COP21 Diary: With Conference at Midpoint, India Hard Sells Its Carbon Budget Idea

The battle lines are still the same: Will the west accept responsibility for its historic emissions by paying for the cost of greenhouse gas cuts and adaptation to climate change in the developing world?

A few miles south of Beijing. Credit: Andy Enero/Flickr

A few miles south of Beijing. Credit: Andy Enero/Flickr

Saturday, December 5 is the rough halfway point of COP21, and an important deadline: by noon this day the first draft of the Paris climate agreement needs to be finalised by negotiators, to be taken up by ministers who arrive on Monday, December 7. What does that mean? Essentially, that nations need to settle at least some of their differences on how to combat climate change before Saturday. The draft agreement is an amalgamation of the concerns and commitments of 195 countries, out of which options need to be agreed upon and alternatives crossed out until consensus is reached. But the draft reduced slowly this week: from 50 pages on Monday to 38 pages on Thursday. There is still a ways to go.

Friday was filled with debates and panel discussions on the current text of the agreement, whose full name is slightly too long for regular use (“Draft agreement and draft decision on workstreams 1 and 2 of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”). Instead, many just called it “The Text.” Seldom has a collection of 38 pages received such intense scrutiny and analysis as this text. To look at, the draft agreement is not readily accessible: a mess of bracketed statements and footnotes, with each bracket indicating a point still under debate and thus a section still in progress. But members of civil society at COP21 have been scrutinizing every word this week, and pushing back when negotiators seem to be going off course.

Two points in particular have raised concern.

Events on Friday morning and evening organised by Climate Action Network with speakers from CARE, ActionAid, WWF and Oxfam highlighted the fact that in the successive trimming of the text, several countries (namely the United States, Norway and Saudi Arabia) have tried (as of Thursday without success) to remove mentions of human rights and gender equality from the purpose statement, or else demote those mentions to the preamble.

Another concern is that when proposals were made in the negotiations to incorporate the suggestions of a UNFCCC scientific report into the text that says warming above 1.5C may be risky (and thus a 2C limit may perhaps be too risky), Saudi Arabia blocked the idea outright, while India and China expressed disagreements with it.

Trying to understand India’s stance on the 1.5oC limit, I went to the India pavilion in the afternoon on Friday for a talk on India’s push for a so-called “carbon budget” that takes into account historical responsibility for greenhouse gas release. The idea of a carbon budget is simple: we have a limited volume of greenhouse gases that we can release into the atmosphere before we reach a global tipping point. As a civilisation, we cannot exceed that volume. One way to ensure that we don’t is to allocate the remaining budget among the nations of the world, and follow up to measure greenhouse gas emissions with each.

India is backing a proposal inserted by Bolivia into the draft agreement at Paris to allocate the remaining carbon budget taking historical emissions into account. Framed in that way, countries such as the US and the UK already have a budget deficit, according to calculations by T. Jayaraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and others. Countries such as China and India have a carbon budget surplus, which they can use in conjunction with renewables to continue developing. Development of infrastructure and of human resources, in turn, is necessary for a country’s climate resilience. Those with budget deficits would be allocated the carbon that is left once historical low-emitters take what they need for development, explained Jayaraman on Friday afternoon.

Sushil Kumar of the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change said that a carbon budget that takes into account historical responsibility for climate change is in line with two main ideas India is holding on to at COP21: equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). “Without equity and CBDR, there is no agreement,” he said.

The idea of CBDR – that developed nations (which happen to also be the highest historical emitters) should take correspondingly high responsibility in the fight against climate change – was part of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But more recent talks have been divided between developing nations who want to retain equity and CBDR, and developed nations who claim that the playing field has grown more level. With countries like India and China having emerged as major economic players (and thus major emitters) today, the West insists the dialogue needs to change. Thus the potential impasse between developed nations – who are balking at promising the finance for climate mitigation and adaptation that developing nations require – and developing nations such as India that will not agree to more ambitious emissions cuts until finance to help them through is guaranteed. “You are not going to see developing countries commit to anything until they are sure they have the finance,” explained Kelly Dent of Oxfam in a press conference this morning.

An audience member at the carbon budget panel spoke up to praise the logic of equity and CBDR, explaining them in terms of caste-based or race-based reservations. Reservations suffer from the same objections as India is receiving on the global stage, and can be supported with the same arguments. If you can make reparations for past injustice, then you should. And a veneer of well-being can hide vast structural inequalities.

Stepping back out into India’s Pavilion at COP21 on Friday evening, I can see where one might get the (mistaken) impression that India does not need economic help. Here is the face that India is presenting to the rest of the world at COP21: a pavilion that is entirely devoted to advertising the country’s advancements in terms of (green) technology and (sustainable) development. A curtain of water lit by coloured lights fronts the country’s display, falling into shapes and words that mesmerise passersby. Two screens play documentaries on repeat about India’s environmental programs and about yoga. Rotating displays on the interiors of the curved walls detail India’s achievements in solar energy. Somewhere in the pavilion, disembodied music plays that seems drawn from the action sequence of an inspirational movie.

Not far off, China’s pavilion is fronted by a wandering robot that will tell you just what your carbon footprint was flying to COP21, once fed the details of your origin. Like India’s water and light show, the robot is meant to attract crowds. It is a way of broadcasting to the other nations here that this country is technologically advanced, and on par with the developed world.

So where is the inequity? some might say, after seeing the display at both pavilions. If we are all the same now, if China and India have progressed so far, why make a big deal about the past?

Because history matters, perhaps. And because beneath this shining veneer, there is a gaping maw of structural inequalities. The problem, then, will be to ensure that some histories don’t end up mattering more than others.