Katowice climate change talks: The challenges and India's priorities

Topics Climate Change

US President Donald Trump after announcing his decision that the US will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House | Photo: Reuters
Climate change negotiations start at Katowice in Poland on December 2 with a threat that the Paris Agreement could be rewritten to developing countries' disadvantage. This would not require a renegotiation of the provisions of the agreement. It would happen simply by writing a rule book that upends the letter and spirit of the Paris Agreement. 

The fortnight-long Katowice negotiations among 196 countries are taking place to finalise this rule book, work on which began in 2016, right after the Paris Agreement had been secured in 2015. Indian negotiators, along with their allies in the developing world, have the task of ensuring that the rule book is finalised in a manner that operationalises all parts and provisions of the Paris Agreement with equal force when the pact is implemented starting January 2021. 

The Paris Agreement came out of hastily-secured political bargains, a delicate balance, and the postponement of some vexing debates. It worked as a face saver for all developed and developing countries. The accord permitted world leaders to claim they had not failed, unlike in 2009 when, at Copenhagen, the deal came undone at the last moment.  At Paris, no country was brown-nosed while the US got terms it believed were sufficient for a buy-in from the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. 
But then Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama as the US President and all bets were off. He soon announced that the US would walk out of the Paris Agreement unless the agreement was reworked to suit his expectations. 

A fine reading of the Paris Agreement provisions showed that the US could not legally renege on it before 2020, unless it walked out of the umbrella convention itself — the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under which the Paris Agreement was negotiated. 

In 2016, when countries began negotiating the rule-book to the Paris Agreement, the new US modus operandi became clear. It was going to  sit in the negotiating room and actively and doggedly work on the rule book. 

"One cannot reopen the Paris Agreement. So what the US has been doing, supported actively by other developed countries, is to drive the rule book in a certain direction. They have allowed progress on rules which operationalised specific provisions. But they have blocked progress on scripting rules for other provisions which they see as inimical to their agenda under Trump," said one developing country negotiator who has negotiated a strand which has suffered the most from these disputes over the last three years — climate finance. 

What is of concern to several emerging economies and large developing countries is how this selective rule-making could break the delicate balance in the Paris Agreement and tilt the pact in favour of the developed world. 

"If they get their way, developing countries' actions and targets will be de-linked from any financial commitment of the developed country parties. They would not be held accountable for failing to meet these commitments," explained an Indian negotiator.

He went on: "Our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs — voluntarily undertaken targets) will face increasing levels of scrutiny with passing time while only their mitigation targets would be scrutinised - not financial ones - and that too only at the levels we agree now. The differentiation between developing and developed countries built on the science of historically accumulated emissions would remain on paper but not be operationalised in practice."  

The negotiator said that when the NDCs are revised next, there would be no scientific basis to evaluate how developed countries have performed in comparison with their responsibility, based on their historically-accumulated emissions. "We would all be looked at only on the basis of current national capacities," he said.   

The effect would be to bring the parity that the US has often sought with emerging economies on climate change action and which the European Union has also backed, albeit through a relatively subtler approach. 

The release of the new UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report on the need to keep global warming below 1.5 degree celsius has added to the cauldron of complexities that the negotiations face this year. Countries' current NDCs are for 5-10 years. The Paris Agreement provides that these would be enhanced upwards in the next phase after a review in the 2023-25 period. But the report has presented the case for much higher climate mitigation before 2030 to keep temperatures in check. 

With the US not willing to up its game and the developed world collectively disinterested in meeting its climate finance obligations, developing countries such as India could come under pressure to enhance their existing targets by 2020 unconditionally (without knowing about or being able to link these targets to the flow of climate finance from the developed countries) even before the Paris Agreement gets implemented. 
"This is likely to happen at a political level. Besides the negotiations this year, the UN Secretary General is planning a high-level function next year. We believe the pressure will be put now and at that stage, to ratchet up mitigation ambitions without assessing how the developed countries have provided, or will provide, their finance and technology obligations," said another developing world negotiator.  

There are certain contentious provisions of the Paris Agreement — and streams of negotiations around them — which will provoke flare ups at Katowice. The second part of the curtain-raiser will look at these specific streams.

Challenges at Katowice climate change negotiations about...

  • They are to complete writing the rulebook to implement the Paris Agreement from 2021
  • But the US under Trump has threatened to walk out of Paris Agreement unless it can be redesigned
  • The US and other developed countries want only some parts of Paris Agreement to be operationalised
  • That way Paris Agreement can be reshaped practically
  • EU and other developed countries are as keen to not let the rule book elaborate on climate finance
  • India and several other developing countries want to keep the link of resources to their actions alive in the operation of Paris Agreement
  • Questions on ratcheting up on mitigation actions under the existing Paris Agreement targets for 2030 have risen
  • A rule-book that is balanced and detailed on all counts is favourable to India and other emerging economies

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