In March this year, the world-renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking revised his Doomsday Clock and declared that humanity only has 100 years before a cataclysmic event destroys life on Earth. He accompanies these apocalyptic predictions with seemingly fantastic solutions for survival. These at best involve, a one-world government and at worst, colonizing other planets for multi-planetary human existence. One would hope that these possibilities, both terrifying yet exciting, would evoke sincere efforts and accelerate collective global actions to combat disastrous climate change.
In this backdrop, the world once again gathered together in Bonn, Germany (8th-18th May, 2017) in the hope of furthering the climate negotiations at Paris and following through with their commitments. Every attempt at climate negotiation begins with countries standing at vastly varied footing, looking towards a commonly acceptable ambition and pace to achieve the same ends. Considering the enormous disparity between the economic and social positioning of all Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), arriving at a consensus on many issues at the Conference of Parties (COP) is undoubtedly challenging. However, it is the political considerations of a nation that reinforce this disparity and prevent a magnified outlook and a possible compromise between Parties. Some suggest that politics may be kept aside and a pragmatic approach be adopted in order to arrive at an agreement on an issue of such global importance. However, the recent political shuffle in the United States has visibly held progress of years of climate negotiations at ransom. Creating a vacuum in place of leadership at the Bonn climate talks, the new US government was suddenly seen denying climate science and hinting withdrawal from the Paris agreement altogether. The US, with a record of the largest contingent of diplomats from a single country, was represented by merely seven officials at Bonn with a clear agenda to advance US business and commercial interests.
In the eyes of a lay observer, the tussle at each Conference of Parties (COP) essentially surrounds the incompatible interests of the developing and developed nations. The Paris climate agreement of 12th December, 2015, was hailed as landmark since it culminated years of attempts by United Nations to forge an international and collective consensus. Nearly 200 nations had signed the agreement. The decision to contain the rise in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) had been agreed upon by both developed and developing nations alike. In addition, periodic stock-take of progress on national commitments, provision for an adaptation fund for developing nations seeking to combat climate impacts, etc. were settled between all Parties. However, in seventeen months from Paris to Bonn, the positions of countries have altered and the unanimity between the Parties on these issues is less evident.
Put simply, the compromise between the developing and developed nations is essentially one that strikes at the question of equity. The developing countries believe that the major chunk of contribution to the climate change that manifests itself today has been caused by the developed countries due to their reckless economic and technological growth since the industrial revolution. Following this reasoning, they conclude that mitigation efforts today must witness ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ (CBDR) with a focus on the developed countries that have nearly peaked economic and human development indices. This is opposed to the developing nations, some of which continue to languish and others that are inching towards economic goals along with efforts to alleviate poverty, hunger, diseases, and fulfilment of basic human rights for all citizens. As expected, the issue of CBDR is a bone of contention between the two blocks of nations. So is the issue of adaptation fund and technology transfer that puts the onus on the developed nations, firstly, to contribute towards the adaptation strategies of the developing nations; and secondly, to assist their transition to low emission economies by providing innovative technology. Despite having agreed upon these commitments in Paris, the developed countries were seen re-evaluating these at Bonn.
National agendas for progress lie at the heart of active political considerations. At this point it must become clearer why the international climate negotiations are largely at the mercy of the political regimes globally. Political shifts in countries that pivot on certain matters of primary concern to nations may leave other matters that are not perceived as critical unhinged and astray. Despite its urgency for over a decade or two, climate change has failed to occupy this central position in any national agenda. With the rise in global terrorism and the risk to national security, a jingoistic approach to development has overtaken most parts of the world. Many democracies have begun nurturing populist measures instead of measures that foot holistic and sustainable development of the country. In such a situation, concerns such as adaptation to climate change lack the necessary political wind beneath its wings.
Clearly, political flux cannot be kept mutually exclusive from climate negotiations. However, for concrete results that effectively mitigate climate change, national commitments of Parties at COP cannot be as fickle as politics would render them. Nearly all Nationally Determined Contributions and goals for climate change mitigation fail to legally bind Parties. In the absence of real political will towards collective action, it becomes easy to evade these commitments. Therefore, every climate talk that seeks to build upon the previous efforts may appear more like another fresh start with countries possibly approaching the forum with altered political agendas.
Being the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world as per the World Resources Institute, the US and China usually led the developed and developing fronts at the helm of climate talks. With the US taking a backseat, the mantle has now passed to the European Union. At Bonn, the EU was seen rising to the occasion, taking the lead and seeking future collaboration with China and Canada. At this point it is also worth considering that although EU is in principle a single entity, the positions of the EU member nations are not identical. This may raise doubts about the consistency in their position on climate change as a single entity in the future, especially in light of Brexit.
For any effective progress, it is imperative that the commitments by Parties be made legally binding. Although there exist progress trackers and a framework for periodic reviews on various parameters such as individual efforts, implementation, transparency, adaptation, etc., a system for holding nations accountable for the results is lacking. Goals once agreed upon at COP must be unalterable by Parties despite any political flux or change in the national political regime. Further, any scope of deferring effective action must be eliminated. This usually involves ambiguity surrounding the agreements signed at COP. For instance, the meaning of the term ‘equity’ when applied to global stock-take of progress on national commitments was unsettled. Although the term was first introduced in the Paris talks, it was sought to be interpreted and clarified by the developed nations over a year later at Bonn. Such delays may be averted by timely and thorough discussions and in its absence pose as convenient opportunities to evade compliance. These measures among others may mitigate the effects of ill-conceived political decisions that risk undoing years of global progress. Maybe with some sincere strides in the right direction, we could hope for Mr. Hawking to revise his Doomsday prediction and lend us some more Earth time.
(Saumya Chaudhari is, a law graduate from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, set to begin her career as an environmental lawyer in Delhi.)