The second and supposedly final week of negotiations on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, amid now-measurable climate change, began on Monday at the COP21 in Paris with a draft global accord on the table. It is, however, littered with hundreds of bracketed words indicating that hard bargaining, and no doubt compromises, lie ahead.
Especially vexing, to judge from comments made by governments, analysts and nongovernmental activists around the world, are unresolved questions about how any agreement among nearly 200 countries, each with its own priorities and red lines, can be implemented and monitored — and who will pay for the transfer of energy technologies and other financial assistance being demanded in return for promises to cut carbon emissions. How to reduce dependence on coal, the base for energy production in many countries, is at the center of deliberations.
The goals hovering over the talks are relatively clear — despite the United Nations-style brackets — in the accord adopted on Dec. 5: “To hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 1.5 °C] [or] [well below 2 °C] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep reductions in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions; To Increase [countries’] ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change [and to effectively respond to the impacts of the implementation of response measures and to loss and damage].”
The accord, drawn up under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, also looks toward development policies and practices to foster climate-resilient economies without jeopardizing food production and distribution.
The wording that may be troublesome is the provision allowing governments to decide their own responsibilities and capabilities “in the light of different national circumstances.” As in the new Sustainable Development Goals, this pledge, while welcome as a means of creating “bottom-up” decisions on climate policy, allows for a wide range of actions among nations.
When Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, addressed the Paris conference on its opening day, Nov. 30, she spoke to both developing and industrial countries, saying that a final agreement “should not be the sum of well-intentioned plans, they should state the paths we should take. The implementation of the new agreements; financing; and transfer of technology should assure that all countries have the necessary means to reach our common objective.”
Brazil has ambitious plans, Rousseff said, including the reduction of greenhouse gases by 43 percent by 2030 and reaching zero deforestation by the same date. “During the last decade, deforestation rates in the Amazon region declined by nearly eighty percent,” she said.
Nigeria, which has established a Department of Climate Change in its environment ministry, has also submitted an ambitious national agenda that includes not only the reduction of carbon emissions but also plans to spur economic growth and spending on social programs so that its citizens will be better prepared to withstand climate shocks. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has fostered active national debate on climate challenges involving many interested parties.
In Asia, the messages have been more cautious and less positive. It is a region heavily dependent on coal for energy production, the key to greater industrialization. Governments there have been less optimistic about their ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions without economic damage.
A few days before the opening of COP21, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, which has been buffeted by unusually severe storms, said in an interview with the BBC that his country intends to build more coal-fired power stations to meet rising demands for energy. The plans have been criticized by Filipino environmental groups, but the president said in the interview that alternatives to coal were not feasible in the near term. The country generates almost half of its electricity from coal, and that percentage is predicted to rise sharply with new coal-powered plants.
Aquino dismissed a major role for both alternative and renewable energy sources, saying that the country lacked the capacity to import large amounts of natural gas and could not rely on enough steady sunlight for much solar power.
In India, an article in The Hindu newspaper (which is moderate and secular despite its name) quoted insiders saying that the government was not happy with discussions in Paris about introducing a review mechanism to monitor compliance, which is favored by President François Hollande of France and other leaders in donor nations that will be asked to pay for assistance to governments that need technological help and technology transfers to meet their own goals.
“India felt that a transparency and accountability regime should not treat rich and poor nations alike,” G Ananthakrishnan wrote in the paper, indicating that developing countries should be given waivers. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed as much to President Barack Obama during their meeting in Paris. For example, India does not have the capacity to measure automotive emissions based on vehicle use accurately, while the US does that every year.”
In Delhi, the most polluted city in the world, many Indians depend on air-quality measurements made by the American embassy. A similar situation exists in Beijing. In both cities, in the days before the opening of the Paris talks, the air was declared hazardous to breathe.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.