COP18: Climate Change No Longer A Priority

  • Date: 22/11/12
  • N.R. Krishnan, The Hindu

The climate change meet at Doha is expected to yield little, with the US and the EU focused on economic recovery. Considering all things, the most plausible scenario for Doha appears to be a goalless draw.

The 18th Conference of Parties (COP 18) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is scheduled to take place in Doha from November 26 to December 7 this year.

As in the past, on this occasion too, one is tempted to indulge in crystal gazing to predict the outcome of the talks.

December 2012 would mark the end of the first commitment period (2008-12) under the Kyoto Protocol, calling upon developed countries to cut their Greenhouse Gas emissions to below 1990 levels. The second commitment period to prescribe further reductions is to begin in January 2013.

What can one predict about the forthcoming Doha talks? Will they mark progress by way of ushering in the second commitment period, with participation of the developed and developing countries, to come into effect from 2020?

And what about contributions to the Cancun Green Fund to support climate change mitigation and adaptation works in the developing world?

THE US FACTOR

Let’s see the conditions necessary to enable positive results to be achieved in Doha. First and foremost, is the freshness of approach that would need to be displayed by that most elusive participant of all, and the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the US. For long, the US has shown hostility to joining the Kyoto Protocol, from the days of President Clinton to the first tenure of Obama at the White House.

The Houses of Congress with strong Republican representation and a sizeable number of members of both parties representing coal mining states kept their Presidents at bay in getting legislation enacted on clean energy that would lead to less emission of global warming gases in the US.

A Bill tabled by two members (the Kerry-Boxer Bill) to ensure energy independence and create clean energy jobs could not make any headway in the Senate in Obama’s first term in office.

Even in the House of Representatives, a similar piece of legislation, the Waxman–Markey Bill, could scrape through with a slender majority of just nine votes and in the process witnessed substantial opposition from within the Democratic camp itself.

Has the position improved now? It does not appear to be so. While the Democrats have secured a wafer thin majority of two in the Senate, they have lost their majority to the Republicans in the House of Representatives by a substantial margin of 48 seats.

Pushing through any energy conservation legislation to limit release of greenhouse gases would be an arduous task in both Houses.

Economic recession and high unemployment continue to persist in the US. A feeling has gained ground that energy savings and any effort to make the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy sources would prove a hurdle in putting the economy back on rails. The re-elected President’s Thanksgiving speech to the electorate in Chicago reflected these sentiments. He said “….. if the message is somehow, we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change …I won’t go for that.”

Contrast this with what Obama said in 2010: “Don’t believe the misinformation out there that suggests there is somehow a contradiction between clean energy and economic growth. It’s just not true.”

Further, the attraction of tapping the vast reserves of oil and gas locked up in shale deposits in the US is proving irresistible. This has now become part of the President’s strategy to free the US economy from dependence on imported oil. In his Thanksgiving speech, he continued, “reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil” as the “challenges we (the leaders on both sides) can only solve together.”

One may notice the absence of any reference to global warming in this speech, and only a weak reference to it in the President’s campaign rhetoric.

On the contrary, in the presidential race in 2008, support for combating global warming and climate change figured in the agenda of both the Democratic and Republican hopefuls.

At Durban ( November-December, 2011), the US agreed reluctantly to join a new global agreement on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to come into effect from 2020 in which all countries, developed and developing, would be parties.

Its Chief Negotiator, Todd Stern, who was candid that while the proposed scope of the compact was “significant”, there was “plenty the United States is not thrilled about.”

In all, it is difficult to imagine any big change of heart to come upon the US at Doha.

IMPACT ON OTHERS

This would, in turn, dampen the ardour of the EU which undertook to effect emission reductions of 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 and scale this up to 30 per cent if the US and others, along with China and India, showed comparable ambition to reduce their carbon imprint.

An Australian think-tank, Climate Institute, foresees three possible outcomes at Doha: one, a collapse of the Conference talks, two, “countries glossing over their differences and delaying key decisions till 2013” and three, “amendments being passed to implement a second Kyoto round” .

Commenting that Australia, which has become a party to the Protocol years after it came into force, is now ready to take any commitment seriously, the Institute forecasts the adoption of the third possibility. But how much Australia will be able to influence the course of the discussions in Doha is doubtful.

It appears inevitable that the US would continue to keep out of the Kyoto Protocol and participate only in negotiating the new compact.

In his State of the Union Message in January, the President could make some reference to global warming and US approach to any international climate regime.

In Doha, even the EU may not be as active and vocal as it had been in the past. The Union is in danger of stepping into a second economic recession soon after passing through a traumatic first one.

These developments do not bode well for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol to commence from January, 2013, a demand much insisted upon by developing countries. Climate action is forced to play second fiddle to global economic recovery.

EMERGING ECONOMIES

What about China, India, Brazil and South Africa? Having agreed at Durban to cut greenhouse gas emissions either by direct means or indirectly by effecting reductions in energy and hence the carbon intensity of their growth, they will press the developed countries to take on a second commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.

They would also concentrate drawing up a new global agreement. They, on their own behalf and on behalf of the less developed nations, would demand the flow of promised resources under the Cancun Green Fund. How well this demand would be met under the present parlous state of the global economy is anybody’s guess. Considering all things, the most plausible scenario for Doha appears to be a goalless draw.

(The author is former Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.)

The Hindu, 21 November 2012