indian challenges to climate-action, Mr. Krishnan said that it is becoming an increasingly contentious matter to build hydropower projects in India. Despite hard scientific evidence and assessment, most hydro projects are perceived to have adverse effects on the environment.

He further noted that transmission & distribution losses, compounded by cheap agricultural power subsidies result in wasteful use of energy. "It is not just the technical fix that matters, but a right climate has to be created for investments in green technology and green energy practices," opined Mr. Krishnan.

Responding to a question on Green Climate Fund (GCF), Mr. Krishnan said that GCF has to be assisted by market mechanisms and appropriate policy climate to foster private investments and trade in green energy technologies. Briefly speaking on the Montreal Protocol and hydro-fluorocarbon (HFC) substances, he clarified that the move to phase out HFCs by 2020 was largely driven by economic and commercial interests.

The Montreal Protocol devised a multilateral funding mechanism to phase out ozone depleting substances, by providing financial assistance to produce HFCs and phase out Hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). The developed nations intend to terminate funding for HFC production, which largely flows into India and China, and further replace HFCs by other refrigerants that serve the commercial interests of western conglomerates.

(This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Chennai)
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