Deconstructing the Conference of Parties, 21, at Paris

Samir Saran| Shubh Soni

What was at stake at COP21?

The meeting of world leaders at Paris for the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 was being seen by the international community as a landmark opportunity to seize the momentum for decisive climate action. Nations, institutions, corporations and individuals alike were looking to this meet in Paris to deliver a legally binding and workable agreement, which would ensure temperatures did not rise above two degree Celsius by the end of this century and indeed strive for limiting the temperature rise to the 1.5 degree Celsius mark. The developing world in particular was seeking a commitment on financial and technological flows, which would enable them to mitigate and adapt to the ongoing and impending impacts of climate change. The stakes had never been higher –to get 192 countries to sign off on such an agreement would require both shrewd diplomacy, and the moral and political will of world leaders, to act on the biggest threat facing our planet.

To fully appreciate what was at stake in Paris at COP21, it is important to look back at four previous climate summits –COP3 at Kyoto, COP15 at Copenhagen, COP19 at Warsaw and COP20 at Lima. During COP3, the world agreed to the ‘Kyoto Protocol,’which acknowledged historical responsibility of the developed world to combat climate change. The agreement institutionalised the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) by drawing up a list of developed countries, known as Annex 1, which committed themselves to targets for cutting or slowing down their emissions of greenhouse gases that adversely impact the climate.[1]

However, a lot of what was agreed at COP3 was undone at Copenhagen. The developing world was left disappointed at COP15 as the international target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 was dropped, along with the target of ensuring global temperature does not rise above 1.5 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Moreover, the remark made by the United States’ president that developing countries should be “getting out of the habit”of looking at previous agreements, which made a distinction between developed and developing countries, was considered a serious setback, and was seen as a tactic by the developed world to wriggle its way out of its responsibility to address climate change.[2]

COP15 at Copenhagen was a failed culmination of the process started at COP13 at Bali, most of which was ultimately completed at Cancun during COP16. The Paris process began with the The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) at COP17 at Durban and the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) was formulated at Warsaw during COP19 –where it was agreed that countries were to submit their respective INDCs prior to the commencement of COP21. The INDCs were further institutionalised at COP20 as Lima’s ‘Call for Climate Action’dedicated eleven of its 103 clauses to the INDCs, and it was agreed that these individual country commitments were going to be the central feature of global climate action post 2020.

Once all countries had declared their INDCs, the stage was set for Paris to bring all countries to the table and flesh out a global agreement.

Key ActorsUS, EU, China, India, Africa

Even though 192 countries were present at Paris and a successful agreement would require all of them to sign on, the narrative of the summit was to be dominated by five actors –S, the European Union, China, India and Africa.

The US went into the climate negotiations looking to assure the world that joint cooperation on climate change was the only way forward. The US could not be seen as the flag-bearer of the developed world trying to force an agreement that would severely constrain the economic development of developing countries. A repeat of the upheaval at Copenhagen needed to be avoided at all costs. And to achieve these goals, the US made significant efforts to showcase its leadership on climate action. The Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, was designed in such a way that it would not be held hostage by the divisive political narrative in the country (however, certain elements of this plan are being legally challenged by state governments). The American delegation also assured the developing world of its efforts to mobilise $100 billion. However, America’s weak INDC declaration –many felt the leader ought to lead by example and not hide behind domestic pressure –left enough room for scepticism heading into the summit.[3]

The failure of the Copenhagen summit was felt the hardest by the EU, as the continent had invested the most domestic and diplomatic stock at COP15. At Paris, then, the objective of the EU was to re-establish its agency as a leading global actor on not just climate change, but also on international diplomacy. And it was not just COP15 that had weakened its agency –the financial crises of 2010, and the recent political disruptions in Ukraine, have meant the legitimacy of the ‘Union’is now under intense scrutiny. Moreover, external factors, such as the refugee crises in West Asia and the backlash against those seeking shelter in the old continent, meant Europe desperately needed a positive outcome at COP21. France, in this instance, was not playing host as a western European power, but was representing the entire continent. On specific details of the negotiations, Europe had nuanced differences with both the US and the developing world. With America, the conflict was on the legal nature of the outcome as the US, due to its domestic political dynamics, was incapable of signing a strong legal document which Europe desired. With India and China, the disagreement was on mitigation efforts, since these two countries and the rest of the developing world argued for protecting their carbon space for economic growth while seeking greater commitment from the developed world.

As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, all eyes were on what the Chinese INDCs entailed. Following the successful bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jingping, China reiterated its ambitions to lower carbon emissions intensity by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels, increase non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent, and increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic metres on the 2005 level. Coming into the summit, Warwick J. McKibben of the Brookings Institute found that the targets announced by China would mean the country faced the second highest economic cost to GDP of all countries modelled –a significant commitment by the Chinese.[4]

Coming into Paris, India was carrying the unfair tag of a spoiler in climate debates –a country unrelenting in its position to give up its dependence on carbon and fossil fuels. In this context, the Indian INDCs and the Indian delegation at Paris looked to achieve two objectives –to highlight to the world one, India’s leadership on renewable energy, and two, India’s structural dependence on coal for the foreseeable future (unlike China which is now at a stage in its economic growth where it can transition towards green energy). India also made clear that global technology and financial regimes needed to evolve and create “a  regime  where  facilitative  technology  transfer  replaces  an  exploitative  market  driven  mechanism  [which] could  pave  the  way  for  a  common  understanding  of  universal  progress.”[5]

The African continent contributes least to climate change, both in absolute and per capita terms. An entire continent, with 54 countries, accounts for only 3.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, despite having minimal emission levels, the continent is the most vulnerable to global warming. Its high dependence on low-yielding agriculture for food and income means even if global warming is restricted to two degrees Celsius, much of southern and central Africa would be at risk of severe drought, while east Africa will face the brunt of large-scale floods. The negative impacts on human development indicators, from health to child educational performance, will have serious and adverse impact on any progress made by individual countries.[6] For Africa therefore, the Paris summit was important not just from a mitigation perspective, but also from a climate change adaptation point of view. In contrast to the developed world, and much of the developing world, the African continent and small island states needed a positive signal on adaptation finance (thus far most of the funds for climate action have primarily focused on mitigation) and the inclusion of ‘loss and damage’in the agreement. The latter in particular was of critical importance to these two regions, as economic cost related to loss and damage can be very high.

In addition to these nations and groupings of nations, there were other significant actors who had a decisive impact on the outcome. For instance, least developing nations, the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries and Brazil-South Africa-India-China groupings wanted differentiation in climate action and significant space for their domestic economies to grow. The Alliance of Small Island States demanded greater global ambition on ensuring global temperature rise be restricted to 1.5 degree Celsius.

The Paris Agreement

In the context of what happened at Copenhagen, and the following COPs at Warsaw and Lima, Paris made significant gains in getting the climate agenda back on track. Many positives can be taken away from the agreement, particularly from a developing country perspective, and more specifically from an Indian point of view. The biggest takeaway was that this agreement was an all-round diplomatic success – with all countries but Nicaragua on board and no public display of acrimony between the global ‘North’and the global ‘South.’

From an Indian perspective, while the inclusion of the phrase ‘climate justice’only in the preamble weakens its larger mandate, it is still a step in the right direction for the developing world, sufficiently that the UN has for the first time acknowledged it in the final agreement. Moreover, several of the provisions of the agreement incorporate the foundations of the concept of climate justice, i.e., historical responsibility of the developed world to correct the ‘original sin’committed by them, of leading by example by adopting more sustainable lifestyles, and the acknowledgment of the fact that those who have contributed least to global warming are the most vulnerable to its impact.

Additionally, the Paris agreement, while not specifically mentioning CBDR, incorporates within it both this principle and the notion of equity, albeit in a slightly nuanced manner. Several provisions of the agreement are predicated on these concepts, none more so than the one on the long-term global goal. The agreement makes it clear that there will be no peak emission targets for developing countries for the time being, giving these nations adequate carbon space and the corresponding development space. From an Indian perspective, it gives the country enough room to manoeuvre by recognising its exceptional status as a country with the fastest growing economy and the best chance the world has to eradicate large-scale poverty.

On highly contested topics such as mitigation and finance, characteristics of climate justice can be found in the agreement. On finance, making the $100 billion agreed in Copenhagen the floor (minimum)amount to be mobilised by the developed world to assist climate action of developing nations achieved the twin objectives of increasing the base amount and incorporating differentiation. Moreover, finance will be provided for both mitigation and adaptation initiatives. On mitigation, keeping the should/shall ‘typography error’aside, differentiation is focused both on ‘scale’and ‘nature’–developed countries will take the lead and have the responsibility of achieving absolute reduction in emissions, while developing nations will continue efforts under nationally determined circumstances (thus taking into account the challenges of lack of energy access, unsustained economic growth, and the simultaneous objective of poverty alleviation facing these latter).

The allusion to the word ‘sustainable’in Article 2, which focuses on purpose, and Article 4 on mitigation, links the Paris Agreement with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda agreed to in 2015. This is of particular importance for the developing world as the SDGs, with their 17 goals and 169 targets, give prime importance to poverty eradication, and endorse within them infrastructure development and manufacturing-led industrialisation. By situating climate change within the overall context of sustainable development, the agreement further allows significant development space to developing nations.

While a differentiated transparency framework could not be established, the framework agreed to cover not only action of individual nations, but also the necessary support developed nations are required to extend for climate action. Moreover, the agreement also allows enough flexibility to developing nations even as they declare their efforts –the concept of CBDR is maintained, as emission cuts can be declared according to national circumstances and the respective capacity of nations to act. In a particular win for the Indian delegation, its demand to linking capacity building with transparency was met.

Finally, while the relationship between the Agreement and the Convention remains precarious, particularly with the US insisting dropping the words “under the Convention,” Article 2.1 of the agreement and Paragraph 1 of the COP decision do establish a subsidiary relationship of the agreement to the Convention. However, developing countries, particularly India, need to keep re-emphasising this demand and ensure a deeper relationship between the two as the agreement is fleshed out and implemented in the months ahead.

However, the agreement may disappoint developing countries on certain counts. For instance, on finance, Article 2.1 (c) states that “[m]aking financial flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate resilient development.” Including this statement, despite strong opposition, could be interpreted as encouraging an era of ‘green conditionalities’for development and infrastructure finance. Following the decision of the US export-import bank to shift funding away from coal plants, such language does add to developing world scepticism.

Furthermore, the transparency framework will be built upon the existing international assessment and review and international consultations and analysis arrangements, and much can change from now till when the modalities are finalised. From a developing country perspective, the details of the framework must incorporate a common matrix on climate finance –an aspect on which there is currently no consensus.

Road ahead for India

India highlighted in its NDCs that over the next decade and a half its electricity demand is set to increase from 776 TWh in 2012 to 2,499 TWh in 2030.[7] This increase in demand is borne out of the country’s efforts to industrialise, urbanise, eradicate poverty and provide its population with a higher standard of living. This industrialisation will require bolstering the manufacturing sector, building reliable infrastructure and ensuring rapid urbanisation. Thus, despite efforts to strengthen its renewable energy sector, the majority of India’s energy needs will be met through coal and fossil fuels. In light of what was achieved at Paris, it is clear that the agreement allows India enough room to manoeuvre and undertake an industrialisation process largely predicated on these two sources of energy.

On the renewable energy front, as these authors have argued in a recent publication,[8] India already punches well above its weight when compared to the US, China and Japan, and is only marginally behind Germany. The INDC document submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also highlights that between 2002 and 2015, the share of renewable grid capacity has increased over six times, from 2% (3.9 GW) to around 13% (36 GW). In its nationally determined contribution, the government has made clear its intention to significantly scale up these efforts to achieve the target of 175 GW renewable energy capacity in the next few years.[9] Prime Minister Modi’s Solar Alliance with 120 countries is one such effort aimed at capitalising India’s leadership and the global momentum on green energy.

The success of these efforts, however, requires technological and financial flows from the developed world to make renewable sources easily accessible and affordable for India’s 300 million poor people. Unfortunately, as per the existing property regimes, the cost of green energy installations in countries that have the potential to ramp up such installations the fastest and widest, such as India, is 24% to 32% more costly.[10] It is therefore in India’s and the world’s interest to develop an Indian model of industrialisation that relies significantly on green sources of energy catering to the aspirations and needs of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Such a successful model can then be replicated in others parts of Asia and Africa.

In this context, Paris is the beginning of a process, which could take up to two years during which ‘t’s will have to be crossed and ‘i’s dotted. Paris has given sufficient negotiation space to all stakeholders without meeting the wish list of any single actor completely. The interpretation, implementation and fleshing out of what was achieved at Paris is still ahead of us, and each party will have to brace itself for fresh rounds of determined negotiations to secure their own specific national objectives based on their circumstances. For India the objectives are threefold. First is to mobilise global support and domestic resources to develop a robust climate adaptation framework. Second is to ensure that adequate funds and finances are available for it to secure its lifeline energy at affordable prices and complete its industrialisation project and offer better life to its people. And, finally, it must seize the opportunity to develop a ‘clean energy’growth model, foster product and process innovation and develop an “India Model”that could be replicable and a benchmark for others further below on the development ladder. It will need to ensure that the global climate agenda allows and supports these rational ambitions.

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