Move over boys and girls, the men are here: the future of climate negotiations and why India wants the Accord

  • 12/01/2010

Somebody recently asked me why India supported the Copenhagen Accord. It is correct to say that the proposed accord has no meaningful targets for emission reduction from Annex 1 (industrialized countries). Global emissions will increase or reduce at best marginally. So it will be bad for the world’s efforts to combat climate change. We are victims of climate change. We should be demanding an effective agreement. So, why would we support this meaningless Accord?

It will also be fair to say that the accord, once and if accepted as the framework for climate negotiations, will completely overwrite the principles of equity in burden sharing. The reason is simple: it is based on creating a new framework, one, which is based primarily on what countries pledge they will do domestically. It therefore, does not demand that countries take on targets based on principles of historical responsibilities or equity. This unfortunately means that countries, rich and powerful can set weak targets, do little but still pretend to be climate-compliant. The US, for instance, says that it will cut a mere 3 per cent below 1990 levels, when it knows it needs to reduce by at least 40 per cent. But the Accord legitimizes its right to pollution, by simply saying that it will do what it can domestically and that this will be 'reviewed' (clearly in the case of weaker countries) to see if the 'pledge' is met.

We also know that the sum of the current ‘pledges’ if we can call them that means that the world is definitely not close to meeting its 2°C target but is by recent accounts close to at least 3°C or more. Deadly and disastrous, you will agree.

But then this is a framework made by and for polluters. We know all this. But then, why is India keen to promote this accord?

To understand this question we need to separate the men from the boys. We need to know who is really pushing the Accord and their interests. We know that the key proponents of the Accord in India are the people who are powerful in the establishment of the country – from managers of the Planning Commission to key industrialist to top market economists. Interestingly, people, you would (and rightly) think are the last ones to push a green accord in the country. In fact, as an environmental campaigner, I can safely say that these are the same people who would stymie any real action on environmental improvement in the country. They will oppose fuel efficiency standards, tax on big cars, or tough penalties for polluters.  But they will still talk glibly about low-carbon economies. They will of course, dismiss out of hand, any discussion on the need for ‘radical’ and out of the box solutions for equity and sustainability. These, they will tell you are mere evangelical thoughts of some fringe activists. The men think and act differently.

These are the promoters of the Accord in India. And I believe they do so, because for them, firstly, the Accord provides the perfect solution – talk big about change, but do little at home. The US has provided a perfect formula – it promises us the right to pollute, because it wants to legitimize its own pollution. Secondly, it promises that we can get a place on the high table of polluters. And as powerful conspirators this will mean that we need to do little ourselves, but instead push the price of change on the less favoured – the poor of India or the poor anywhere else in the world. It’s an open offer to protect, not our right to development as we have been demanding – the rich countries pay for our transition to low-carbon economies. But a simpler proposition: we give you the right to pollute (at least for now).  

The other proposition is equally seductive. To the countries, which are not yet polluters (from Ethiopia to Maldives), the Copenhagen Accord says we will give money to keep you pliant and agreeable. This is why the Accord promises some fictional money to poor vulnerable countries.

It’s a perfect formula, designed to please all. There is only one hitch: we will all have to forget the climate change crisis and the hazards and impacts that will grow. 

But this scheme of hard transactions will work only if the countries in power can get their way quicker and faster. They don’t have the time to waste on global democracy. This is why, I believe, also that we are in for a period when the very forum for climate change negotiations will be reworked. The negotiations have to move into the real world of real men – taken out of the soft world of environmental agreements. There is already talk about how the UN negotiations are failing because of the need for consensus and messy democracy. We need efficient forums for speedy transactional decisions – give and take for mutual self-benefit, say the new leaders of the new coalition of the willing.

We already saw a peek of this final act in Copenhagen. From the exclusion of civil society to the complete disregard for democratic processes (see my earlier blog on the Copenhagen Diary for more on what happened there). But more is coming. Now the ‘A’ team needs a setting, which is congenial to its grand design – compliant nations all keen on money or pollution. Or both.

There is already some talk about why climate negotiations must be moved to G-20 or even the Major Economies Forum (created by the US, as a meeting of key polluters, from North and South). The men will then be separated from the boys (and noisy activist girls).  They will then be free to decide on the future of climate negotiations and not be hampered by silly talk of equity and real action for real reduction.

Will we agree to be moved over? Or not? This is the decision. Take it today. Tomorrow may be too late.