External Affairs

Here’s why the India, China Statement on Climate Change is a Big Deal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on Friday. (Credit: PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on Friday. (Credit: PTI)

The Joint Statement on Climate Change between India and China is one of the most important and timely documents signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit. Its significance has to be understood in the context of current international negotiations leading up to the COP21 international conference on climate change to be held in Paris in December this year.

To put it in a nutshell, the current scene in the climate change negotiations is that India and like-minded developing countries are pressing for enhanced implementation of existing agreements – namely, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol – while the developed countries are insisting on negotiating a new agreement with radically different provisions. The existing agreements, which were concluded in the 1990s, are solidly based on the principle of equity. They recognise that the bulk of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have originated in the developed countries and, therefore, in accordance with the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, these countries must “take the lead” in tackling climate change.

More specifically, the developed countries are required to reduce their emissions (the Kyoto Protocol sets out time-bound emission reduction obligations for each developed country). They are also required to provide financial support and technology transfer to the developing countries. The UNFCCC specifically notes that per capita emissions of developing countries remain low and that these will increase as a result of economic and social development. Developing countries are not required to divert scarce resources from their development and poverty eradication priorities in order to reduce emissions. The Convention specifically states that the “extent to which developing country Parties will implement their commitments under the Convention will depend upon the effective implementation by the developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties.”

Thus, the existing climate change regime is solidly based on equity and the principle of differentiation of responsibilities between developed and developing countries. The developed countries are now insisting on a new agreement which will break down the firewall between the developed and developing countries and undermine the principle of differentiated responsibilities between the two categories. They have already passed a death sentence on the Kyoto Protocol. The United States never ratified the protocol; Canada has walked out of the agreement; Russia, Japan, Australia and Canada refuse to accept current targets under the Protocol, and even the European Union has declared that it will not accept any fresh targets for the next period.

Why have the developed countries turned their back on the climate change agreements? The explanation lies in the dramatic shift in the distribution of global economic power since the 1990s. When the UN Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol were being negotiated, the OECD countries were the dominant economic powers. That dominance is passing into history in the 21st century as a result of the spectacular rise of China as an industrial, trading and financial power and the rapid ascent of other major developing countries including among others India, Brazil and South Africa.

In this context, powerful industrial interests in the OECD countries oppose a climate regime which imposes emission reduction obligations (and costs) on their companies, while exempting their developing country competitors. Hence the attack on the bedrock principle of differentiated responsibilities of developed and developing countries. Trade, not environment, is the driving force behind the demands of OECD countries in the climate change negotiations. Competitiveness concerns have displaced equity in the climate change discourse in developed countries.

Last year, China and the United States issued a joint communique on climate change setting out their respective national targets. China indicated that it expects its emissions to peak around 2030. This gave rise to concerns among some Indian analysts that China was breaking ranks with other developing countries. At the Lima climate change conference last November, China sought to dispel these concerns by taking its stand with other developing countries.

Nothing is permanent in world affairs but the India-China joint statement provides ample evidence that we can count on substantial Chinese support in the climate negotiations in the proximate future. The joint statement is a resounding re-affirmation of the principles and policies that the two countries have consistently followed in these negotiations since the 1990s. Its significance should be appreciated in the context of the Paris conference at the end of this year.

This time series, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. The September 2010 extent was the third lowest in the satellite record. (Credit: WikiMedia Commons/NASA)

This time series, based on satellite data, shows the annual Arctic sea ice minimum since 1979. The September 2010 extent was the third lowest in the satellite record. (Credit: WikiMedia Commons/NASA)

In the joint statement, India and China “emphasise that the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol are the most appropriate framework for international cooperation for addressing climate change. They reaffirm the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and call for the leadership of the developed countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing finance, technology and capacity building support to developing countries.” The joint communique goes on to “reaffirm that the 2015 agreement shall be in full accordance with the principles, provisions and structure of the UNFCCC, in particular the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, reflecting different historical responsibilities, development stages and national circumstances between developed and developing countries.”

These words will strike a responsive chord in every developing country which strives to protect the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change against the assault launched by developed countries. They hold out hope that the Paris conference will deliver a fair and equitable outcome.

[The author is a member of the PM’s Council on Climate Change. The article expresses his personal views.]