With India and other major growing economies ratifying the Paris climate change agreement, the threshold for the agreement to come into force has been reached. There is a general sense of relief that the agreement will not be hobbled from its inception, like its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. What remains to be seen, however, is if the same enthusiasm fires actions directed at climate justice.
The notion of climate justice was agreed to, politically, at Paris. But it remained unresolved operationally. Along with sustainable lifestyles, climate justice is regarded as a significant principle in environmental parlance. But the two principles have eluded consensus because they have bearings on political and economic choices.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made several references to the principle of climate justice in the run-up to Paris. The principle made its way to the preamble of the Paris agreement, presumably under the compulsions of an evolving international dynamic, and has become part of the lexicon of climate change. The rules under the Paris agreement are yet to be framed. Countries, if they so wish, can use climate justice as the basis for future actions. But for it to have an operational significance, the principle has to be ingrained in the rules and modalities.
The Bolivarian group of countries, who have been the most ardent advocates of climate justice in the past, have relied on the notion of “compensation for damage”. They have sought compensation for the damage caused by the over-exploitation of the earth’s ecosystem. However, this approach fails to distinguish between the historical and current responsibility for climate change. In its least confrontational connotation, the notion of climate justice is equivalent to the principle of equity and differentiation in actions. Demand for equity in actions is not a call for inaction. It is, instead, a call for balanced and just actions in accordance with national circumstances.
Some believe that the Paris agreement moved away from the original principles of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — equity and common but differentiated responsibility . It is argued that the Paris construct — willingness of all governments to contribute to addressing climate change — is an indication of the fact that the requiem has been sung for the principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Nothing can be farther from truth.
While it is certain that the principle of historical responsibility, the centerpiece of the Kyoto Protocol, is no longer the only basis of actions, or the firewall between the developed and developing countries — as the climate negotiators put it — future actions will continue to be different amongst countries and driven by their capability and sustainable development goals.
The Paris agreement affords flexibility to each country. What the Paris agreement did not do, and rightly so, was to lay down a metric by which the “respective capabilities” of countries could be defined. While it may be normal to treat “responsibility” for climate change as universal because of the politics of economic growth, it is abnormal to define a metric for “capability” when the environmental resources are unevenly distributed and exploited across the globe. Hence, the new norm of climate justice.
Justice, in the juridical sense, is well-defined. However, in the context of climate change, it has scientific as well as socio-political connotations. Science has to guide fairness in burden sharing. But the essence of such burden sharing has to be the protection of the vulnerable. The crucial question in the next few years will, therefore, be how resources, technologies and regulations are used to support the victims of climate change.
Under the Paris agreement, all countries committed to implement their Nationally Determined Actions (NDCs). India is committed to reduce its emissions intensity of GDP, by 33 per cent to 35 per cent by 2030 from its 2005 level and protect its population from the adverse impacts of climate change. All countries have flexibility under the agreement to determine NDCs, according to their national circumstances.
While making a declaration on climate justice on September 23, 2013 at the UN, a group of influential think-tanks stated that the defining characteristic of climate-just policies is that they are people-centric. Justice in climate is, therefore, not confined to actions relating to mitigation but includes the wider notion of support for adaptation to climate change and compensation for loss and damage.
The evolving negotiations on the Paris agreement are based on a hope that this notion gathers momentum and gets inscribed in the rules.
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