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The Paris Deal: The Never-Ending Climate Battle

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Nitin Sethi, Business Standard

The battle over the non-binding Paris deal will continue as the agreement’s rules and modalities get sketched by 2020 and as countries are asked to revisit their climate action targets in 2018 and then in 2024.

Narendra Modi, Barack Obama

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) with US President Barack Obama at the climate change summit in Paris

If there was one overarching imprint on the Paris climate change negotiations, it was of the diplomatic heft that the US enjoys. The last hours of the talks, when the US was faced with the challenge of removing a phrase it didn’t like in the final agreement, it was left to the European Union to walk across the aisle to convince everyone to not oppose the changes the US demanded. The European Union, once hailed as the climate change leader of the world, was canvassing the developing country bloc to accept an agreement that was discordantly against its own non-negotiable position wanting a strict legally-binding protocol and not a loosely-bound agreement that the Paris outcome eventually became.

That is a mere cherry of an anecdote that the Malaysian negotiator and the chief spokesperson of the Like-Minded Developing Countries group, Gurdial Singh Nijar, revealed in a candid interview to the Third World Network, an observer group at the negotiations. The US imprint is more explicitly visible in the results that 196 countries approved eventually at Paris on December 12.

Days after the agreement, several Indian commentators, including diplomats and environmentalists who have watched or participated in the climate negotiations for years, have almost universally recognised some consequences of the agreement. The fundamental nature of the balance of responsibilities between developed and developing world has changed under the new agreement. The scientific basis of using a country’s cumulative emissions and not just the current or future emissions to apportion responsibilities has been done away with in the Paris agreement. The agreement requires a bottoms-up voluntary effort and will live by trust between nations or die for the lack of it over the next decade.

All these decisions went almost exactly as the US desired and were supported by the European Union. In the future, trust would be built in the new regime by developed countries continuing to do more than the rest of the world in the fight against climate change, though the agreement requires so of them in rather meek words. That’s a tough task considering countries have quite blatantly broken legally-binding climate obligations for a decade-and-a-half now and that the requirement now is to do much more than ever before to reach the goal set in the agreement – keeping the rise in temperature to below 2 degree Celsius, preferably below 1.5 degree Celsius, by the turn of the century.

But, as in all legal documents, details matter. The agreement reads, “Each party shall prepare, communicate and maintain successive Nationally Determined Contributions (climate actions) that it intends to achieve. Parties shall pursue domestic mitigation measures, with the aim of achieving the objectives of such contributions.” As the Third World Network rightly catches the fine print it analyses, “This means that there is an obligation to take the measures necessary, with the aim of achieving the emissions reduction target, but not to achieve the target itself (emphasis added).”

This is again the US imprint requiring that no targets of any nature in the agreement be binding on the countries and that they be only indicative, while the processes are legally-binding.

Yet, an overwhelming level of global political leadership and other experts have hailed the agreement as paradigm-shifting and giving a new thrust to the climate battle. They side-step the fact that a paradigm existed since 1992 – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – but it failed as the developed countries decided to fail it. The new agreement will work for the developed countries only if emerging economies are willing to bear some of the historic burden besides the responsibility for the developing world’s current and future greenhouse gas emissions. This fight over shifting burden will continue as the agreement’s rules and modalities get sketched by 2020 and as countries are asked to revisit their climate action targets in 2018 and then in 2024.

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