Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cancun gone, now look to South Africa

Suman Sahai

Before the run up to Cancun, world leaders have begun to articulate what everyone knew all along, that the climate talks in Mexico will not progress any on climate change than what happened at Copenhagen. The Cancun talks were expected only to be a halt en route

to arriving at something more. That ‘something more’, everyone agrees must be a globally binding deal like the Kyoto Protocol but nobody seems to want to take concrete

steps in that direction. To add another twist to the reigning despondency, Japan threw in its spanner, saying it had no interest in furthering the Kyoto Protocol.

Following the failure of Copenhagen, representatives of 192 met in the Mexican resort city of Cancun from November 29 to December 10 for another attempt to strike a deal to curb greenhouse gases after 2012. According to most world leaders, one of the major challenges of Cancun and indeed all climate talks is to get the American government and the Chinese government to agree to emission cuts and accept that it is actually in their interest to enter into a proper legally binding agreement.

For their part , Chinese leaders say they want a binding climate change treaty by late 2011 but blame US politics for impeding talks and making a deal on global warming impossible at Cancun. The Chinese also assert that they have little expectations from Cancun but hope that the final outcome of Cancun will allow progress on forging a legally binding document by the time of the next climate meeting, slated to be held in South Africa. Whereas China does not make clear cut commitments on emission cuts, it vows to keep pressurizing rich countries to commit to deeper cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.

With its 1.3 billion people, China is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from human activity, but is also a developing country with average emissions per capita well below those of wealthy economies. China will be a crucial player in post Cancun talks, so it is important that it takes the South Africa meeting seriously enough to put its weight behind achieving a firm and legally binding agreement on climate change and moving towards concrete implementation. The Beijing strategy is to press for certain principles in the climate talks, for instance that developing countries like China should not be made toaccept the same absolute caps on emissions that rich countries must take on.

Mr Jairam Ramesh said in Cancun that the Indian position would be guided first and foremost by the country’s economic interests ( read going slow on reducing emissions). This is clearly the government position, rather than Mr Ramesh’s. The environment minister has been known to express another view in private, that it was in India’s enlightened self interest to reduce its emissions.

As a matter of fact, India is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts and can only benefit if temperature rise is checked. According to the IPCC climate report, agriculture in South Asia will be most severely affected by climate change and the rainfed areas of the region will suffer the worst depredations from the uncertainties that climate change will bring. India is vulnerable on several fronts. It has a coastline of about 7500 km ( including the islands ), much of it vulnerable to inundation when seal levels rise. A 40 C rise in temperature is predicted to cause a sea level rise of up to 6.6 feet, causing devastation in urban centers and destroying agriculture along and inland from the coast. Indian rivers, many dependent on the Himalayan glaciers are facing a crisis as the glaciers show evidence of melting with global warming. Less water in the rivers will mean less water for agricultural, domestic and industrial use.

And finally, the monsoons which are the mainstay of India’s economy. Given this dependence, any change in the pattern of the monsoon arising due to climate change, does not bode well for the country. For all these reasons, India must be at the vanguard of forging an international agreement that will lead to concrete reductions in green house gases. Its domestic agenda must be of a piece with this position. The consequences of not being able to halt temperature rise, will be catastrophic for developing countries, particularly in South Asia. It is crucial that India take leadership in determining the outcome at South Africa.

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