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‘Climate Technology is a Public Good, it Can’t be Driven by Market Principles Entirely’

‘Climate Technology is a Public Good, it Can’t be Driven by Market Principles Entirely’

A plenary at at the ongoing COP21. Credit: ConexionCOP/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities must be retained in the final outcome document of COP21, in whatever form it may be done: Shyam Saran

A plenary at at the ongoing COP21. Credit: ConexionCOP/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
A plenary at at the ongoing COP21. Credit: ConexionCOP/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Former chief climate change negotiator Shyam Saran speaks to M.K. Venu on RSTV and explains why the ongoing talks at Paris could yet again produce a stalemate on several critical questions relating to climate action. From his own experience as a negotiator he examines why the West is often unable to break out of past moulds and ends up blaming the developing world for not sharing adequate responsibility for collective action. In actual fact, says Saran, it is the West which falls short of fulfilling its share of responsibility.

Q: Do you think the current climate change negotiations at Paris will not have any substantive outcome and may end up pretty much like Copenhagen talks in 2009. You were India’s chief negotiator then and the West had tried to dub India as a spoiler. There is a feeling a similar attempt may be made this time round.

A: It won’t be a repeat of Copenhagen. My sense is in spite of all the complexities involved in the climate negotiations we may get a deal this time, mainly because the bar has been set quite low. As you know after all these years we have finally acquiesced to what the United States has always wanted — a pledge and review system in which pledges are made voluntarily and are subjected to some kind of periodic review internationally without any of it being legally binding. As far as pledges go, all countries have put forward their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). In Paris some decisions will be taken on how these voluntary pledges are to be reviewed , the process of doing it etc. I do not see that as a problem. However, I want to draw attention to the fact that while we were working on a voluntary pledge system, suddenly we are also being told by the West that there should be some legally binding outcome too. Now how does this square with a system of voluntary pledge is what I cannot understand.

So are you saying we must avoid a legally binding agreement at all costs?

No I am not saying we should avoid a legally binding agreement. I want to understand on what terms are we to look at a legally binding outcome if such a situation arises. From what it appears now, the Europeans want commitments made by nations to be legally binding and also want a strict compliance procedure. I don’t think they will get this because the US will not agree to this. The United States is willing to say that countries which make pledges must be subjected to a periodic international review. They may even raise the level of their ambitions midway depending on what science of climate change dictates. So the key issue is what will be nature of the legally binding or non-legally binding document that may emerge from the Paris conference.

My only worry is if there is to be a legally binding document how will it relate to the existing climate change treaty.

You are asking whether any new binding agreement will conform to the existing UNFCC framework, which is built on certain key principles?

Yes. We already have a climate change treaty under the UNFCC which has certain principles and provisions. If you have a new climate change treaty, then for future actions this will become the new template. If this happens the UNFCC recedes into the background.

Is that the danger you are cautioning against?

Certainly there is a danger in respect of what new legal principles are incorporated in a fresh treaty. We should be a bit careful here because we do not know whether the new treaty will carry the principle of equity which is fundamental to the UNFCC framework.

You mean the principle of common but differentiated responsibility between the developing and developed nations.

Yes, precisely. In the UNFCC the developing countries have certain entitlements in terms of finance and technologies. Will those entitlements be converted into obligations for the developed countries in a new treaty? This is a key question.

The Union Environment Minister whom I interviewed on the eve of his departure for the Paris negotiations told me he was surprised that the US was making negative comments about India’s continued dependence on coal based energy for future, inspite of a voluntary commitment by India that 40% of its energy basket would non-fossil fuel driven by 2030. What do you read into this? Is the US pressuring India on something?

As negotiators we should be clear that a lot of pressure will be brought upon India and other countries in order to press them to be more aligned to the western position. I take that as a given. They will use mass media. They will use statements like John Kerry made. That doesn’t worry me much as long as we don’t get spooked by that. We must clearly determine what our interests are go by that instead of worrying about what John Kerry or someone else is saying.

As far as the Paris negotiations are concerned I must mention two or three things. One is whether there will be a new legally binding agreement which will set the template for all future actions, say until 2030. Therefore we must not sign on something that will constrict our future development space. As regards the use of coal we must ensure that India’s ability to use coal based power is not compromised for the foreseeable future because alternatives available to us are very few. Even if there are alternatives, they are very costly. The world is not taking note of the fact that even though we are a large user of coal we have actually put a tax on coal. The tax on coal has been progressively increasing and it is Rs.200 per tonne now. That is 10% of the cost of coal. This is being used to fund renewable and clean energy. Very few countries have taken important initiatives like this. We also have a clean coal mission where we are working on technologies which will increase the efficiency of coal burning and lower emissions, what is known as the ultra super critical technology. 2017 onwards we will not make any subcritical thermal based coal power plant. So we are doing a great deal.

You are saying we have a clear path for moving away from extracting dirty energy from coal.

Exactly, and the developed world must acknowledge this. We are doing better than some of the western countries in respect of action on coal based power. Today the US produces much more coal based power than India. And the reason it has been able to reduce its coal emissions is not because of any special effort but by simply moving to shale gas following the shale revolution there. Please don’t forget in the case of shale the US is moving from one fossil fuel to another one. In India’s case the effort is to move from fossil fuel to non-fossil fuels. I don’t think the others are fully appreciating the efforts by India on climate change action. And then to turn around and say India is not pulling its weight or India is not stepping upto the plate is completely misplaced.

Lets us focus more sharply on the equity principle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his brief initial address at the Paris conference that the use and deployment of future green technologies should be driven by public purpose and not market incentive. Which essentially means such technologies aimed at saving the earth must be shared at the lowest possible costs. Are you hopeful this will happen?

I am happy the Prime Minister stressed the aspect of the collaborative nature of developing such technologies rather than treat them as just market opportunities. This is a global emergency which requires that we set aside market principles and treat such critical technologies as global public goods. In line with this, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities must be retained in the final outcome document in whatever form it may be done. This is absolutely fundamental. What we are saying is even though you have created this problem, the responsibility to fix this is a collective one. But that collective responsibility can only be on the basis of equitable burden sharing.

What is not acceptable is that the developed countries shift their much larger share of responsibility to the developing world. So what we spoke about coal is a classic example. If you want me to get away from coal you must enable me to do that as per the equity principle. If I am to do more than my share of responsibility then you must support me with technology and finance on easy terms. That is all we are saying. If we are facing a global emergency, if we are at a tipping point as the French President put it so eloquently, then how can you argue that the intellectual property relating to climate technology is sacrosanct and therefore is not to be touched. Some adjustment on the principle of protecting IPRs is therefore needed. The PM’s initiative on an international solar alliance is about treating technology as public goods. How do nations bring their best minds and own resources together to ensure that solar energy become a mainstream source of energy from being a supplemental source today.

Is there a possibility that public purpose and market incentive work together and neither is compromised. For instance reasonable royalties for new technologies developed by the private sector could be paid out of the global climate fund.

We had made this very suggestion at the Copenhagen summit. That we can use the UNFCC led climate fund to buy or lease climate friendly technologies, charge countries according to their ability to pay for these technologies. Don’t charge the Least Developed Countries at all. This proposal was made in the past when I was a negotiator but the developed countries have not positively responded, because the developed world continues to see this as a market opportunity for their companies. In a sense, you are trying to profit from a global emergency. You cannot say this is an extraordinary challenge to humanity and the response to it is a market response. Market response cannot be the entire solution. Why can’t an international mechanism be created to reward proprietary technologies? We have adopted collaborative methods in the past to deal with such problems. After all the Montreal Protocol was one such mechanism used to deal with the depletion of the Ozone layer.

You were the chief negotiator at the Copenhagen climate talks. Why do you think the western negotiators keep harping on market-based solutions even for technologies aimed at dealing with global emergencies like climate change. Is there undue pressure from the global MNCs which the political class is unable to deal with in the West.

Partly, it must be that kind of pressure. Partly it is also the ideological principle governing intellectual property. You see the same happening with the pharmaceutical industry. We have faced pressures from the gobal pharma industry. My sense is after the global financial crises the western nations seem to be under a sense of siege because of their continuing economic decline and there is a growing feeling they may become uncompetitive vis a vis some of the bigger developing economies.

In this atmosphere it is easy to see the kind of resistance that comes in regard to sharing intellectual property as public goods. In this situation there is also resistance to contribute big sums for a climate fund. The $100 billion annual fund which was supposed to kick off from 2020 has hardly materialised so far. After the global financial crises the willingness to put together such a fund has shrunk even more.

You think some new ideas can take shape such as putting a small cess on global GDP (over $80 trillion) which will obviously be contributed as per the GDP weightage of each country.

Various such ideas have been put forward in the past. The French have suggested a special carbon tax. The key question is — are most countries willing to accept such new ideas. Again the question of equity would arise. Who will pay what? Are those who have more willing to pay more? We are essentially back to the same question.

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