Yet another round of negotiations is underway in Bonn this week in the lead-up to the UN conference in Paris this December that is scheduled to adopt a 2015 climate agreement. Negotiators are trading views on a streamlined version of an 86-page negotiating text riddled with heavily contested and often incompatible proposals. In the meantime, 46 states, including the US, EU and China, have submitted their national contributions — climate targets, actions, policies and measures — in the context of the 2015 agreement. Other contributions, including India’s, are in the pipeline. The integrity and effectiveness of the 2015 agreement rests on the extent to which states fulfil these contributions. This in turn will depend on their legal character and the review process designed to consider them, both of which are at issue in the negotiations.
States have considerable discretion in relation to national contributions. They can determine what form they will take (whether just mitigation or also adaptation); how stringent they will be; whether they will be conditional (on finance, for instance) or unconditional; what information they provide with their contributions; and, whether and how to justify their contribution as fair and ambitious in light of their national circumstances. Such extraordinary discretion has led many to query if such a regime can deliver the mitigation and adaptation actions needed to address climate change, and do so equitably so as to ensure development space for countries like India. The answer to this hinges on the legal character of national contributions and the review process, if any, they will be subject to.
India has proven reluctant thus far to countenance legally binding commitments, but it may be worth reconsidering this position. There are several commitments states could undertake. States could commit to submit, update, implement and even achieve their national contributions. Some of these commitments, such as those to submit and update national contributions, are procedural. Others, such as commitments to implement and achieve contributions, are substantive.
Some commitments could be framed as obligations of effort such that states would be accountable not for their chosen GHG targets but for their efforts to reach them. Others could be framed as obligations of result such that states would be accountable for reaching their target. Procedural obligations are more forgiving than substantive obligations, and obligations of effort are less onerous than obligations of result. India could agree to obligations of effort, without fear of serious consequence. It could, while offering to take on such obligations, also seek to operationalise the principle of common but differentiated responsibility by arguing for obligations of effort for developing countries and obligations of result for developed countries.
India has also been reluctant to countenance a review process for national contributions, and here too a more nuanced approach may be in order. A review process is essential to disciplining unbridled national determination, ensuring that the regime as a whole is travelling in the right direction, and providing states some assurance that others are doing their fair share. Given that India’s negotiating position is fundamentally shaped by its demand for equity, a review process is critical, as in its absence, it will be impossible to determine if developed countries’ contributions are commensurate with their responsibilities. India’s reluctance to embrace a review process stems, presumably, from a desire to preserve autonomy and development space, but this could be achieved within the context of an effective review process.
For instance, the review could assess the aggregate effect of national contributions from developed and developing countries rather than assessing the individual effect of each national contribution. The review process could also be designed around a framework that could be multilaterally applied to developed countries and self-applied by developing countries.
India will need to engage constructively and carefully on these issues in the months to come to craft an effective, equitable agreement. Failing to do so will leave it vulnerable not just to climate change but also to being marginalised from the final deal in Paris.
The writer is professor, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi
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