2nd coalition of the willing: bad for climate and for us

Let me be straight: As the clock ticks to Copenhagen, how low is the world prepared to prostrate to get climate-renegade US on board? Is a bad deal in Copenhagen better than no deal?

The US’ intentions are not good for the climate. It has proposed it will not take international commitments, but follow a domestic legislation route. So, it will act on targets legislated nationally. Second, the amount it will cut is nowhere close to what is required of it. The global consensus is industrialized countries need to cut at least 40 per cent over 1990 levels, to avert a 2°C rise in temperature. But the US, after much fanfare on its Nobel-awarded president, has proposed a puny target of 20 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. This country’s greenhouse gas emissions increased 16 per cent between 1990 and 2005. Thus, it is saying it plans to do practically nothing but make a small cut over 1990 levels by 2020. Nothing to cut its gargantuan emission share—with some 5 per cent of the world’s people, it releases 18 per cent of global emissions. Forget, even, that it alone is responsible for 30 per cent of the global stock of emissions in the atmosphere. Criminal, when you think of the impact of climate change on the poor of the world.

Third, this puny target includes huge emission credits it will ‘buy’ from developing countries as offsets. In sum, it will actually continue to increase emissions till 2017, at the very least. Doubly criminal and deplorable. Finally, it will do this little bit only if China and India and other ‘polluting’ nations are with it in this grand cop-out plan.

In other words, the world now needs a second coalition of the willing—this time for President Barack Obama. This time, not to go to war with Iraq, but to blow up the chance of an effective agreement in Copenhagen.

The generals are putting together the coalition, building block by building block.

One, the influential Harvard Kennedy School’s proposal for a ‘portfolio of domestic commitments’ is gaining traction in the coalition-world. It sets out a track-2 option for climate agreements, built not on international targets and time-tables, but on actions which will be domestically legislated. Nations will then be asked to ‘honour’ these actions as international ‘commitments’; such voluntary actions will be internationally reviewed. In short, no red-phrase such as ‘legally binding commitments’ will exist, but only, as the authors say, a “flexible and politically palatable approach” to an international agreement.

Two, there is the Australian proposal on a legal architecture for the post-2012 climate regime. Australia is a country whose carbon dioxide emissions have increased a whopping 40 per cent since 1990. It is a loyal soldier of this coalition. The proposal is ingenious: the world should move towards a single agreement (read: dump Kyoto Protocol), based on “unifying commitments of all parties” (read: all together on one page). Simple. All countries (other than ldcs) have a national schedule, which forms the basis of international agreement. The national schedule is based on domestic action or legislation (note the link to the US position). But all national actions will be internationally scrutinized.

The Australian proposal kills two birds with one stone. It gets rid of the Kyoto Protocol, with its uncomfortable distinction between the world and Annex I nations, industrialized countries with high historical and current emissions who have to take action first. It also gets the US on board. President Obama can now go to Copenhagen and be the climate hero. He will have ‘earned’ his Nobel. Now all they need, to complete the coalition, is split G-77 and bring one big dissenting country on board. Who other than India?

The international media has been ‘worked’ to build a strong campaign to play on our worst fears—being isolated and hated in a rich man’s world. An image has been crafted: India is the climate renegade. India has not got the climate narrative right. It is the naysayer, a deal-breaker. Anathema to our whitewashed politicians, who crave for global attention and approval.

But if we want to be in the coalition, we must agree to their proposal. It is here we must spot the similarities between the ‘leaked’ letter of the minister of environment and forests to the prime minister, which asks for domestic legislation, international scrutiny on mitigation actions, which we have to do for our own good and support for the Australian proposal. If we accept this proposition, we will be the deal-makers. We will break ranks with the G-77/China bloc and join the gang of the powerful polluters.

Will this ‘pragmatic’ approach to bring the world’s most renegade nation to the table be effective for climate change? Unequivocally, no. It will dismantle a multilateral agreement based on setting global targets to reduce emissions, equitable burden sharing and strong mechanisms for the most powerful to comply. Worse, it will do little to cut emissions on the scale needed. The US is unwilling and the rest will now follow. Ineffective. Inequitous. Bad for the world, worse for us.

This coalition of the willing has many powerful takers. In the days to come, the chorus will grow. Watch and wait. Hear and listen. The world is moving towards climate disaster, and no Peace Nobel can cover that up.

—Sunita Narain