Is there a faint glimmer of hope for the outcome of the UN climate summit, or are leaders and experts clutching at straws? Governments are going into a huddle to arrive at a final draft, now down to 27 pages, with square brackets of unresolved issues down from 1,609 at the beginning of the conference to 350, and now just 50. It will be issued on Saturday, a day late.
Today, the last official day, an old India hand, the British economist Lord Nicholas Stern – world-renowned for the Stern review, considered the most authoritative assessment of the economic costs of climate change globally – took a rosier view of the forthcoming accord.
He said he had been attending climate conferences over the past ten years and this time in Paris, the “atmospherics” were better than ever before. He was referring, without saying so, to the abortive Copenhagen summit in 2009 which, by universal consensus, was an unmitigated failure.
- India uncomfortable with stocktaking review due in 2019, since its commitment to reduce emissions intensity per unit of GDP is by 2030
- India also doesn’t want its national mitigation and adaptation plans being subjected to international review
- A substantial outcome of the accord was that there would be “stocktaking” in 2023 and the process of review would be legally binding
- A sticking point in the agreement will be the issue of compensation to vulnerable countries for “loss and damage” caused by climate change
- Implications for emerging economies like India and China could be worrying since a large part of population still dependent on coal
Lord Stern, who has been studying Indian villages for 40 years, said that one of the key advances was that sustainable development and poverty eradication were part of the story. This put paid to the “fake horse race” between climate and economic growth. He also welcomed the clarity of a five-year process for reviewing countries’ voluntary commitments.
As many as 185 countries, comprising most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, including India, China and the US, have submitted such “contributions”. India has, however, objected to such reviews, which will take place in 2019, because its national commitment to reduce the emissions intensity per unit of GDP extends to 2030, not 2020, as the EU has. It doesn’t want to be railroaded into taking on more commitments even before its deadline.
It also doesn’t want its national mitigation and adaptation plans subjected to international review. “We already have a thorough system of accounting,” said Ashok Lavasa, secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Regarding the proposal for an outside emissions auditor, he said, “We don’t understand the need for a super inspector going around and seeing what we’re doing.”
Afforestation to Help Capture Carbon
Stern thought that part of good “architecture” of the accord was there would also be “stocktaking” in 2023 and the process of review would be legally binding. This is in contrast to the countries’ commitments, which are voluntary in an annexe to the accord.
He commended the strong emphasis in the text on afforestation as a means of capturing carbon. In Paris, India released its State of the Forest Report 2015 which notes that it is one of the few developing countries which has increased its forest cover.
Its “carbon stock” in forests had gone up by 5% from 6,621 million tonnes in 2005 to 7,044 million tonnes this year. The maximum increase has been in Tamil Nadu, followed by Kerala.
Signal To Businesses
Every succeeding summit from Copenhagen has seen the increasing role of business and Paris is no exception. Sharing the dais with Lord Stern today was Edward Cameron from We Mean Business, a network of multinationals including Deloitte and China Steel.
He said that there had been an unprecedented number of corporates attending the summit. He welcomed the genuine “ambition” on part of negotiators to set targets like that of keeping global temperatures “well below” 2ᴼC to avoid catastrophic climate change.
This provided a signal to businesses to tailor their plans accordingly. The policy, he said, was to move to zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the century.
Its CEO, Nigel Topping, said in a recent interview that India’s suggestion of reviews every 10 years instead of five was a “joke”. He meant that it was too long a period to wait, given changing circumstances, for instance the falling price of solar power.
Stubborn Stand of the US
One sticking point in the agreement will be a new issue – that of compensation to vulnerable countries for “loss and damage” caused by climate change. While paying lip-service to its concerns about small island and other vulnerable countries regarding such loss and offering its cooperation, the US has clearly refused to agree to any text that provides for “liability and compensation.”
Yet another clause that has cropped up in this last round of negotiations is that of achieving “greenhouse gas neutrality” by the end of the century. It was explained that this was similar to revenue neutrality in an overall financial budget, meaning that there would be no net emissions from the generation of energy.
How this differs from the previous and current formulation of zero carbon isn’t clear. However, the implications for large emerging countries like India and China are worrying.
Both still have large numbers of poor people who lack access to electricity. It will simply not be able for them to keep coal – their most abundant and cheapest energy source – in the ground, as activists are vociferously demanding in Paris.
If they and the rest of the 132 G77 developing countries have to switch to a low-carbon growth part, they need funding and technology to do so. Of these, there is precious little on offer in Paris.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based senior journalist)