Climate change: an opportunity for leadership by the BRICS


Compromises have to be made by all


Mukul Sanwal


The current impasse in the climate negotiations provides an unprecedented opportunity for the BRICS countries to re-frame a global challenge that has divided countries for the last 20 years. In an increasingly interdependent world for growing economies an agreement is more important for their social and economic development than for the industrialised countries.


The political divide focuses on whether it is time to end the differentiation between developed and developing countries. The existing division of countries in the Convention follows the United Nations classification, based on per-capita incomes, and a change must be considered in the United Nations because of the implications for other areas, including the trade regime.  


The divide is not insurmountable, as the Convention, in its Preamble, provides that “steps required to understand and address climate change will be environmentally, socially and economically most effective if they are based on relevant scientific, technical and economic considerations and continually re-evaluated in the light of new findings in these areas”. The Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, in its most recent reports, has stressed for the first time, for example, keeping within the global carbon budget, urbanization as a global mega trend and considering ethics and justice in global policymaking. The Subsidiary Bodies of the Convention need to consider the report of the IPCC to specify climate goals, including a shift towards energy emissions, as carbon dioxide rather than all greenhouse gases really determines the increase in global temperature.


The problem here is that there is no agreed pathway to balance human wellbeing, energy use and related reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, and that should be the focus of the debate in the annual meetings. For example, a comparison of the world’s two largest emitters reveals a more complex picture than a focus on total emissions ignoring human wellbeing. For example, the United States has two times the floor space per inhabitant compared with China with an energy use per square meter that is three times more. The United States also has ten times higher car owner ship than China, which also has lower emissions per car. The average citizen in the United States consumes four times more electricity than the average Chinese citizen, and the Indian consumes just one-fourth that of China.


Our understanding of the problem has evolved. For example, urban areas are responsible for three quarter of all emissions and energy use. In an interdependent world urban dietary patterns have changed with meat production accounting for a quarter of world’s greenhouse gas emissions; buildings and the transport sector are responsible for about one-third each of final energy consumption. Modification of longer term trends at the national level will be enabled, rather than directed, by new global rules that provide policy coherence in a multipolar world to support the transformation in natural resource use.


It is in this context that the four key outstanding issues in the text to be negotiated at Lima that deal with the basic architecture of the climate regime need to be considered.


First, Para 7 of the text notes that ‘mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, transparency of action and support, and capacity building’ each have “unique characteristics and time frames”, doing away with the current link between mitigation and adaptation and between them and the ‘means of implementation’. This shift, in particular, goes against the global consensus, in the Preamble, that “change in the Earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind”, and subsequent negotiations have strengthened this link, which is also recognised by the IPCC.


Second, para 4 provides that the existing provisions of the Convention will apply only to the “scope” of the commitments but not to the “nature” of the commitments or contributions. It should be clarified that the provisions of the Convention also apply to the nature of the new commitments.  According to para 5, “all Parties should include a mitigation component” in the information they are legally required to provide, and this is a new commitment for developing countries.


The Convention, in Article 4, makes a distinction in the nature of the commitments and developing country commitments are to take “account of their common but differentiated responsibilities and their specific national and regional development priorities, objectives and circumstances”. Since commitments, or contributions, are not likely to be legally binding, as this is a ‘red line’ for the United States, there is no case for amending Article 4(1) of the Convention through the back door, as this change would also alter the basic architecture of the Convention and that would require an amendment.

A solution lies in the new understanding that we have on drivers and trends of the pathways that have led to climate change. The provision in Article 4(2), which currently applies to developed countries, has relevance for all countries. And para 5 should replace the reference to “mitigation” with a more specific requirement for all countries to “in addition to the related provisions of the Convention demonstrate that they are modifying longer-term trends in anthropogenic emissions consistent with the objective of the Convention”.  This specificity will also respond to the requirement in para that “the type, scope or scale of such contribution should go beyond previous actions”.


Third, the information provided and its compilation has to enable the global community to have an “understanding” on two distinct but related parameters, in para 9. These are the Objective of the Convention, adopting a sustainable development framework with reference to concentration limits, and to the increase in global average temperature, which is an environmental perspective looking only at future emissions. Both are needed because the new regime is quite rightly looking at “pathways” and not emissions at a point in time.


The global transformation in natural resource use is re-shaping international relations. The universalism that was imposed with international environment law as the organising principle is now giving way to a recognition of diversity with global sustainable development goals as the organising principle. Therefore, in the transition it is necessary to incorporate both perspectives in the information, national actions, assessment and agenda of the annual conferences of the climate regime. This arrangement alone will support the needed transformation, pave the way for new goals that balance fairness and adequacy and move away from the current “institutional” approach to the global, and national, challenge.    


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