Day after day, the ill effects of global warming are becoming clearer. It is not something that will hit future generations and ‘people out there’. It is hitting all of us here and now. Still, year after year, the United Nations climate summit fails to come up with any agreement that can combat climate change in any significant way. After days of finger pointing in language that turns increasingly undiplomatic, representatives of over 190 governments manage to accept an agreement that just about keeps the UN process going.
It is a by-now-stale drama where both developing and developed countries try to portray the ‘other’ side as villains. Developing countries have an advantage, because they can quite truthfully also portray themselves as victims of climate change. But the United States of America also does a very good job of endlessly repeating that any action by rich nations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases – mainly carbon dioxide – that are causing climate change will not be effective unless big emitters China and India do the same. The US position ignores the fundamental issue of equity – the fact that relatively few people living in rich nations have taken up a disproportionately large percentage of the carbon space in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Age and continue to do so. Asking developing countries to arrest their greenhouse gas emissions now places a serious constraint on their effort to attain the same standard of living as in rich nations.
So the developing and developed worlds blame each other, and say they are doing as much as they can, they cannot do more. It is worse than a zero-sum game. The sum is distinctly negative. The result is that climate change effects are now affecting agriculture worldwide, making droughts, floods and storms more frequent and more severe, and raising the sea level to such an extent that governments have to think of new ideas.
The combat against climate change started with the idea of mitigation – reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. That remains the bulk of the debate, but in the last five years or so many countries have realised that is not enough. As more and more climate change effects make themselves apparent, policymakers realise they have to learn how to adapt to this changing reality. This brought adaptation to the international debate, and the need for rich countries to pay poor countries for this purpose. At the UNFCCC talks, it is still a debate led largely by developing countries, especially the most vulnerable among them – small islands and those facing the worst water shortages. Since no one can seriously debate the need for adaptation, developing countries even pushed through the formation of an adaptation fund, though hardly any government has put any money into it, and no one seems likely to.
Now the world has reached the third stage, and that may become the lasting legacy of the Doha climate summit. If countries will not mitigate their emissions enough, and if they are unable to adapt to a changed climate, then they will suffer loss and damage. That is exactly what is happening, and the poorest of the countries are saying they need money to deal with this loss and damage. NGOs have been at the forefront of pushing the idea at Doha through the Least Developed Countries group, the Africa group and the Association of Small Island States. Developed countries, especially the United States, have been bitterly opposed to inclusion of loss and damage in the multilateral negotiations, because they see it as the thin end of the wedge on compensation claims. But finally the developing country groups at least managed to push through the point that this will be discussed in future.
So on an important issue, governments have at least agreed to keep the UN process going. They have done the same for the other make-or-break issues that have been eluding agreement for years. Of them, the most important is the agreement to start the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol from January and keep it on till the end of 2020. With fewer rich nations participating, this protocol now has less practical global emission reduction value than before, but its symbolic value is immense. It signals to the developing world that at least a part of the developed world is serious about reducing emissions.
But the stalemate on the most important point remains – rich countries are not promising finances to help poor countries move towards a greener economy and deal with climate change effects. In Doha, there was not a single such commitment under the negotiating process for 2013-2020. If Britain, Germany, Sweden and some other countries had not made individual financial commitments outside the negotiating rooms, this issue may well have led to a collapse of the Doha talks.
In climate summits year after year, almost all groups of countries are starting from the position, ‘we are doing a lot, we cannot do more; you are not doing enough, you do more.’ All sides provide evidence that what they are saying is factually correct. In the process, they far too often ignore the overarching evidence of global warming. If this blame game continues like this, it will be almost impossible to have any effective climate treaty in 2015, which is the next deadline. Unless the current situation changes drastically, another Copenhagen-like fiasco is almost inevitable.