The election of Joe Biden as U.S. President has catapulted climate change to the top of the global agenda.
Interestingly, the U.S. is not just striding back to the Obama signature achievement of the Paris Accord with its voluntary commitments but also to the Bush days [which was not necessarily voluntary].
This change is best evidenced by the presidential call to reconvene the Major Economies Forum (MEF).
The MEF, which was first convened in March 2009, originated in the Bush-era U.S. efforts to rope in major emitters. It was also to push a way forward on climate change without heed to the principle of differentiated responsibilities and recognition of historical responsibilities.
These two are hallowed principles of the climate discourse given the decades of staying power of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.
Implications for India
All countries have been told to commit to net zero (GHG emissions) by 2050 with credible plans to ensure meeting this domestic target.
Taking a cue from the new U.S. Administration, the UN Secretary-General has even called on countries to declare national climate emergencies apart from building a coalition for a carbon-neutral world by 2050.
As of today, countries representing around 65% of global CO2 emissions have already agreed to this.
These plans and their implementation will, undoubtedly, be subject to international reviews and verification. Historical responsibilities and differentiation have no place in this discourse; but neither does the level of development.
India can easily be in the crosshairs of such a discourse no matter its extraordinarily small carbon footprint in per-capita terms and huge development imperatives.
Carbon border levies
Adding to the challenges is the distinct possibility of the EU imposing carbon border levies on those who do not take on high carbon cut-down targets and do so unilaterally if there is no global agreement.
While as of now the U.S. Administration appears ambivalent on these border levies, the possibility of their coming around cannot be ruled out.
In such a scenario, World Trade Organization rules that presently exclude the use of tariffs on environmental grounds will certainly get modified.
Proposal for a global fund:
To deal with the issue of climate finance, Raghuram Rajan has recently put forward a proposal for India to consider. The proposal calls on countries to pay into a global fund amounts based on their carbon emissions over and above the global per-capita average of five tons.
This obviously disincentives coal in a big way while incentivising renewables.
Those above the global average would pay, while those below would receive the monies.
While this would suggest a certain equity, it may be unacceptable to the developed countries even though Mr. Rajan has gone along with the drumbeat to forget historical responsibility.
For India, such a proposal may appear attractive as India today has per capita CO2 emission of only 2 tons and is a global record setter in pushing renewables.
The long-term implications of such a proposal require examination in detail, quite apart from factoring in the twists and turns that negotiations could give to such an idea.
And then, of course, there are alternatives such as emission trading.
Implications for developing countries
The proposal of fund pay-in allows practical considerations to trump fairness by not only giving a short shrift to historical responsibility but also denying priority access to the remaining carbon space for developing countries.
In that sense, it double penalises them while giving developed countries a certain free pass.
Here it bears noting that more than 75% of the carbon space available to humankind to keep global temperature rises to 1.5° C has already been taken up by the developed world and China.
Climate justice is an imperative for India, which needs to leverage its green and pro-nature commitment to ensure carbon and policy space for its developmental and global aspirations. India’s diplomatic and negotiating efforts must be quickly geared to that end.