UN Summit

The Paris climate change agreement was a day late and a dollar short

How the Paris accord lost its way between preamble and operative text.

Under grey-blue skies in Paris, a day after the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, was initially scheduled to end, the intense two-week negotiations ended in backslapping and hugs and much self-congratulation. Nearly 200 countries adopted an agreement that could ostensibly save the world from disastrous climate change.


Whether it will succeed, how it will succeed, and who exactly will have to pay for this ambition hides under the veneer of nice-sounding words and crafty side-steps. Somewhere in there, science, history, equity, and decisions based on hard reality seem to have gone completely missing.

Here’s how the operative part of the final, much-lauded text shakes down:
“…Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;…”

What does this really mean? A temperature target must necessarily correspond to a carbon budget. That is, how much carbon headroom do we have before the average temperature increase hits 1.5 degrees Celsius? And who will use how much of that headroom? By when?

The developed countries have used up their budget, even overdrawn on it. But there is no mention of correcting or balancing this historical inequity in favour of developing countries.

Moreover, the current plans of nations – the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – puts the world on course to warming well above 3 degrees Celsius. A telling infographic by carbonbrief.org  shows us how many years of current levels of emissions will use up this carbon budget. The final text, however, does not seem to base itself on this science.


Source: carbonbrief.org


Onus on developing countries

To contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will take an inordinate amount of investment by developing countries. Here’s how the text proposes to offer finance to developing countries:
“This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

The Centre for Science and Environment, located in India, points out that this differentiation becomes weak when left to “capabilities” and with no reference to “historic responsibilities.”

The developed countries were to make available $100 billion per year to enable developing countries to mitigate and adapt to the disastrous effects of climate change. In the final agreement, however, this number figures only in the preamble but not in the operative, legally binding section.

Under this agreement, small island states and coastal areas already suffering severe losses because of rising sea levels and extreme weather, not to mention farmers and fishermen facing the brunt of droughts and floods, cannot claim anything from the developed world for liability and compensation. In other words, the big historical polluters essentially walked away from Paris having washed their hands of any responsibility for the damage they have already caused.

That the small island states who were so vocal in the run-up to these talks capitulated and signed on to this agreement gives one an idea of what went on behind closed doors. For an idea of how the spirit of the text changed over the second week, here is a telling example: The draft that was presented by the Platform for Enhanced Action to COP21 had these words in the important Article 2, the “purpose”:
[This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, and in accordance with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and on the basis of respect for human rights and the promotion of gender equality and the right of peoples under occupation]

All of it was bracketed, which meant that it was under review and discussion. (The run up to the final day of any COP is all about what “is bracketed” and what is “now out of brackets” or “completely gone.”)

Here’s the bit that made the final text:
“This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

In other words, “equity,” “science,” “human rights,” “gender equality” and the “rights of peoples under occupation” were all sacrificed in the Purpose.

Traditional knowledge

There were indigenous people from around the world at the conference fighting to get their rights heard, to have those key clauses “put back” into Article 2, but to no avail.

In passionate press conferences – a refreshing change from the clinical insipid conferences held by non-governmental organisations and government lackeys – the indigenous people spoke of protecting freshwater ecosystems, the land, wild fruit, medicinal plants, food security, and land integrity. They spoke of the violation of collective land rights, and of the “double discrimination” their women face from being, firstly, women and then indigenous to boot.

Indigenous women are at the short end of the stick when it comes to climate change. They are the ones that build houses, find fuel to cook and energy to run their homes, they fetch the water, they produce the food.

Speaking at the women’s caucus one early morning at COP21, Edna Kaptoyo, a Pokot woman from Kenya, said, “We had a culture where we preserved wild fruits for when we didn’t have enough food and grains. My mother did this for our family. But today, these fruits have disappeared. Our rivers are rain-fed. But now, they are drying out – something that has never happened before.”

Coming from the Arctic north, Mataali Okalik, an Inuit Youth Council leader dressed in a sealskin skirt and reeling from jet lag, said, “We have been seeing the impacts of climate change for many years. Our elders have been saying for decades that these impacts are detrimental to not only our people but for the rest of the world. But traditional knowledge is not deemed important. If it had been, we would have been steps ahead.”

These indigenous people expected COP21 to recognise their rights, and to respect their traditional knowledge as sustainable and valid. Frank Ettawageshik, representing the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, said in his address to the Closing Plenary on December 12:
“It is essential that the rights of indigenous peoples be recognised, protected and respected within a broad human rights framework. We sought such assurance in the operative section of the Agreement. We are keenly disappointed that the Parties did not see fit to accommodate this request in which we joined with a broad constituency.

“We … came seeking recognition, respect for, and use of our traditional knowledge, with our free, prior, and informed consent.  We appreciate that a provision appears in the operative section under adaptation, but it should apply everywhere in the Agreement and Decision without the qualification “where appropriate”.”

How nations negotiate their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and what, if anything, will balance equity and rights in this new, but-not-really-new, regime remains to be seen.

The preamble of the Paris Agreement seems to have its heart in the right place. The operative text, however, seems to have sold its soul to the highest bidder. Some insist it is a start, that there is now something on the table – but to hail it as the saviour the world was waiting for is anything but the truth. This is no "get out of jail free” card.

But wait. It is exactly that for some.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.