By Dinesh C Sharma

The Paris round of climate talks has begun with high expectations and hope of a workable deal. For the first time in more than two decades of climate negotiations, we have a situation in which a bulk of member countries accounting for 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions have put on table their national plans to reduce emissions, in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs. These are mere voluntary pledges. Hard negotiations are still going to be about a legally binding treaty on emission reduction. And when comes to legally binding obligations, traditional fault lines have resurfaced although with a difference.

On Monday, India made its position amply clear that while it wants a deal at Paris it should be one that “restores balance between ecology and economy” and is based on the principles of justice and equity. “The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities should be the bedrock of our collective enterprise. Anything else would be morally wrong,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasised in an opinion piece published in The Financial Times.

This unequivocal reiteration of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” (CBDR), which is the guiding principle of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), sets at rest speculation about India’s stand. Equity has been the main theme of India’s position in climate talks all these years, and as the prime minister has stated, it is not going to compromise on it. Modi’s statement dashes hopes of some that India might somewhat be flexible or pragmatic on this issue under him.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French President Francois Hollande at the Paris climate change summit. @MEAIndiaPrime Minister Narendra Modi with French President Francois Hollande at the Paris climate change summit. @MEAIndia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French President Francois Hollande at the Paris climate change summit. @MEAIndia

The developed world, led by America and the European Union, has consistently opposed any climate deal that is based on CBDR principle. They advocate a treaty that puts equal obligations on all countries, irrespective of their historical emissions or their present state of development. Of late, there are indications that China, which has become leading carbon emitter now, too is veering around this view. If this is so, then China will be on the side of the US and EU at Paris, breaking away from the BASIC grouping of emerging economies. In case it happens, it will be a tectonic shift in climate diplomacy and may put India in a tight spot. It may be interesting to note that BASIC had emerged as a byproduct of climate talks.

By invoking the principle of CBDR, India is certainly not shirking its responsibility of initiating steps to reduce emissions and take low-carbon trajectory. India has pledged to reduce emission intensity of its GDP by at least 33 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 level and to planning generate 40 per cent of power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, besides a slew of other measures. But it is not in a position to reduce dependence on coal to produce thermal power for some time. All that India is arguing is that industrially developed countries should shoulder greater responsibility because they have historically emitted more and that developing countries should be allowed to emit more carbon as they grow.

Taking on Western critics, who argue that advanced countries powered their way to prosperity on fossil fuel when the world was unaware of its impact and since alternative energy sources are available developing countries should bear the same responsibility as the rich, Prime Minister Modi has observed that “new awareness should lead advanced countries to assume more responsibility. Just because technology exists does not mean it is affordable and accessible.” Access to technology and availability of additional finance to least developed and developing countries have been hanging fire for a long time now. Practically no money has flowed into green funds established to help developing countries.

Modi has also hit on the Western world where it hurts the most: consumptive lifestyles. “The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder,” he says. India still has 300 million people without access to modern sources of energy.

The equity argument should be seen in the light of the fact that the planet has a finite carbon budget if it wants to stay below 2 degree temperature rise by 2100 to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change. This estimate has been at 2900 billion tonne of carbon dioxide from all sources from the dawn of industrial revolution till the year 2100.

By 2011, the world had already emitted 1,900 billion tonnes of this budget, leaving only 1,000 billion tonnes to be used between now and 2100. North America, Europe and Russia together have emitted 50 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution. In comparison, China has emitted 10.7 percent and India 2.8 percent though both of them today are among the top five emitters. If the rich continue with current level of emissions, then there will be hardly any carbon space left for those on the lower end of the development ladder.

Paris will be a test of how much carbon space the rich are willing to vacate or leave aside for others. That’s why it is often said that climate is more about economy and politics and less about ecology.

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Modi sets stern tone at Paris climate change summit, calls for common but differentiated responsibilities