Climate talks: It's getting hotter

While public attention was focused on whether the Paris agreement would come into force this year or not, top climate negotiators from some key nations around the world gathered for a closed-door meeting at Marrakesh in late September. Morocco and France had called an informal gathering, ahead of the climate negotiations to begin on November 7.

One would expect bonhomie among negotiators who only 11 months earlier had collectively agreed to a global climate agreement that every world leader seems to want to keep celebrating and taking some credit for. There was none of that. It was an exchange of pure hostility across the great divide that remains the only consistent feature of these talks since 2007 -- the divide between developed countries and emerging economies.

"They were back to shifting the goal post again," said a developing country negotiator present at the meet, his view on the rich nations' agenda at the meeting. The Paris agreement will become operational from 2020. Between now and then, the developed countries are the only ones mandatorily required to take climate action and ramp up the climate finance they provide to poor and developing countries.

"Instead, they suggested that pre-2020 action is a collective responsibility of all countries. They were quietly trying to rewrite what has been unquestioned for more than nine years and reiterated at Paris less than a year before," said a negotiator from a South American developing country.

The informal meeting was to help the current year and previous year's host of climate talks, Morocco and France, to sense the road ahead for the formal negotiations that begin in November. Between now and 2020, the countries have to detail the rule book for implementing the agreement. Plenty of work to be done there.

The international rule book

A set of rules on how the world will measure, report and verify countries' climate actions are to be put in place. A global market-based mechanism to reduce emissions through offsets has to be created from scratch. A clear definition of climate finance that can ensure developed countries do not greenwash existing financial flows and a reporting framework for that. In 2018, a review of the commitments made at Paris is to be accomplished. The United Nations climate convention secretariat lists more than 100 such detailed tasks to be completed over the next three years.

If any negotiator had doubts, the Marrakesh l meeting made it clear that these rules and regulations would be the proverbial small print, with the power to alter the nature of the Paris agreement substantially to a country's detriment. The hosts pushed that action taken to fight climate change outside the Paris agreement be also accounted for within the UN pact. The suggestion sent alarm bells ringing in developing country quarters. This suggested that rich nations would pass off private sector financial flows as part of their commitments, instead of shoring up public finance under the agreement on the one hand and force additional emission reduction action beside those committed at Paris on developing countries.

"They wanted cities and other such sub-national entities to take on additional targets at their own level and to account for these in the agreement. It cannot be in addition to what a country has committed already under the nationally determined contributions. And, we can't allow them to further fudge what climate finance commitments they have. It is time to bring clarity and not greater obfuscation," said a negotiator from another country.

Domestic agenda

For India, there is also the need for clarity on its national efforts. Our climate action commitments require ramping up of existing policy, though its targets give the country some latitude. Some climate action plans have been floundering. The Green India mission, meant to enhance and enrich the country's forest and tree cover to sequester carbon emissions, has been the slowest to take off. It is plagued by a history over decades of fake afforestation plans and ineffective forest bureaucracy. Even environment minister Anil Madhav Dave recently claimed India's afforestation claims over decades would have generated a forest the size of the Amazon if these were real.

India did move early to set in place a scheme called Perform Achieve Trade or PAT to regulate emissions from large industries. The scheme has to be expanded. The housing sector, managed through municipal and provincial regulations, has to be brought under the carbon regulation umbrella. This will require states to work more cohesively with the Centre - something antithetical to the decentralised regulatory mechanism the government has so far tried to introduce to ease the real estate business.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set one of the most ambitious solar energy targets any country has ever taken on. This has helped pushed down costs of solar and rapidly create capacity. Yet, the domestic solar industry remains relatively stagnant and the grid and balancing power infrastructure needed for the intermittent energy source needs much greater attention. Internally, the government has assessed that the lack of this infrastructure could mean forcefully reducing the efficiency of solar power plants over time. The delicate balance between the intermittent renewable energy and base load power needs careful policy planning. Reforms initiated under the UDAY scheme for power distributors would need to take root for the relatively still expensive renewable sector to build up.

With time, international finance for thermal power is set to shrink, under terms set in the Paris agreement. India's climate targets provide for and its energy security plan requires massive increase in thermal power capacity, as well as retirement of vintage plants, over the coming decade and a half. Financing these, as well as clean technology, will require fiscal tools and innovation. Particularly necessary because early indications in 2016 have informed climate negotiators that there is unlikely to be any enhanced international public financing of these ventures or a relaxation of intellectual property regimes to facilitate low cost transitions.

The International Solar Alliance-India, announced at Paris last year, is still to take credible shape as an institution that can provide these fiscal or technological innovations. The kind of multilateral organisation it was imagined to be takes time to translate into plans on paper and yet more to take effect on the ground. The Indian government will also have four years to put in place a regulatory mechanism for measurement reporting and verification of emission reduction actions by industry and different economic sectors that gels with the international regime that will be negotiated from this November. This could be a regulatory burden that small and medium enterprises, too, would have to take over time if not at the initial stage.

At the level of institutions, it would require inter-ministerial and federal coordination that has yet not happened in the overlap between energy and environmental fields. As an example of how far the government might have to go on this, the civil aviation ministry single-handedly dealt with the recent global deal on climate changing emissions from the sector. India ended up holding reservations against the deal, which passed despite its objections. At the negotiations, India failed to send its climate negotiators from either the external affairs ministry or the environment ministry. Achieving the domestic climate effort is set to demand much greater coordination than that required to hold on to the limited maneuvering space that India secured internationally through the Paris agreement.

THE BURNING ISSUE

India's climate agenda after Paris agreement ratification

Internationally

  • Be on top of the rule-making process internationally for the Paris agreement between now and 2020

     
  • Ensure these rules do not reduce the limited manoeuvring space it secured through the main pact

     
  • Negotiate for a climate finance and technology regime that eases cost of transition to clean energy

     
  • Build an international climate reporting and review regime that is transparent but not too onerous or intrusive

     
  • Get the International Solar Alliance off the ground
Domestically
  • Enhance and deepen demand-side management in the energy sector

     
  • Plan and invest in power systems that can absorb rapidly deployed intermittent renewable energy

     
  • Get the Green India Mission going without impacting rights of forest dwellers

     
  • Build a credible domestic reporting and review regime that is open to public scrutiny

     
  • Marry the decentralised regulatory regime for the real estate sector with the need for making it climate-smart

     
  • Bring the rapid development of urban transport in tune with climate targets

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