Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Designing the new climate regime

By Mukul Sanwal (China Daily) Updated: 2012-08-29 07:27

The new climate regime will lead to commitments only for developing countries.

The reason for this is that the United States, which did not ratify the legally binding commitments contained in the Kyoto Protocol, continues to insist on a system in which nationally determined goals for reducing emissions will be monitored globally.

Neither in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 1992, nor in the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997, have countries stated the precise meaning of equity and its related obligations. They have, though, agreed on general principles meant to guide the allocation of obligations among countries. This is primarily to be done by putting countries into categories in accordance with their per capita incomes. The notion of equitable access to sustainable development was introduced in the Cancun Agreements, in 2009, which recognized that developing countries will be given more time to ensure that their emissions of greenhouses gases reach a peak and that their priorities should be on ensuring social and economic development and eradicating poverty.

The Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development, held in May 2012, and the World Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, also recognized that "eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge", and that social and economic development are the overriding priorities of developing countries.

One dispute is over whether "fairness" should be the guiding principle of the negotiations, rather than "equity". The Kyoto Protocol was based on "fairness", which concerns outcomes. The United States has argued that a fair distribution of effort will not hinder development and, in concert with the EU, has stressed that an independent discussion about equity will not be productive.

Developing countries, though, insist that their commitments should be based on "equity", which refers to "equitable access to sustainable development".

The unanswered question is: Why are developed countries reluctant to accept equity as a guiding principle as they work to determine who has to do what and to what extent?

These conceptual differences arise from two competing visions that reflect the national interests and circumstances of various countries.

The environmental case, supported by developed countries, takes into consideration the deterioration of global ecosystems. It also concentrates on outcomes, as well as the assertion that limiting increases in global temperatures and determining when emissions of greenhouse gases should hit a peak are the most important global goals. Yet the Climate Change treaty, which was ratified by all countries, including the United States, says that developed countries' emissions were to have peaked in 1990. One of the treaty's articles calls for developed countries' emissions to return to their 1990 levels by the year 2000. Therefore, any agreement now setting a year in which a peak should occur - the EU has suggested 2020 - will apply only to developing countries, which will find themselves under the burden of meeting that target well before their standards of living have approached those of developed countries.

Developing countries' case for sustainable development is based on an analysis of the ways in which the use of resources has led to the atmosphere's high concentration of greenhouse gases. The planet's capacity to cope with emissions is not infinite, and those who tax that capacity should be held accountable for their actions.

The Climate treaty, in its second article, also seeks to stabilize the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, which is a different goal from the emissions reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol. And international cooperation will require developed countries to reduce their emissions by much more than the 80 percent they aim to achieve by 2050.

The way in which the global goal is defined will affect countries in various ways.

In more than 20 years of annual meetings, participants in the Conference of the Parties have failed to resolve their differences. As developing countries take on commitments without dealing with root causes, strong solutions will not be easy to come by.

Therefore, the goal of limiting increases in global temperatures by a specified date should apply only to developed countries. For developing countries, the goal should come with the proviso, resting on a global consensus, that eradicating poverty remain their chief priority.

The author has served in various policy positions in the Indian government and represented India as a principal negotiator at the UNCED, Agenda 21, Rio Declaration and the Climate Change Treaty.

(China Daily 08/29/2012 page8)

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