Climate Action and the North–South Divide: An Assessment of COP23



At COP23 in Bonn, notwithstanding the United States’ announcement of its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the developed countries remained united in diluting or reneging on their commitments to developing countries, particularly on the issues of finance, and loss and damage. In a concerted pushback, the latter obtained a few important procedural gains, including bringing back to the negotiations the issue of equityin the implementation ofthe agreement.

Published in Economic and Political Weekly, 23rd Dec., 2017, vol. 52, Issue no. 51.


Following the general celebration that attended the signing of the Paris Agreement, the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Marrakech in November 2016 was already something of a let-down, coinciding with the election of Donald Trump, the arch proponent of climate inaction, to the presidency ofthe United States (US). A year later, with the expected announcement of the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement having come true, COP23 (Bonn, Germany, 6–17 November 2017) began with two interrelated issues being of keen interest. One was what the attitude of the US would be in the negotiations, since, by the terms of the Paris Agreement, it would be three years before their withdrawal would take effect. The second was the progress that would be made towards the implementation of the Paris Agreement under the circumstances and who would be, as the global media would have it, the “climate leader” in the event of the withdrawal of the US.

If one were to go by the statements of the heads of state of the Group of Seven (G7) following the announcement of the withdrawal of the US, or the general buzz of the global and Indian media, COP23 was to affirm that the “leadership” of the US would be replaced by that of the European Union and other developed nations. Further, with this leadership—and with the cooperation of China, India and other countries, of course—matters would proceed forward smoothly with the Paris Agreement.

COP23 produced quite a different reading of the current state of play in global climate action, at least for those who are willing to look beyond the minutiae of the negotiations and the ebb and flow of tactical skirmishes over wordsmithing of various intermediate negotiating texts. For one, the US remained an active player, if not always visibly so, in the negotiations. And, far from being a question of anointing the next “climate leader,” what emerged instead was a continuing, active collaboration of the US and other developed countries—collectively known as the Annex-I parties—in the climate arena. Second, the issues related to the implementation of the Paris Agreement brought into the open again the well-known divides between the developed and developing nations on a whole range of questions. But, while correctly noting the essential continuity between the pre-Paris and post-Paris contexts that these two readings signify, it is also important to see the manner in which the Paris Agreement is emerging as the marker of a strategic shift in the balance between developed and developing countries.

Pre-2020 Commitments

Fiji was the political host of COP23—though the summit was held in Bonn with the support of the German government—raising expectations that, with a major vulnerable nation in the presidency, there would be some opportunity to push the agenda in the favour of vulnerable, developing nations. The first, somewhat shocking, development was the eagerness of the presidency to accommodate the developed countries by keeping the question of pre-2020 mitigation commitments under the second period of the Kyoto Protocol entirely off the agenda.

In the run-up to the Paris Agreement, it had been agreed that the developed countries would also commit to the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, a commitment officially made through the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. This commitment was meant to enhance the climate action efforts of the developed countries prior to 2020, which is the year for the commencement of climate action under the Paris Agreement. However, developed countries have been delaying the ratification of the Doha Amendment. This keenness to downgrade and sideline what remains of the Kyoto Protocol is clearly founded on the desire of the developed countries to progressively undo the differentiation between them and the developing nations, differentiation that is firmly written into the protocol. This is unlike the Paris Agreement, where differentiation has been markedly diluted.

Given that the Kyoto Protocol has only two years left to run its course, theimpact of the Doha Amendment on the climate action by the developed countries is likely to be meagre. But, its significance in terms of enhancing trust—that developed countries will act in good faith—far outweighs its practical consequences. Abandoning the pre-2020 commitments also amounts to a gross attempt at increasing the burden of climate action on developing countries by collapsing the time frame of different sequences of actions, when pre-2020 commitments ought to precede the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Despite spirited protest at the opening plenary session by many developing countries led by India and China, an obdurate Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, in the chair despatched the issue to consultations. Eventually, in a concerted fightback by the Group of 77 (G77) plus the China grouping (representing the majority of developing nations), the matter was not only brought back to the agenda, but has been given the centre stage in the negotiations until 2020.

Loss and Damage Sidelined

In contrast to the pre-2020 commitment issue, where the developing countries appear to have recovered lost ground, the inconclusive results of the negotiations on the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage were a serious disappointment to developing countries. That an island nation greatly vulnerable to the impact of climate change was in the presidency at COP23 seemed to have little impact on the tenor of the negotiations itself. There was little that was forthcoming by way of the concrete “action and support” that the developed countries are to provide under the Paris Agreement for loss and damage dueto climate change and climate-extreme events. Even in purely procedural terms, the discussions on loss and damage are not even guaranteed to be a permanent part of the agenda of future COP meetings.

It is clear that this is a consequence of strategic compromise by the developing countries, accepting the absence of any linkage of loss and damage to liability and compensation on the part of the developed countries that have been and continue to be responsible for far more than their fair share of greenhouse gas emissions. While the disavowal of any explicit linkage of this kind was hailed as a pragmatic move to ensure that the US and other developed nations would contribute voluntarily to “action and support,” this is turning out in practice to be a loss of leverage for the developing countries, especially the most vulnerable island nations.

Return of Equity to the Agenda

Much of COP23 was devoted to moving ahead in a series of consultations and negotiations on various aspects of implementing the Paris Agreement, drawing up the “rulebook,” so to speak, for itsimplementation. What was striking about these discussions was the general air of active coordination and collaboration between the US and the other developed countries. Despite the political rhetoric outside the summit that claimed that the Group of Eight (G8) minus the US would be the new “climate leaders,” the developed countries presented a united front at the negotiations. Whatever their differences, these were clearly secondary to the divides that marked the rift between the global North and the global South.

Partly as a consequence of this pressure, the developing countries were closing ranks. Especially since Durban in 2011 and as was amply evident at Paris, in critical situations at the negotiations, the developed countries do manage to strike a coalition with a large number of developing ones, typically coming together to argue for the setting aside of development considerations for the pursuit of tougher climate goals. Unsurprisingly, such coalitions tend to be directed at India and China, with even South Africa and Brazil joining them in crunch situations. Such a coalition may still come into being in the coming years as the deadline of 2020 nears.

But, in the interim, at Bonn, the consolidation of G77 plus China produced some welcome developments. A striking one was the return of the equity issue to a significant role in the negotiations. In the Paris Agreement, equity finds explicit mention as the basis of the so-called “global stocktake” that would initiate a review of the implementation of the Paris Agreement in 2023. In the discussion of how equity is to be brought in, the G77 plus China, for the first time, made a specific submission to the discussion on this question. This is a significant advance, even if in procedural terms, though this latter aspect equally makes the advance somewhat fragile. Other countries and groupings, including India and the Africa Group, have also made their own submissions. This is clearly a welcome development, but whether India has the capacity to capitalise on this advance, on an issue of utmost significance for its future, remains to be seen.

Developing countries also made some other procedural gains. One significant gain was on the issue of the modalities of reporting on financial assistance, from public funds, to be provided by the developed countries under the terms of the Paris Agreement. In the face of the obduracy of the developed countries, the Africa Group, led by South Africa, responded by digging in its heels in the closing days of the summit and refused to allow the final plenary session of the implementation discussions to conclude until its concerns had been dealt with.

They were successful, with the support of the entire G77 grouping, in obtaining a procedural guarantee that the subject would remain on the agenda and the outcome of the discussions would bereported back to COP24 next year. However, this procedural outcome should not obscure the fact that this is one success in a mixed bag of ups and downs across a number of negotiating tracks that revolve around the issue of finance. And, it should be remembered that, as things stand today, neither the pre-2020 commitments on finance nor the promise to ramp up climate finance to the figure of $100 billion is anywhere near being adequately addressed. Finance is also one of the key issues that the US, under Trump, has squarely in its sights.

Privatising Climate Action?

But, the far more significant message from Bonn is that a comprehensive attempt to rewrite the terms of global climate governance is under way. This new trend—if it intensifies as indeed indications are that it will—would devalue the negotiations and the role of nation states considerably and increasingly would hand over the reins of climate action to the likes of global and domestic corporates, philanthropy-funded international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and their domestic counterparts, and fragmented local action driven by regional and local governments.

The trend, in fact, was heralded by the Paris Agreement itself, even if this was not realised by many at the time of its signature, and was in fact one of the key elements of the Barack Obama administration’s climate strategy. Speaking at COP22 a year ago, John Kerry, the outgoing US Secretary of State at the time, had argued that the main intent of the Paris Agreement was not to have a treaty that was adequate in terms of mitigation targets or overall climate action. As he had remarked,

None of us pretended that in Paris, the agreement itself was going to achieve two degrees. What we knew is we were sending that critical message to the marketplace, and businesses have responded, as I just described. Most businesspeople have come to understand: investing in clean energy simply makes good economic sense. You can make money. You can do good and do well at the same time.

At COP23, while the official US delegation kept a low profile, without an official US pavilion for the first time, another unofficial coalition named “We Are Still In” claimed that it was the “real” US representative. Led by California governor Jerry Brown (a Democrat) and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (now anointed as the United Nations Secretary-General Special Envoy forCities and Climate Change), with the participation of more than 2,500 business and political leaders, the coalition argued vehemently that non-state action in the US would be sufficient for the US to achieve its Paris targets.

The coalition and its inauguration have received full-throated publicity on the website of the UNFCCC, though one doubts whether the achievements of developing countries have ever received anywhere near such fulsome praise and acknowledgement. Superficially, it may appear that such coalitions by “non-Party” groupings make a positive contribution to global climate action, and indeed in a number of contexts one may consider it as such, especially when it involves movements, representative local self-government bodies in developing countries, and so on.

But, the matter is considerably more serious when such action, led by coalitions of major business conglomerates and international NGOs, is given anincreasingly and strategically significant role in the negotiations. Such coalitions, with funds that dwarf the meagre resources of a large number of developing nations (remember Thomas Piketty?), are capable of commandeering and directing the public debate and the course of public action in a manner conducive to their own self-interests. Significantly, the commitments made by such actors have no legal standing and there is no way that they can be held accountable except in purely moral terms.

In the negotiations, developing countries have always insisted on public action and accountability through state actors, especially in the arena of finance, wherein developed countries have sought to argue that private funds are fungible with public funds in terms of accounting for their financial support. Given this, it is indeed disturbing that the UNFCCC website on its pages gives ready publicity particularly to the promises and commitments of private global business actors, even when, as in insurance or banking, such commitments may be part of their regular for-profit activity.

Media commentators and spokespersons of various non-Party coalitionsoften referred to the two zones that the conference venue was divided into (one for the negotiations and one where all other activities were mostly located) as one where there was only talk, while the other represented “real” climate action. While superficially such remarks seem like activist sound bites, it is also apparent that such remarks can be made equally to promote non-state or non-Party actions and policies as the future in determining global climate policy, undermining the role of states and covering up for the absence of a binding nature of commitments or accountability for climate action.

The Talanoa ‘Dialogue’

A striking example of this trend is the nature of the facilitative dialogue to be conducted in 2018 under the terms of the Paris Agreement. The dialogue was to be conducted partly to ensure that the agreement entered into force at the earliest and with suitable contributions in the form of the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), namely the country pledges and commitments for climate action, including, but not solely related to, mitigation. As originally envisaged, such a dialogue is, of course, not necessary. The other part of the dialogue was to discuss further the nature of the long-term goal in terms of mitigation that was left open in the Paris Agreement.

However, the presidencies of COP22 and COP23 (Morocco and Fiji, respectively) have been positioning this dialogue as opening up a fresh discussion on thenature of the NDCs with a broad, unrestricted scope. In this dialogue, there is to be unrestricted participation and inputs accepted from all quarters, including unspecified expert institutions, local and regional consultations conducted by anyone, and so on. The conclusions of this dialogue are to be collated by the COP presidencies (COP23 and COP24) and presented at COP24 in Poland in 2018.

It is clear that such a dialogue as the basis for any negotiations is fraught with problems, open to manipulation, or could simply be overwhelmed by those who had access to substantial financial resources. But, what was most surprising in the original draft was that of the two key global events envisaged as part of this process, one was the Global Climate Action Summit, to be hosted in September, in San Francisco by Jerry Brown, while the other was a Heads of State meeting in Paris in December 2017. Convened with co-chairs, including Michael Bloomberg, the current Secretary-General of the UNFCCC, and Anand Mahindra from India, this self-proclaimed “summit” is to be steered entirely by a committee made up of leaders of international NGOs and think tanks.

Why the deliberations led by such a group should have any standing was not made clear. More seriously, it appeared that the section of the political and business elite in the US that had worked hard under Obama, to ensure a climate agreement that would meet their interests, is bent on ensuring their hold on the process of implementing the Paris Agreement, despite the fact that they hold no political office. That this is more than mere speculation became evident when the Jerry Brown coalition implied in remarks at Bonn that their pledges should be accorded the same status or accepted in lieu of the official commitment of the US.

It is obvious that developed countries, and the US, will not be dictated to by the doings and opinions of such self-appointed groups, nor are such groups likely to compromise the interests of the big powers and big capital. What is at stake though will be the freedom and the requisite flexibility for developing countries to pursue their own path of development within the overall constraint of limiting global warming. The pressure is sure to build on the so-called “emerging economies” to bridge the gap in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which have emerged with the US’s withdrawal announcement.

The facilitative dialogue, thus, has been considerably re-dimensioned. Now christened the Talanoa dialogue, a Fijian word denoting a traditional form of negotiations, it has currently only a largely informational input into the negotiations. The Global Climate Action Summit no longer has any role, and the problematic proposal for the participation of unspecified “expert institutions” in the dialogue has been withdrawn. But, the dialogue still has considerable potential to generate mischief and its progress over 2018 merits close attention by developing countries.

Contentious Way Ahead

The way forward then, from Bonn, isgoing to continue to be contentious. The Trump presidency is certainly going to be an active player in shaping the “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement, if not up front, then backstage. At the very least, it will make known its concerns, which will shape the attitude of the other developed countries. It bears emphasis that the scenario that will play out is likely to be similar to the one that played out with the Kyoto Protocol, with the US shaping policy due to its continuing membership of the UNFCCC, but without acceptance of any binding commitment (even if voluntarily made) on serious climate action. In this scenario, the other developed countries will also coordinate policy and actions closely with the US, even if there is some difference in rhetoric given the very different domestic pressures that operate in various countries.

It is important to track down the real essence of why this strong relationship between all developed countries continues despite their tactical differences or differences in nuance and emphasis. From the period prior to Copenhagen (COP15 in 2009), intensifying over the years, the developed countries’ agenda has focused on (i) denying, undermining and eventually setting aside differentiation; (ii) pushing the burden of climate mitigation on the large developing countries or developing regions, especially those that are in the ranks of the “emerging economies;” (iii) keeping their emission reduction commitments to a minimum, relying on future offsets under some global carbon market mechanism; (iv) putting up a strong stand to limit the claims to climate finance by the developing countries; and (v) eventually relying on markets and the private sector to take care of climateaction. Whatever be the variations in the way this basic agenda is articulated, the developed countries are united in this.

The point is that this alliance includes a wide range of ostensibly varying opinions of developed countries, ranging from Obama and Angela Merkel, to Trump and other developed country leaders with a climate denialist record. There are differences of style, but not really of substance. There may also be differences over timing, over whether markets are ready to take the burden or not, and so on. But, essentially, these differences are nowhere near as important as these areas of fundamental agreement that unite these apparently discordant voices. COP23, and the manner of its functioning, has clearly brought this to the fore.

So, it is not a Trump withdrawal that one should speak about. It is really a US withdrawal, and whatever be the rhetoric of the foreign ministers of developednations or the domestic political debate in the US, this is how we should characterise it. There is a fundamental agreement on certain key issues (and not disagreement) among the developed nations, and it is from this perspective that India should tackle the negotiations, now and in the future.

In many ways, the Paris Agreement represents a considerable strategic weakening of the developing countries’ position on climate change. Even as the window to ward off the catastrophic impacts of climate change becomes ever smaller, the developed countries are weakening their climate action and not strengthening it. Unable or unwilling to stand up to the developed countries, a number of vulnerable nations have been teaming up with the former to force the large developing countries to close the gap. COP23 at Bonn had demonstrated that the strategy of the global North has not substantially changed, even if the specifics now refer to the Paris Agreement. For countries like India, the developmental space that is available in terms of a share (a due share at least, let alone a fair share) of the global carbon budget is constantly decreasing.

In this complex, evolving scenario, it is clear that India has its task set out. It must be clear about its strategic goals and objectives in the implementation of the Paris Agreement, working out the specifics of what its need for development space (or carbon space, if you will) implies for these goals and objectives. At the same time, it needs to keep a close watch on the negotiating track, and try to align its own interventions as well as those of its allies to these strategic objectives. At COP23 in Bonn, this was chiefly articulated by the country’s negotiators. However, the requisite political thinking required for such well-crafted policymaking does not seem to be present.

Having taken a credible stance at Paris, and having negotiated fairly well, it would be a pity if at this crucial stage of deciding on the rules of implementation, especially implementation with equity, such an effort is not forthcoming soon. It is anyone’s guess whether the current dispensation in power in Delhi has the wherewithal to think through these issues at this juncture.


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