Paris Climate Agreement: Not Ambitious or Equitable


There is a growing inequality in the world. No amount of growth and economic prosperity is enough anymore, because aspiration is the new God. This means anybody who is poor is marginalised simply because they have just not made the grade. There is no longer space for such ‘failure’ in our brave, newer, world. It is about the survival of the fittest, in a way that would have made Darwin insane.

The Paris climate change summit has ended. The leaders of the world – the US, Europe and even China and India – are hailing the agreement as historic and ambitious. But I disagree. Paris climate agreement is a compromise deal, in many ways it can be termed as the lowest minimum denominator. Why do I say this?

The fact is that the agreement, without any legal target for the developed world to cut emissions, puts the world on a path of 3° rise in temperature – which will be devastating for the world. It does not expect developed countries to increase their level of ambition to cut emissions for the next 10 years.

Most importantly, the rich industrialised countries have won a significant battle to erase their historical responsibility – the past emissions that have created the problem of climate change and that have today put the entire world at risk – have been written off. This was the key demand of the US, which has contributed over 21 percent alone to the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The removal of the phrase historical responsibility will weaken the obligations of developed countries to take action due to their past emissions. Without historical responsibility, equity will now be interpreted only through the words ‘respective capabilities and national circumstances’ further removing differentiation between actions of developed and developing countries.

What we have got in return are ‘words’ of justice and equity and some ‘promise’ of money, which has never ever been fulfilled till date. The words ‘Equity’ and ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’ has come in many places in the Paris Agreement, but gets negated by the fact that the Nationally Determined Contributions of countries are not legally binding, and everyone has to take on mitigation commitments. So, the firewall that existed between countries that had created the problem and were required to take first action has been removed in this way.

What should worry us the most is the fact that the agreement does not have any reference to the limited and finite carbon budget – the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted to keep the world below 1.5° or 2°C – the guardrail of safety is gone. In this way, developed countries can continue to disproportionally appropriate carbon space in the future as they have done in the past. A fair distribution of the remaining carbon space based on historical responsibilities could have avoided this inequity.

We know that if the world wants to cap temperatures, then it must also agree to an ambitious plan to cap greenhouse emissions – which trap heat and leads to increase in temperature. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to keep the world below 2°C, with a 66 percent probability, the budget is some 2,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1870 and 2100. The industrialised countries have emitted the bulk of the 1900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The world is left with 1000 billion tonnes. The aim of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) is to surreptitiously appropriate the carbon budget. The US, for instance, has already used up some 21 percent of the used carbon budget. Between now and 2030, as per its lacklustre INDC, it will take up another 8-10 percent. In this way, the INDC is not just a country’s commitment to reduce emissions; it is its intention to occupy global carbon space. Once this space is taken, it is difficult to vacate.

The only way now to operationalise equity is to make sure that all countries are required to take actions to reduce emissions based on the fair share of the carbon budget.

The Paris Agreement fails in this totally. In fact, the aggregate of all the INDCs adds up to a minimum increase of 3°C or much more. There is no target set for developed countries to take more aggressive cuts to reduce their contributions to the growing stock of emissions in the atmosphere.

What is even worse is that Paris cements climate apartheid – it seals it so that the historical responsibility of the developed world to creating the problem of emissions is erased and worse, the burden of future transition moves to the still developing world. The fact is that if temperature increase is capped at 1.5°C, then the carbon budget – how much the world can emit to cap that temperature rise – is limited even further. If the world was capping temperatures at 2°C, then the remaining budget – from 2011-2100 would be roughly 1000 billion tonnes and when temperature is capped at 1.5°C, then the remaining budget shrinks to a mere 400-550 billion tonnes. What is also clear is that at current rates of emissions, this ‘budget’ will be more or less exhausted by 2020. This means that by the time the Paris Agreement begins in 2020, there is no right left for the bulk of the world to develop.

Nowhere in the Paris draft, other than a weak sentence about ‘enhanced pre-2020 ambition that can lay a solid foundation for enhanced post-2020 ambition’ is the fact mentioned that the already rich countries have to reduce now to leave space for the rest to grow. The Paris Agreement universalises action to reduce emissions, without apportioning the responsibilities or rights of countries to creating the problem or reducing emissions.

In this situation, what countries like India have got are sweet nothings about ‘equity’ and ‘climate justice’, which the agreement says is important for ‘some’. The agreement does not operationalise equity by asking for the carbon budget to be shared fairly between nations. All it does is to make some vague promises about funds and technology that will be available in the distant future to developing countries for low-carbon growth. In this way, justice is kept as an illusion. The reality is a deal that is inequitable and unambitious.

It has been accepted that a mechanism on loss and damage – to estimate the loss because of climate change and to estimate its damage on economies and people -- will be established. The US has won again because it has also been made clear that this provision will not involve or provide basis for compensation or liability. In this way, no country will be able to demand that it should be awarded damages for the impact that it will suffer because of climate change. The rich industrialised world has been once again been able to erase its responsibility and clean its dirty slate.

In terms of finance, the differential has been maintained by stating that the developed countries will provide support to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation. This is the only place where equity has been operationalised. However, we know that the promise of finances has always been illusionary; the previous draft mentioned $100 billion to be made available, it has been removed in the current draft agreement.

So, India – and it must be admitted that its negotiators fought hard in Paris -- has got right words such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities mentioned in many places. It has also got terms such as climate justice, sustainable lifestyle and consumption mentioned. It must be noted that these are not in operational parts of the text and so there are no commitments for these things.

It has not been able to operationalise equity – and in this way it has allowed the rich industrialised countries to appropriate a large and disproportionate share of the global commons. It is also clear that there will be greater pressures on countries like India to reduce emissions and this transition will have to happen at our costs. This is ironical and immoral, because countries such as the US have little restraints on their growth. In fact, the US climate change plan is nothing more than business as usual. This is what Paris has missed correcting. It has only furthered climate apartheid.

Paris reminds us that global negotiations reflect the growing inequality and intolerance in the world. In Paris, for the first time since the beginning of climate negotiations, the erstwhile climate renegades were in control of the dialogue, narrative and the audience. The Umbrella Group is a grouping led by the US and includes the biggest rich polluters, such as Australia and Japan, who have always been in the dock for not taking action to combat climate change. In Paris, these countries had done an image change so that they were pushing for aggressive and ambitious action.

Their makeover was not overnight, or sudden. These countries had done their homework, so that the script was crafted skilfully and the propaganda spread. Audaciously, their civil society had been cajoled into believing that this is their time. The US NGOs’ allegiance was absolute because they (genuinely and naively) believe their government is doing all it can in spite of Republican Party opposition. Their media was in full attention—the likes of The New York Times and BBC had been seconded to scold and reprimand the governments of developing countries like India for misbehaviour. So, what the US government officials could not say, their media spelt it out.

There is a second reason why we lose. It is also because Indian negotiators always fight with their backs against the wall; over time they have no wriggle room left. India must set the narrative straight. We are not climate deniers – we are worst impacted by climate change. We are taking action to reduce emissions. India’s INDC is more ambitious than the US in terms of moving towards non-fossil fuels. The US in 2030, will have only 30 percent non-fossil in its energy mix, we have committed to 40 percent. The US even today has more per capita consumption of coal and its switch to natural gas means that it is moving away from renewables. The fact is that natural gas is only marginally cleaner than dirty coal. It keeps the US locked into fossil fuels.

We must also remind everyone that the world today is hurtling towards two catastrophes, one caused by our need for economic growth, and the other by unparalleled and gluttonous consumption that impels emissions into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions, primarily emitted because we need energy, contain portends of a future being placed at extreme risk. We already see how weather variation—linked to climate change, or not—has jeopardised the livelihoods of millions of farmers in India in 2015. Farmers are now driven to ultimate desperation— suicide. These failures, a combination of poor policies, are now exacerbated by untimely, weird weather, and have caused so much human pain.

In this manner, the development dividend, which is so hard to secure in the first place, is being lost. And there is much more to come. Paris, with its weak and unambitious text will therefore fail us abjectly. The already-rich and the becoming-rich have signalled they don’t want to compromise on their growth, or consumption, in the interests of the rest.

Another catastrophe awaits us— living in a more inequitable, insecure, and intolerant world. Let’s be clear. The Paris Agreement tells us, more than ever, that the rich world has bubble-wrapped itself, and believes that nobody can prick it or burst through. To be secure in the bubble, conversation is restricted to only what is more convenient. In this age of internet-enabled information, ironically, the world is actually reading and being sensitive to less, not more. The circles of information have shrunk, to what is most agreeable to listen to. It is no surprise, then, that in climate change negotiations—in trade talks, too, or international relations—there is one dominant discourse.

The most powerful nations would like to believe that there is nobody on the other side. So, there is no respect for another’s position. It is believed the other side is either a terrorist, a communist or is just corrupt and incompetent. There is a fatal refusal to fathom, or approach, opinions or realities that are different.

In all this, there is a growing inequality in the world. No amount of growth and economic prosperity is enough anymore, because aspiration is the new God. This means anybody who is poor is marginalised simply because they have just not made the grade. There is no longer space for such ‘failure’ in our brave, newer, world. It is about the survival of the fittest, in a way that would have made Darwin insane.

It is no surprise that we, in India, are mirroring this grave, new world. In the last year, the very real plight of the poor, distressed, flooded, drought-stricken and famished was banished from our television screens and newspaper articles. Our world is being cleansed. If we do not know they exist, we do not need to worry about their present or future. We can think about a way of life that benefits us, solely. This is the true emerging face of intolerance in an intolerably unequal world.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.