21 Nov 2012
Realism in the climate negotiations
2023 view(s)

What you measure determines policy

Another round of the annual climate meetings is going to take place and the most ambitious outcome will be limited negotiations on some elements, because there is as yet no shared vision of the problem and what to do about it.

The negotiations at Doha are important because they will establish a framework for the new regime through agreement on what is to be measured, because a consensus on who has to do what is more difficult. Since what is measured determines policy, this step will establish the framework for the new regime, even as negotiations continue around defining the (evolving) principles and provisions of the Convention.

Developing countries have so far been reactive rather than proactive because reporting of their national actions was being reviewed for accuracy rather than adequacy; consequently their concerns were limted to transfers of financial resources on concessional terms. Twenty years after the climate regime came into being the situation has changed in atleast three areas.

First, at Rio + 20, in June, a new paradigm has emerged where the global concern is no longer seeking just environmental protection, or ‘risk management’, but a sustainable development perspective focusing on human wellbeing within ecological limits. Developing countries should build on the hard won elements at Rio + 20 related to the importance of economic growth for eradication of poverty and energy requirement for raising standards of living to reframe the climate negotiations.

The stress will, thus, be on patterns of natural resource use and not on the status of natural resources. This provides another opportunity to focus the climate negotiations on pressures countries place on the environment in the course of raising standards of living rather than at a point in time. This implies that measuring reductions in emissions presents a limited picture, because emissions, standards of living and global ecological limits are interlinked, and cannot be addressed in isolation.

Keeping within global ecological limits is no longer guaranteed by economic wealth alone but by the ability to shape collective action through a rule based approach. The old North-South divide has also shifted to a three cornered negotiation with the formations of the Like Minded Group, which recognizes the new global power balance.  Seeking comparable standard of living for all countries along with emissions reduction is now at the centre of the negotiations.

Second, even as disagreement persists on the amount of emissions reduction that should take place in countries, the global consensus has moved away from the strict developed/developing country dichotomy in four areas - recognition of NAMAS for all countries, recognizing differences in their scope, modifying the legal differentiation in the Convention; an agreed target, or what constitutes ‘dangerous’ interference with the climate system, limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees, while also ensuring equitable access to sustainable development to all; a consensus to modify the Convention with adaptation having the same priority as mitigation; and, recognition that the way intellectual property rights have been defined needs to be reviewed to meet a new more challenging global concern. The on-going negotiations should include all four elements to maintain the balance for an equitable outcome.

Third, the most recent data from the UN shows that despite the increase in emissions in developing countries the gap in per capita emissions with developed countries has narrowed by just one-third and developed countries have not decoupled emissions from growth – aggregate GHG emissions increased 4.2 % in the period 2009-2010, and *. The major share of emissions in developing countries is from food production, while mobility (for leisure) has the largest share in emissions of developed countries, and as developing countries still have to build their infrastructure and need carbon space for it, peaking of emissions using available technologies will effectively check their growth. For example, the per capita generation of electricity in India is one-fifteenth that of the United States and worldwide more than 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity. The new regime has to provide for convergence of global living standards within global ecological limits for it to have legitimacy.

Despite these trends developed countries are seeking to shift the burden entirely onto the developing countries by pushing for a new framework that is ‘applicable to all’, where obligations could vary in the nature of stringency, without specifying why the provisions of the Convention are inadequate for such an outcome. At the same time they are stressing emissions reductions should be the common indictor, as a measure of comparability and transparency. These two elements considered along with the earlier agreement to limit increase in global temperatures to 2 degree will amount to an amendment of the Convention, as it will define the Objective of the Convention, and review adequacy of national actions of all only in terms of emissions reductions, rather than in terms of sustainable development.

The current agreement on the evolution of the Convention recognizes that eradication of poverty remains the overriding goal as long as standards of living do not converge. The unresolved issue is how to include this element, along with adaptation and technology transfer into an easily understood and measurable indicator to supplement the review of emission trends. Therefore, in addition to the inventory of emissions, methodologies need to be agreed to measure wellbeing, adaptation needs and transfers of financial resources on a grant basis over time and measurable steps in changes in the IPR regime with respect to innovative energy technologies. As countries are likely to adopt different paradigms, these qualitative assessments will also serve to disseminate information on national actions and facilitate a peer review process, meeting a gap in the current review process where there is no discussion on the pathways to a transformation to sustainable development. The adequacy of national actions would then be assessed on the basis of achieving convergence of standards of living within global ecological limits.

The way forward is to distinguish between the inventory of national emissions, a technical task, and the adequacy of national actions, which has implications for policy. The latter requires agreed criteria based on a mix of indicators, including evolution over time of per capita emissions, per capita GDP and energy intensity. On the basis of available data the global carbon budget alone adequately captures these dynamic elements of the evolving differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. A report of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, on limiting the magnitude of future climate change also concludes that the “policy goal must be stated as a quantitative limit on domestic GHG emissions over a specified time period – in other words a GHG emissions budget …… national shares of global emissions need to be agreed at the multilateral level as the basis for developing and assessing domestic strategies”. ** The United Kingdom already has legislation establishing a national carbon budget

The annual meetings of the COP would then shift their focus from ‘conference diplomacy’ to a ‘network for innovation’, and address the drivers, trends and patterns of natural resource use which are the root causes of the problem, dimensions of the energy transition, enhancing ecosystem services and modification of consumption and production patterns to understand how best to modify longer term trends in resource use. The national communications of all countries should be periodically assessed as an input into the deliberations on the scale and speed of the transformation, and this can be done within the current provisions of the Convention.


** NAS, 2010, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, The National Academies Press,Washington