The Donald Trump-led American withdrawal from the Paris climate change negotiations in the hope of a different rhetoric is a serious step undermining what was already a weak international cooperation over a critical global issue. The Paris Agreement has inherited the weaknesses of its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, and President Trump has, in his own inimical style, brought out the elephant in the room. Hopefully, such high institutional and political friction would result in a favourable shift in climate change policy, nationally and internationally.
It is alleged that the risk of the irreparable global warming was known to a few stakeholders as early as in the 1970s. After 20 years, all governments came together to form the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) to understand the exact science behind the phenomenon and to take appropriate actions to mitigate such risks. This was a big achievement at that time, considering the usual pace of such political recourse.
Over the years, UNFCCC, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paved way for dedicated scientific research and political brainstorming and alignment of all global stakeholders. As a result of intense deliberation, a promising and innovative global treaty was signed among all major countries with a mandate to reduce GHG emissions.
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However, the euphoria was short lived and global leaders could not provide the world with an apt successor to Kyoto, which expired in 2012. It is interesting that, around the same time, the Montreal Protocol was also adopted to tackle the threat of ozone layer depletion—it has produced excellent results in a very short time with cooperation from all the countries. Now, we need to revisit Montreal and Kyoto to understand why the Paris Agreement is unable to generate confidence and consensus.
The Montreal Protocol had started in the same environment of scepticism as the climate change negotiations of Kyoto and Paris. The world identified the danger of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in 1973 and formulated the Montreal Protocol in 1987. But the actual science behind ozone layer depletion could only be established after eight years from the enforcement of Montreal. In fact, it took 20 years for global political leaders to form a framework convention to tackle ozone layer depletion. It is noteworthy that there was no significant initiative taken by the US during this long phase, even as it continued to lead the world in consumption of CFCs.
The major thrust to the effort for addressing the issue allegedly came from the draft report published in 1986 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which projected 40 million cases of cancer and 800,000 cancer deaths in the next 88 years due to depletion of ozone layer. The cost of banning CFCs completely was far less for the US economy than to keep on using them. Consequently, the US hegemony led the world into signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a year after the publication of the EPA report.
One then wonders why the world has dragged its feet on Kyoto and Paris climate deals. The reasons are aplenty, the major ones being:
1. The benefit-to-cost ratio for the US: Unlike the Montreal Protocol, where the benefits outweighed the cost by a factor of 170, the same doesn’t hold true for the climate change deal. In fact, the perceived benefit-to-cost ratio for implementing a climate change deal is almost nearing zero since the associated cost of compliance is comparatively high.
2. Corporate lobbying in the US: Due to the inherent nature of a purely capitalistic economy, there is a lot of influence of industrial lobbying on the course of political decision-making and regulations. Lobbying against Montreal was much less intense as it affected only CFC-consuming industries, whereas the tremors of climate change regulations would be felt by almost all energy-consuming industries. A business tycoon occupying the Oval Office has now worsened the case.
3. The declining US dominance: The decline in US dominance over the world can be felt in all the spheres, ranging from trade and commerce to defence. The world has come a long way since the Western dominance and is moving towards a strong emergence of the East. Since Trump has taken over the US, this realignment of power equations among the countries has induced a sense of insecurity, which is guiding all American policies towards fiercely protecting its leadership position.
4. Half-baked deal: If we analyse the Montreal Protocol, it laid down a clear path for a CFC-free world by a continued approach to identify and replace ozone depleting substances with non-ozone depleting ones for consumption. However, the Kyoto Protocol was unsuccessful in providing any such clear vision to reach sustainable emission levels. In addition, the duration of Kyoto (2008-12) was inadequately short to demonstrate visible and reliable benefits. This myopic formulation is affecting the Paris Agreement too, and should be corrected immediately.
5. Differentiated, equitable but undefined responsibility: Kyoto—on account of historical legacy—provided a high leverage to developing nations, while it did not articulate the legal responsibilities that they should adhere to in the future. This created an imbalance in the narrative, as economies like India and China were absolved from any amount of emissions. This finally resulted in the US not participating in the convention with decreased power and influence.
6. No deterrence: It can be argued that the major reason for the success of Montreal is the ability of the convention to create deterrence for inaction by linking it to possibility of trade sanctions and well-defined penalty clauses ($3,000/tonne of CFC). Unfortunately, the same kind of penalty mechanism could not be introduced in Kyoto due to dispersion of power between different factions. The lack of such deterrence is precisely what led an inexperienced and caustic world leader to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and before long many may follow suit.
Thus, if we must learn from history, it is clear that UNFCCC needs to develop some mechanisms to impose penalties for non-compliance and inaction on member states. The success of Montreal and the subsequent failure of Kyoto points to the institutional failures that the world should recognise sooner than later.
The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen developing nations with both financial and technological assistance to combat climate change, but only in line with their respective national agendas—which are called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This is an opportunity for India to emerge as a leader in climate risk mitigations and this was evident in the joint statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With President Trump alleging that India supports the accord in anticipation of billions of dollars, India will have to prove him wrong by installing indigenous mechanisms and policies before 2020 when the Paris Agreement comes into force.
The domestic policy climate is quite conducive for this, as we have adopted health and sanitation (Swachh Bharat) and indigenous manufacturing (Make-in-India) campaigns for aggressive growth. Sustainable development and a climate change consciousness will provide robust boundaries to such accelerated growth and a chance for India to emerge as a force to reckon with.