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Trump has sent a message to India (& China) by withdrawing from the Paris Accord. Here's what it is

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 2 June 2017, 15:30 IST
(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In withdrawing America from the climate change related Paris Accord, US President Donald Trump has sent a message which simply translates as – America first and to hell with the world and the future of the planet.

India needs to take special note of Trump’s move because in his Paris Accord withdrawal speech he has directly invoked only two countries – China and India.

This is not the first time though that America has sent such a signal on climate change though it was never as bluntly put as it has been now. Twenty years ago, after agreeing to binding targets on Green House Gas (GHG) emissions at Kyoto, President Clinton reneged on American commitments.

The European countries that are now severely critical of Trump’s action have never met their own Kyoto and other climate change related commitments. These commitments are related to reducing their GHG emissions and transferring technology and finances to developing countries to meet the challenges of climate change.

The fact is that except for a fringe that considers climate change caused by industrialisation to be a hoax (as Trump also said during the his Presidential campaign) the developed countries realise the need for effective action to control GHG emissions.

However, for all their tall talk, their desire to save the environment is subordinate to the maintenance of their global political, economic and commercial dominance as well as their environmentally unsustainable life-styles.

China’s rise and India and some other countries becoming ‘emerging powers’ have hardened developed countries to safeguard their interests at the cost of their climate change commitments.

And the international climate change negotiation process bears witness to this.

What are the principles of the agreement?

The foundational principles of the international approach to climate change are set out in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The Convention noted, “Largest share of historical and current greenhouse gases have originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries is still relatively low and that the share of global emissions in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.”

Thus the industrialised countries acknowledged their historical responsibility in polluting the planet and implicitly accepted that they will have to cut GHG emissions while the developing countries emissions will grow as they industrialise.

This principle is also explicitly stated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) –

“Acknowledging that the global nature of climate change calls for the widest cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and social and economic conditions.”

The UNFCCC specified industrialised countries, as well those among them, that would need to assist developing countries in handling climate change.

Over the past 25 years, these principles have been eroded by the developed world especially in the Paris Accord.

While not amending the UNFCCC, the Paris Accord specified that all countries would accept legally binding nationally set targets regarding GHG emissions. Thus it virtually obliterated the distinction between developed and developing countries which was one of the basic pillars of the climate change architecture.

The only responsibility that developed countries undertook was to help developing countries financially and through technology transfer to adapt and mitigate the impact of climate change.

What does Trump's decision mean?

America under Trump is completely abandoning climate change principles and architecture. Trump said that America wants a “framework that is fair and with the burdens and responsibilities equally shared among the many nations all around the world”.

In effect, the poor and the exploited must accept their lot in perpetuity and emerging countries such as India and China should expect to be treated as competitors and not expect any quarter.

On India, Trump complained, “According to this agreement, India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it. India can double their coal production. We're supposed to get rid of ours.”

These remarks reveal an enormous insensitivity to India’s development challenge to lift crores of people out of poverty. They also indicate an ignorance regarding India’s efforts at using non-conventional sources of energy such as solar, nuclear and wind.

Trump also said, “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries. There are many other examples but the bottom line is that the Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States."

As the entire basis of the UNFCCC and the subsequent protocols rest on the financial and technical help that developed countries are to give to developing countries, Trump by criticising India’s just expectation for financial assistance has demonstrated that for America the entire notion of historical responsibility is now 'unacceptable'.

At the recent G7 summit in Sicily the leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Trump to adhere to the Paris Accord. His response to them in his speech is caustic – “The same nations that are asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and in many cases lax contributions to our military alliance.”

While the transatlantic partnership is too important for Europe to abandon, it will now enter a choppy phase. India will do well to only watch from the sidelines general US-Europe differences as they emerge. Climate change is a case apart.

Many global leaders have expressed their determination to proceed with the Paris Accord without America.

The fact is that Trump’s decision will have a major impact on the global energy scene especially in the area of non-conventional sources. No country, India included, will be able to ignore this aspect.

Thus on climate change, India will have to stress on the need to adhere to the basic principles of climate change and the responsibilities of the developed world while realising that this will have less and less resonance. Sometimes diplomacy requires such approaches.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 2 June 2017, 15:30 IST