India appears to be pressing the reset button on its international climate change commitments.
In a submission to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change last week, India declared it would not even consider scaling back more greenhouse gas emissions until after 2020 -- and then would do so only in exchange for Western dollars.
It's an interpretation of the Durban Platform, reached after a hard-fought battle at the U.N. negotiations in Durban, South Africa, last year, that flies in the face of how the United States and Europe view the agreement. But, many note, it's also part of a diplomatic dance countries have long engaged in -- inching forward, then backing away, before inching forward again.
"Parties understood exactly what was going on in the discussions in Durban about this new legal agreement," said Todd Stern, the United States' special envoy for climate change.
The submissions explore ways countries can cut carbon emissions beyond the pledges they made at the 2009 Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit. But they also represent the first opportunity nations have had to define how they viewed the Durban outcome.
Some, like India, Bolivia, Pakistan and Ecuador, used it to squeeze words that the United States refused to allow to appear in the Durban Platform back into the conversation. Specifically, they maintained, the concept of "common but differentiated responsibilities" remains a core principle of the climate negotiations.
That principle, which embodies the idea that wealthy countries caused climate change and are primarily responsible for curbing emissions, has come to signify a sense of fairness for developing countries. The United States believes developing countries that also are wealthy or major emitters hide behind the phrase to exempt themselves from legally binding mitigation measures.
Old bargaining positions reappear
At the United States' insistence, the Durban Platform doesn't mention the phrase. According to the U.S. interpretation, the Durban agreement calls for all major emitters to, for the first time in history, by 2020 be held to the same legal obligations in the quest to cut carbon.
Stern this week said that despite differences in views outlined by India and some other countries, he believes that idea remains clear.
"The notion that it was going to be applicable to all parties was, I think, understood by people to be a game-changer," he said.
Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he suspected the Indian delegation still felt stung by having its top issue of equity shoved from the final Durban text.
"This is a very strongly held principle, and I imagine there's still a little bit of anger," he said. "This is clearly a little bit of a shot across the bow that this discussion is not over. The real question is, can you get the discussion of equity into a more constructive and concrete level? Can you get down to brass tacks and stop talking about whose end of the lifeboat is sinking?"
For now, though, the question at hand is whether the emissions-curbing pledges that the United States, China, India, Brazil and dozens of other countries made at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit are robust enough. Climate scientists agree that even if fully enacted -- and some countries, like the United States, are far from even approaching stated goals -- the cuts won't avert catastrophic warming.
New positions begin to take shape
President Obama has pledged to curb America's carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. China says it will curb emissions intensity -- the ratio of carbon dioxide output per unit of gross domestic product -- by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, and India has agreed to cut energy intensity by 20 to 25 percent by that time period.
The Durban Platform called on nations to explore ways to beef up those pledges before 2020. India responded to that call by saying it is a question only industrialized countries must answer. Its diplomats noted that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment calls for developed countries to curb emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a goal they will likely miss.
Meanwhile, they argued that since the next version of the IPCC report won't be out until 2015, "the only available time frame for making scientific assessment of the mitigation efforts by all Parties is the post-2020 period."
Meyer called that a "pretty tortured reading of the [Durban] decision."
And a separate part of India's entry noting that its Copenhagen targets will be met "depending on provision of finance, technology and capacity building support by developed country parties" raised Stern's alarm bells. He noted that neither the Copenhagen Accord nor a subsequent agreement in Cancun, Mexico, promised finance in return for meeting 2020 pledges.
"We don't read the Copenhagen Accord or the Cancun Agreements as saying that. We do not think that the firewall was knocked down, but it was chipped away at in Copenhagen in the first instance."
America's submission, meanwhile, doesn't offer any concrete ideas of its own for raising ambition levels. Stern in the past has made clear he does not expect countries that only recently offered up pledges to offer to curb even more emissions by 2020.
Varying degrees of urgency
Instead, it focuses on some potentially practical areas: proposing that the U.N. climate regime come up with ways to support a new U.S.-led initiative aimed at curbing emissions of black soot, methane, hydrofluorocarbons and other so-called short-lived climate pollutants; removing subsidies for fossil fuels, something the Obama administration has long called for; and "addressing aviation and maritime emissions" under the respective agencies that regulate them. The Obama administration, however, is fighting a European law that is now working to reduce airline emissions and could be gearing up for a maritime fight.
On the other end of the spectrum, the European Union, the Alliance of Small Island States and the group of least developed countries, led by Gambia, offered a spectrum of practical ideas for pushing countries to do more. Those three groups formed a key alliance during the Durban conference that forced the United States and major emerging economies like India and China to commit to negotiating a future broad climate deal that binds all big emitters to cut carbon.
All three submissions quoted extensively from a recent U.N. Environment Programme study that exposed a 5-gigaton gap between the emissions countries had pledged to curb and what it will take to avert catastrophic global warming. But the authors also argued that it's technically feasible for countries to deliver almost 60 percent of the reductions needed to keep below a 2-degree-Celsius global temperature rise above preindustrial levels.
"The EU holds firmly to the commonly agreed objective of keeping the global mean temperature increase below 2ºC," the bloc's diplomats wrote, calling for "urgent actions" to help countries meet their Copenhagen pledges and close that gap.
Small island nations, meanwhile, called for a series of meetings throughout the year, including a workshop on enhancing mitigation ambition at the United Nations' midyear climate meeting in Bonn, Germany, in May and a ministerial conference on the issue in New York at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
The discussions, they said, should culminate with the adoption of more ambitious economywide emission reduction targets by developed countries and mitigation action plans from developing countries at the next major U.N. climate conference slated for Doha, Qatar, in November.
"They're all sort of taking a pragmatic approach," Meyer said of the E.U., small island nation and least developed country submissions. "They're all sort of saying, 'Let's get an urgency.' Our task is to figure out how to close the existing gap."
Talks likely to continue, but slowly
Japan, meanwhile, focused on ways to curb more emissions by midcentury instead of by 2020; Saudi Arabia, like India, insisted that the burden of doing more to cut emissions falls squarely on the shoulders of industrialized countries -- which, within the world of U.N. climate talks, does not include Saudi Arabia, despite its wealth and vast oil resources; and Qatar, which is hosting the next major climate conference but which has historically played a quiet role in the talks, did not offer a submission.
Nigel Purvis, a former State Department climate negotiator who is now president of Climate Advisers consulting firm, said he wasn't surprised that some countries appeared to be walking back from pledges they made in Durban. He said that some in Europe overhyped the outcome of that conference, and developing countries like India are pushing back to show they didn't give up too much.
"Durban made significant progress, but in no way are the old issues behind us. The U.N. negotiations have been exceptionally slow for decades, and we've got a hard slog ahead."
He also predicted that the United Nations' history of pushing countries to cut more carbon doesn't bode well for diplomats' ability to raise the level of ambition before 2020.
"Every year, the COP [Conference of Parties] takes up the adequacy of commitments. Every year, there is no agreement, and the agenda item is forwarded to the next year," he said.