Climate Change geopolitics

Two big-ticket resignations last week will have far-reaching effects on climate geopolitics. The decision by India’s top climate negotiator Shyam Saran to quit will make it easier for the US to push emerging economies to do more to combat climate change. So will the decision of UN climate panel chief Yvo de Boer to quit six months ahead of schedule.

The resignations were not unexpected, because a move in this direction was clear at the Copenhagen climate summit last December, where the only outcome was an accord worked out between the US, India, China, Brazil and South Africa that asked all countries — not just the rich ones — to say what they would do to combat climate change.


Saran has opposed this move for long, ever since Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh made it clear that he wanted to change India’s long-held position on climate geopolitics.


In essence, this position was that rich countries were almost totally responsible for climate change and were liable to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that were warming the earth and also to help poor countries that were suffering the most as a result.


Added to this, the G77 said poor countries had a right to develop and there was no question of asking them to reduce or cap their GHG emissions.


This worked for many years and brought about the Kyoto Protocol, till date the only global treaty that legally obliges rich countries to reduce their GHG emissions. But the US did not ratify the protocol and, with increasing shrillness, said the climate change challenge could not be addressed unless rapidly emerging economies like China and India agreed to at least cap their GHG emissions at some point in the future.


Saran championed India’s traditional position, while Ramesh started to announce how India would move towards a low carbon economy (carbon dioxide is the main GHG), partly because it was in India’s own long-term interest and partly in an effort to make rich countries come up with stronger GHG emission mitigation commitments.


Ramesh’s move brought India closer to what the US wanted. The minister faced a lot of flak inside the country and made compromises along the way, but evidently received the backing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the essential direction change.


The inevitable consequence: Saran’s exit has come now.


The early exit of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer had also been on the cards ever since the failure of the Copenhagen summit.


The denouement of the summit had particularly galled the European Union (EU), which felt it had been kept out by the US and the emerging economies during the crucial last hours and blamed the UNFCCC chief for that. And anyway, EU delegates have been upset with de Boer at least since last October, when he did not back their proposal to bury the Kyoto Protocol.


The EU wanted to bury the protocol because it knew the US would never sign on it. Then, EU industries were pressing their governments to get the US on board a global treaty on the argument that they were becoming relatively uncompetitive because they had to abide by the protocol.


But developing countries have been equally adamant that the Kyoto Protocol must continue, and de Boer backed them by saying: ‘You do not throw out an old shoe till you have a new one.’


With his exit, it may or may not be easier for the rich countries to throw out the Kyoto Protocol, but at least they will not have to contend with one of its most vocal backers.


(Joydeep Gupta is a writer and commentator on environment issues. He can be contacted at joydeep.g@ians.in)

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