Why Do Climate Change Talks Fail?

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson with Indian counterpart Narendra MOdi attend the World Leaders’ Summit “Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment”, during the CoP26 in Glasgow on November 2, 2021. | Photo Credit: Jeff J Mitchell

By Shafi Lone

LEADERS from across the world have gathered at the Scottish city of Glasgow to discuss the climate change emergency. At COP26, world leaders dialed up doomsday warnings and sought out mechanisms, and pledged to keep the global rise of temperature well below 1.5 degree Celsius. Conference of Parties is the apex decision-making body under the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change, that meets every year to review the implementation of the convention and take decisions in the direction of stabilization of greenhouse gases.

This year's COP is particularly important as it comes in the backdrop of IPCC'S report, dubbed by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres as 'code red' for humanity. The report pointed towards the climate change emergency and concluded that more emission cuts are needed to hold back temperature rise to target, as set out at the Paris climate agreement.

Climate change negotiations have been going on since 1994, when UNFCC was formed under the RIO convention. However, nothing substantial has come out of these negotiations. The failure of climate change talks is attributed by experts, primarily to not basing these negotiations on the principle of equity. The principle of equity is fundamental in climate governance as it emphasizes the distribution of cost and benefits evenly between states. The fact that the developing world appropriates less atmospheric space and bore disproportionate climate costs makes it all-important to make equity an underlying principle of climate negotiations.

The concept of equity aims to achieve fairness and balance in access to environmental resources, in bearing environmental burdens, and in participating in environmental decision-making. The principle of equity demands that historical polluters must be first to achieve carbon-neutrality and to operationalize green climate funds set up in 2010 to make available $100 billion for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate risks.

The data analyzed by CSE, Delhi shows that between 1860-1989, seven historical polluters, the US, UK, EU-27, Canada, Russia, Australia, and Japan, contributed 70% to total carbon dioxide emissions. At present, China, the EU, and the US emit 50% of total emissions, while India and Africa combined emit 10% but make up 17% of the global population. Moreover, the per capita carbon emissions are disproportionately higher for developed countries. For instance, emissions emitted by one person in the United States are equivalent to emissions emitted by 108 persons in Ethiopia. Hence, environmental justice can be ensured only by making the principle of equity fundamental to climate governance.

The imperative of equity is required for bold and urgent action on climate change for many reasons. The residence time of Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand years. The residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 100 years, while that of SF6 is about 3200 years. Because many greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for long after being released, their warming effects on climate persist over a long time and can therefore affect both present and future generations. Thus, emphasizing only upon present emissions and not taking responsibility for past emissions is a negation of the principle of distributional justice.

Carbon dioxide emissions are linked to economic growth. The developed world has appropriated the past and grown by employing carbon-intensive fuels and technologies. The economic growth and development, as seen in the developed world, have been the product of the unsustainable use of natural resources. The industrial revolution and subsequent technological advancement led to the carbonization of economies. It becomes imperative for the developed world to not only de-carbonize their economies and move towards green and clean energy options but also help emerging worlds to make the low-carbon transition by making capital and technology available to them.

Since the emerging world has been historically deprived of its share in growth and prosperity, these countries were either colonized and exploited or were not able to harness the benefits on account of technological backwardness. The lack of capital coupled with technological backwardness didn't allow third-world countries to grow despite abundant resources. The lack of growth translated into deprived conditions of people, overburdened health and educational infrastructure, and a poverty-stricken population. The principle of justice demands that space be provided to these countries to grow to achieve better living standards and alleviate the sufferings of people living in third-world countries.

Paris agreement, although touted as a major milestone in climate negotiations, has in fact, weakened the principle of equity. It sought to rewrite the 1992 framework convention on climate change by not mentioning the historical responsibility of countries towards climate catastrophe. The parties to the Paris Agreement agreed that all countries would act to reduce emissions, not based on their contribution to the stock of emissions but do as best as they can. The parties are supposed to submit nationally determined contributions, which would contain measures and strategies to cut down emissions. Thus, by rewriting the 1992 convention, leaders agreed that there would be no mention of the historical responsibility of countries and that climate justice would be a postscript.

IPCC has made it clear that we are about to exhaust the carbon budget; only 400Gtonnes is left for the world to stay below 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

However, the pace with which economies are driven by fossil fuels, the report estimates that we are going to exhaust our carbon budget in a decade or even earlier. The world has run out of time and carbon budget, but the vast number still need the energy to grow. The past has been appropriated and gobbled up; millions cannot be told that there is no space for them to grow. As they develop as they must, they will add to emissions and will add to our jeopardy. These countries need huge augmented funds and technology to build low-carbon economies.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is an alumnus of University of Delhi 

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