India fashions future fight against climate change

DURBAN -- Climate talks in Durban dilutes North-South divide but fragments the developing world.
Written by Betwa Sharma, Correspondent
Indian delegation in Durban talks to the media

DURBAN, South Africa -- As the dust settles around this year's U.N. climate change conference, the world is weighing its consequences for the global North and South. The final move by India, for the first time, dilutes the divide between developed and developing countries in sharing the burden of combating the global crisis.

Mired in disputes, the recently concluded talks in Durban spilled into an extra two days. The highly contested political and moral issues divided the negotiators, activists and the media of the developed and developing world.

Till now, the legal climate regime has been built on the "historical responsibility"  of developed nations to fix climate change, which has been caused by their C02 emissions since the industrial revolution. This principle was the basis of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol-- the only legally binding treaty on climate change that requires 37 industrialized countries to take C02 emission cuts till 2012. The developing countries, however, were not placed under similar obligations.

But after witnessing the rapid economic growth of China and India during the past decade, the developed world clamored for these countries to do more to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, the largest per capita CO2 emitter, never ratified the Kyoto Protocol because it left out China. Recently, China surpassed the U.S. in becoming the overall largest CO2 emitter. Now, Japan, Canada and Russia will not sign up for more carbon emission cuts after the first term of the treaty expires next year. Without the presence of U.S. ad China, these countries assert, the Protocol only covers 26 percent of global carbon emissions.

The survival of the Kyoto Protocol was at stake in Durban. The European Union gave India an ultimatum--agree to a post-2020 agreement that will legally bind all nations or the EU will also back out of the Kyoto Protocol. "India is not intimidated by threats," Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan declared. "How do I give a blank check signing away the livelihood rights of 1.2 billion members of our population?"

The tensions climaxed when Natarajan from India and the EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard came face to face in the turbulent meeting hall on the last night. Even the top negotiators from the U.S. and China were in the crowd that encircled the two women who could avert or cause a collapse of the talks. Would India consent to a new legal regime?

After China and the U.S. agreed to the "EU Roadmap" of a 2020 treaty to be drafted by 2015, all the pressure was on India. The Western media and NGOs increasingly described New Delhi as the "stumbling block." Kicking and screaming, India gave in at the end. The EU, in turn, agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol.

Back home, Natarajan's decision has garnered a mixed response. For some, it has given India another decade of obligation-free economic growth as well as saving the Kyoto Protocol and the Durban talks. For others, it has unduly shifted the future burden on the shoulders of the developing world when the West-especially the U.S.-have not acted to fight  climate change for 20 years.

Despite the extension of the Kyoto Protocol, environmentalists have slammed the talks in Durban for not achieving any substantial commitments from developed countries to reduce carbon emissions, or securing money for the Green Climate Fund to the tune of $100 billion a year starting from 2020 to help developing countries cope with the fallout of climate change.

"Poor against poor"

The diverse set of national agendas at play in Durban also led to a fundamental shifting of allegiances between regional and political blocs. The most vulnerable developing nations, for instance, sided with the European Union in calling for a holistic treaty.

The small island nations are at risk of losing their territories due to the rising sea level. To prevent these countries from drowning, the world needs to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius. The current pledges to reduce CO2 emissions given  by the developed world will not meet this goal. An OXFAM study finds that the voluntary domestic pledges of the developing world are  more than the pledges of the developed world.

Still, the endangered countries along with the "Least Developed Countries" want emerging economies like India and China to commit further. "Definitely," said Monjurul Hannan Khan, a senior negotiator from Bangladesh, responding to whether its neighbor India should accept international obligations to cut emissions. "All major economies should some flexibility and think of the integrity of the environment."

These emerging economies --Brazil, South Africa, India and China--formed the BASIC alliance to advocate their right to develop and eradicate poverty as a priority.  One-third of India's 1.2 billion people live on less than 70 cents a day and 400 million people don't have access to electricity. Responding to the fact that India had more poor people than Bangladesh, Khan added, "In terms of absolute numbers...yes...but India has more capacity and power...India is way ahead of Bangladesh."

India argues to the contrary. "India has 600 islands, which may be submerged, we have a deltaic region in which millions of people live," said Natarajan. "We are absolutely at the forefront of the vulnerability  of climate change."

As loyalties change, rich countries are accused of "check book diplomacy" that involves buying support of poor nations in exchange of access to money and technology. Activists from the South see it as a divide and rule tactic. "It is very bizarre that in the last three years such a concerted effort has been made to separate the most vulnerable countries," said Sunita Narain, India's leading environmentalist. "It is pitting poor against poor so they cannot speak with one voice."

Photo: Betwa Sharma

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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