Bad deal at Cancun - Praful Bidwai - Monday, December 20, 2010

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Some international agreements are so incurably ineffectual, unequal or otherwise flawed that the world would be better off without them. An instance is last year’s disastrous Copenhagen Accord on climate change. A collusive agreement between the United States and BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), later signed by 20-odd states, it reversed major gains from the global climate negotiations.

The gains include assigning greater responsibility to the industrialised North than the developing South in combating climate change, setting quantitative time-bound country-wise targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts, and mandating North-to-South financial and technology transfers.

Mercifully, the Accord wasn’t adopted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was widely condemned, and ignored by many signatories, including India, and very nearly forgotten.

Now, some of its substance has been resurrected in the UNFCCC’s Cancun Agreements (CA), just reached in Mexico. The CA have been welcomed by some for defending “multilateralism” and called “forward-looking,” “a new beginning,” and a prelude to an effective agreement with binding targets next year. The crucial question is: Will the CA prevent catastrophic climate change through the necessary 40 percent emissions cuts by the North by 2020, which limit global warming to 1.5 to 2°C – the maximum that Planet Earth can tolerate?

The answer is a resounding no. Under the CA, global temperatures will probably rise by 3 to 4-plus degrees C, causing irreversible breakdowns in the climate system, leading to ecological devastation, colossal economic damage and millions of deaths, and thus threatening humanity’s survival.

The CA are full of loopholes and ambiguities. They postpone major decisions (e.g., legal commitments). They blur the distinction between the North, historically responsible for three-quarters of global emissions, and the South.

The CA reject the science-based process of setting emissions-reduction targets for individual Northern countries. They adopt a “bottom-up” approach, under which countries arbitrarily set their targets, with no questions asked. For instance, the US, the world’s worst polluter, has offered emissions cuts of a laughable 4 per cent by 2020 – instead of the imperative 40 percent. The CA don’t even mention equitable access to global climate space.

At Cancun, there was no agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s sole legally binding climate agreement. Its first term expires in 2012. The Protocol mandates industrialised countries to accept quantified emission limitations, and financially support the developing countries’ climate-related actions and development of low-carbon technologies.

Instead of accepting a clear North-South differentiation, the CA create a single instrument for both. This paves the way for abolition of the Protocol – a strident demand by Japan, Russia and Canada. (The US didn’t sign the Protocol.)

Many Northern countries have missed even their modest emissions-reduction targets (5.2 per cent on average) under Kyoto’s first term, even allowing for partly illusory cuts through carbon trading. Seventeen of the 41 have increased their emissions – some by 40 or 100 per cent. Their recent emissions-reduction pledges exceed by at least nines million tonnes (of carbon dioxide-equivalent) the 44 million tonnes threshold for limiting global warming to 2°C.

The CA violate the 2007 Bali Action Plan firewall between the North’s “commitments” (obligations) and the South’s “actions,” and the stipulation that only North-supported Southern actions should be reported and scrutinised. The CA impose international consultation and analysis even on Southern mitigation actions financially unsupported by the North.

The Cancun Agreements create REDD (reduced emissions through deforestation and degradation), a market mechanism ostensibly to promote forest conservation. As tribal activists argue, this commodifies forests by treating them as mere stocks of carbon and doesn’t recognise the rights of forest-dwelling communities.

The CA establish a technology-sharing mechanism to help vulnerable countries. But they don’t address the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs) or technology patenting, as the South demanded. Who would fund the Technology Mechanism and to what extent remains unclear.

The CA thus represent no progress on key issues. However, there is limited progress in other areas, including adaptation to climate change, and establishment of a Green Climate Fund with $100 billion by 2020. But the world annually needs $500-1,000 million to stabilise the climate.

The Fund is a distant political objective. Who pays the money and how it will be channelled is unclear. The North remains loath to lose control over how the South spends climate-related funds.

Formally speaking, the CA reaffirm multilateralism. But the agreements were reached through informal negotiations involving, initially, ten countries and then about 50. The most vulnerable countries were targeted and offered inducements to dilute their support for the Kyoto Protocol’s second term and other developing-country demands.

The Wikileaks cables show the West used bribes and threats to get vulnerable countries to sign on to the Copenhagen Accord as a condition for receiving assistance. It would be a surprise if similar tactics weren’t used at Cancun.

The CA will greatly expand carbon trading – through REDD and the inclusion of the dubious technology of Carbon Capture and Storage under the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM allows Southern projects to earn carbon credits. The North can buy credits and evade reducing its own emissions.

Carbon trading is conceptually flawed. Using market mechanisms to combat climate change is irrational. Even former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern admits that climate change represents history’s greatest market failure. The CDM is a mega-scandal, with unreasonable emissions allowances for Northern corporations and inappropriate Southern projects (like making a refrigerant gas – only to burn it to earn credits). Many projects violate the condition that they must be new, not business-as-usual: over four-fifths of the dams earning credits were already built or under construction before the CDM took effect.

Carbon trading has become highly speculative, akin to sub-prime bank lending. It’s dominated by futures trading in presumed credits which may never materialise.

The Cancun Agreements are bad for the world, unfair to the South’s vulnerable people, and soft on the North. Of the promised $30 billion “fast track” finance by 2012, the North has so far mobilised only $4.5 billion. A good chunk of Northern assistance will come from the private sector and take the form of loans or equity. Some of it won’t be “new and additional funding,” but will be taken out of existing aid flows.

Only tiny Bolivia had the courage to oppose the Cancun Agreements. Why did India sign them in violation of its own “non-negotiables”: a second term for the Kyoto Protocol, accelerated financial support for the South, and technology transfer without IPR restrictions?

The only explanation is a combination of external pressure, and New Delhi’s shrewd calculation that the Agreements impose relatively light obligations on India – although they place even lighter ones on the North.

This extremely cynical approach conforms to the worst scenario discussed in my 2009 book, An India That Can Say Yes: A Climate-Responsible Development Agenda for Copenhagen and Beyond. India’s policymakers are bent on retaining the option to raise the country’s emissions under the pretext of “development” and fighting poverty – in reality, to support elite consumption.

Most Indian policymakers will doggedly resist any future climate-related restraint – even if that means signing a climate deal that is disastrous for the world, and, hence eventually, for India too.

There is another term for this approach. It’s called Shooting Yourself in the Foot.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@

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