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Developed nations must deliver on climate change – The Tribune India

Bharat H Desai

Jawaharlal Nehru Chair & Professor of International Law, JNU

The gruelling proceedings of the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which commenced on November 6, came to an end in the early hours of November 20.

The final outcome emerged after protracted negotiations spilled over extended hours after the lapse of the official deadline of November 18. It came amid calls for “payment overdue” and witnessed sharp divisions, posturing and haggling between the rival groups of developed and developing countries. Even as the stalemate continued and thousands of assembled delegates petered out of the conference venue, UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres stepped in again on November 18 to renew his call for urgent action. “We are at a crunch time in the COP27 negotiations,” Guterres said.

The COP27 was overshadowed by grim warning signals about a planetary-scale upheaval and shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, and rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding.

“The COP was supposed to wrap up its work on November 18, but was extended by a day to attempt to take the ongoing negotiations to a logical end,” Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said. Over the years, global climate change negotiations have been marred by a lot of bickering and COP meetings provide a turf to different groups of countries, representing narrow national interests, to score points. It speaks volumes about the tragedy of the 30-year-old treaty reaching nowhere near its ultimate objective of achieving “stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere (UNFCCC, Article 2).”

The UNSG had raised the alarm about global climate emergency on June 2 at the Stockholm+50 Conference. “We face a triple planetary crisis. A climate emergency that is killing and displacing ever more people each year….We need to change course — now — and end our senseless and suicidal war against nature,” Guterres had said. The UNSG’s warning vindicated the scholarly prognosis when the UNFCCC text was adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that: “Much of the developmental process in the world today does not appear to be sustainable…the human quest to conquer nature through science and technology has brought us on to the present brink.” As underscored in 2022 ideational book Envisioning Our Environmental Future, we need to “ponder on the rapidly depleting time we have left for remedial action to safeguard our future amid warnings of impending environmental catastrophe.”

With 198 parties, the UNFCCC became one of the first treaties to designate climate change as a common concern of humankind. With subsequent two treaties, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris agreement, it now comprises three legal instruments to address the global climate problematique. The passage of three decades (1992-2022) provides a unique opportunity to look ahead for the attainment of the scientifically desired goal of 1.5 °C global warming by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report (April 2022) drew a grim scenario thus: “Net anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased since 2010 across all major sectors globally…as have cumulative net carbon dioxide emissions since 1850.”

On October 27, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report-2022 reinforced global concerns that “the international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place. Only an urgent system-wide transformation can avoid climate disaster.”

These scenarios have elevated climate challenge from a common concern to a planetary concern. However, the current regulatory approach has been afflicted by the developed countries reneging on taking an effective lead due to their historical responsibility for GHG emissions. The working narrow national interests came to the fore in the flip-flops of the largest emitter — the US — when it withdrew (2019) and rejoined (2021) the Paris Agreement. It reflects vulnerability of a treaty process. The global regulatory framework now appears floundering due to the sidetracking of the UNFCCC’s sacrosanct principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR&RC), grounding of the Kyoto Protocol applecart (Annex I legal obligations) and the trick of pushing the developing countries into undertaking the nationally determined contributions (NDC) in the Paris Agreement. The climate-change negotiations have been marred by the developed countries “backtracking on almost every commitment made by them at various Conferences of the Parties.”

The backtracking by the developed countries flies in the face of the UNFCCC’s emphatic declarative criterion that “the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” It is a sine qua non for the UNFCCC objectives. The original legal basis requires affixing a criterion and a verifying mechanism for the developed countries “to take the lead”. Full compliance with the commitments by the developed countries under Article 4 (2) (a) and (b) remains in limbo.

As the COP27 outcome shows, the words and actions of the leading GHG emitter — the developed countries — leave little prospects for a decisive course correction in the near future. As a result, the developing countries may soon realise the futility of undertaking NDCs without the developed countries carrying out their part of the legal commitments — the cornerstone of the climate change regulatory juggernaut.

Having laid the foundation of the global climate change regulation in 1988, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has played the role of the conductor of a grand orchestra. It is high time the UNGA rises to the occasion to normatively place climate-change regulation on the high pedestal of a planetary concern. It needs to adopt an appropriate resolution to provide future direction to the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement. As we look ahead, the trajectory of the climate change regulatory process remains uncertain. It presents an ideational challenge for international scholars, the UNGA and the UNFCCC to earnestly make it work. 

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