Climate justice and the Paris conference

No issues have divided and united humankind more than injustice and justice have. Our differences and unities over them have led to the construction of identities, the creation of art, the birth of nations, social reform, Socratic debates, wars, literature, labour movements, and poetry. But justice and injustice are malleable concepts. We may be united in our abilities to sense injustice, but are easily divided over what constitutes injustice, and more so over how to provide justice.

Over the next six weeks, the idea of justice will manifest itself in the realm of international negotiations, when the global community meets in Paris at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP-21) and negotiates an agreement on climate change. The objective of this agreement would be to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to limit temperature increase from pre-Industrialised era (around the year 1850) to 2 degrees Celsius. The incidence of this responsibility, however, will not be equal. This is because there is recognition that those responsible for the largest quantum of emissions are not necessarily the ones who suffer most from a changing climate, and are often better placed to deal with its consequences.

In a period of global economic slowdown, an international treaty that would curb economic activity or impose costs in the form of mandated efficiency improvements will prove to be arduous if not impossible. Especially so if such a treaty leads to a sense of the infringement of the sovereignty of unwilling nations. Therefore, in order to facilitate a global agreement, the approach to COP-21 has been to let individual countries provide something called 'Internally Determined National Contributions' (INDC) to curb GHG emissions. These INDCs are voluntary pledges that governments have independently decided towards the larger goal of limiting global temperature increases.

In true 'Indian wedding' fashion, the Indian government submitted its INDC document a day after the already delayed date of submission. This delay aside, India’s INDCs are ambitious, with a goal to reduce the emissions intensity of the GDP (i.e. energy required to produce one unit of GDP) by 33%-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to have non-fossil fuel sources contribute to 40% of India's electricity supply by 2030, conditional upon technology transfer and financial help from the developed nations. Further, India would create a 'carbon sink' through additional forest and tree cover.

Importantly, the subtitle of India's INDC document is 'Working Towards Climate Justice', which is an idea not referred to at all in the INDCs of most other countries, notably United States, European Union and Japan (and China mentions it only once). This is not to say that other countries do not recognise the climate justice angle as described by the 'Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities' principle. Here, 'differentiated responsibilities' refers to the contribution to the climate change problem, while 'respective capability' refers to national capacities to deal with climate vulnerability. There is also a dimension of 'national circumstances', which accounts for economic and other inequalities, war and availability of resources in countries, which are all unequally distributed. Aspects of climate justice also include asymmetrical impacts on the marginalised and the poor within nations; and intergenerational injustices, where the unsustainable consumption by older generations imposes costs on later generations.

The acceptance of varying focus on climate justice by different countries is a reflection of the stances that each nation wishes to take and the expectation it has of other countries to act. India's focus on climate justice is based its vulnerability to climate change complemented by its low per capita energy consumption and low per capita emissions. The scenarios seem strikingly different when aggregate numbers are compared to per capita numbers.

The energy sector in India contributes to over 70% of CO2 emissions. India is the world’s fourth largest consumer of fossil fuels after China, the United States and Russia. India's per capita consumption of fossil fuels, however, is only 0.5 toe (tonnes of oil equivalent), compared to 1.9 toe of China, 6.2 toe of the United States and 4.2 toe of Russia. In fact, India's global rank falls to 62 when per capita numbers are considered, below Vietnam, Iran and Egypt.

When it comes to GHG emissions, annual figures are meaningless as CO2 emissions accumulate over time. Therefore, historical emissions are the relevant statistic to be considered. When aggregate CO2 emissions (from fossil fuels as well as cement production) since 1970 are considered, India is ranked 6th. However, if greenhouse gas emissions as a whole from the year 1850 (when industrialization was well on its way) are considered, India's global rank drops below 100.

In the coming years, India's energy demand will rise in the coming years as over 300 million Indians still do not have access to electricity in India and 380 million do not have access to modern cooking fuels such as LPG. Energy consumption will also increase as the economy grows (India's per capita income is a tenth as much as that of the United States on purchasing parity terms and less than half as much as China's).

On the other hand, in spite of larger historic responsibility, greater capacity to undertake decarbonisation, and existing high standards of living, industrialised nations have not submitted ambitious enough INDCs. Issues such as finance, technology transfer and carbon taxes have also not been appropriately addressed.

The vulnerability of fragile countries to climate change, however, necessitates bold measures, especially by nations that have the capacity to do so. Together, the global community will have to challenge itself to ambitious emission cuts if it is to curb temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius. Currently, the fear among observers is that the planned emission reduction pathways will overshoot this limit, the fallout of which would be shared unequally by the global community.