A brief guide to India’s gains and losses at the Paris climate talks

Thinking about the future.
Thinking about the future.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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As the gavel came down on the Paris climate negotiations on Saturday night, nearly 200 countries agreed on a historic deal to address climate change. It was an unprecedented and welcome outcome after the failure of its predecessor in Copenhagen in 2009. And the outcome seems to have disappointed fewer people than is the norm at these negotiations.

Leading up to the negotiations and through the conference, India’s role was often made out to be as one that could either make or break the Paris negotiations. But under prime minister Narendra Modi, India has deftly managed its PR and signed onto a final agreement that is balanced in its immediate interests.

What does the Paris accord mean for India?

The Paris accord, as agreed upon by member countries, sets the architecture for carbon emission reduction after 2020. It safeguards the principle of common but differentiated responsibility that has remained a non-negotiable aspect of India’s climate position. This principle squarely puts the major responsibility on developed nations to drastically cut their carbon emissions and provide the necessary finance, technology and capacity building for developing economies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The agreement will come into effect once at least 55 countries, amounting to 55% of global greenhouse gases, ratify or accept the Paris agreement.

Here are some key features of the Paris accord:

1.5 degrees: The new line in the sand

After considerable pressure from island nations and least developed countries, parties to the conference agreed on pursuing long-term efforts to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The agreement invites the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), the global scientific authority on climate science, to produce a special report by 2018 on the potential impacts of crossing 1.5 degrees and drawing emission pathways to avoid these impacts. This is an incredibly ambitious goal given the existing commitments on carbon mitigation are set to take us beyond 3-3.5 degrees average temperature rise.

For India, the dangers of climate change are all too real. The 1.5 degrees target will avoid putting the lives of millions along its coastline and those dependent directly on agricultural yields at risk.

Carbon mitigation targets

The Paris accord builds upon the bottom up approach of voluntary commitments or Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDCs) from both developed and developing countries. The accord urges parties to enhance their pre-2020 emission cuts and acknowledges the significant gap between current pledges and what is needed to be consistent with holding temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Countries are expected to submit revised INDCs by 2020, and every five years thereafter. Modi in his opening speech at the negotiations highlighted the need to operationalise the principle of equity and fair distribution of the remaining carbon space (i.e. the amount of carbon we can further emit before breaching average temperature threshold).

Modi in his opening speech at the negotiations highlighted the need to operationalise the principle of equity and fair distribution of the remaining carbon space (i.e. the amount of carbon we can further emit before breaching average temperature threshold).

But by deferring ambitious carbon reductions from the developed countries post 2020, which will still remain voluntary, India has effectively accepted a scenario where a fair carbon budgeting is a distant dream. India, it appears, will instead push hard for greater financing and capacity building for a renewable energy transition.

Climate finance

Climate finance—a consistent bone of contention at the negotiations—failed to see any scale of ambition. Developed nations agreed to raise $100 billion annually by 2020, with a commitment to enhanced financing thereafter. The nature of finance, its source, accounting and distribution remains unresolved and deeply contentious. An OECD report (pdf) earlier this year claimed that climate finance had reached $62 billion in 2014 but the numbers were quickly dismissed by India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar and his counterparts from the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries on the basis of double-accounting.

India sought $2.5 trillion in finance for achieving its INDC by 2030, so a global commitment of $100 billion pales in comparison. The coming few years will consequently witness a greater push for materialising this finance through a variety and public and private channels.

Compromises and legal wrangles

The Paris accord isn’t legally binding on two key aspects. There is no obligation on developed nations to enhance mitigation targets or increase climate finance.

Countries are instead tacitly relying on a system of naming and shaming nations to influence climate targets. One of the key points on the table for the island nations was the question of loss and damage. How will the developed world pay for climate-related disasters that are impacting vulnerable nations today? The accord acknowledges the impacts but does not provide a basis for liability or compensation. As the lead negotiator for the Seychelles explained, “The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the COP.”

The legally-binding nature of the agreement is on developed nations to report progress on the climate finance being delivered to developing countries on a biennial basis, and mitigation targets with a five-year review mechanism starting in 2018.

Javadekar explained that India signed the final agreement in a spirit of compromise. Many nations have similarly made compromises to avoid the ignominy of being the parties that derailed the negotiations and set it back by at least another decade.

What’s next?

Modi tweeted after the conference that it was a win for climate justice. It is hard to see how the accord can be read in that light but political posturing, as Modi understands, is critical and will become increasingly so in the coming decade. Still, the Paris accord has been successful in sending a resounding signal to the markets that the era of fossil fuels is gradually approaching an end. A majority of the known fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground if we are to have any realistic chance of staying within a 1.5 degrees temperature rise.