Breaking Down the Climate Talks

logo-COPThe Paris Conference of Parties (COP), long viewed as the vehicle for crafting the next phase of global climate responses, both shed light on complications surrounding the history of climate change negotiations, as well as unpack a new landmark agreement to tackle climate change and reduce greenhouse gases.

History of Climate Negotiations

The international political response to climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the ‘Rio Convention’ included the adoption of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC).   The UNFCCC entered into force on 21 March 1994.  This convention set the framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

One of the main principles of climate negotiations is that countries have common but differentiated responsibilities when it comes to climate change, depending on their wealth in particular. The agreement establishes an obligation for industrialized countries to fund climate finance for poor countries, while developing countries are invited to contribute on a voluntary basis.  As regards transparency, a stronger system for tracking commitments, which allows developing countries a certain amount of flexibility, has also been set up in order to keep track of everyone’s efforts .

The main objective of the annual COP was and remain to review the Convention’s implementation. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and significant meetings since then have included COP3 where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, COP11 where the Montreal Action Plan was produced, COP15 in Copenhagen where an agreement to success Kyoto Protocol was unfortunately not realized and COP17 in Durban where the Green Climate Fund was created.

The COP Climate Deal, So Far

The Paris agreement marks a major change in direction.  In terms of global responsibilities, it confirms the global target of keeping the rise in temperature below 2°C.   Scientists believe that a greater increase in temperature would be very dangerous.  However, the agreement also establishes, for the first time, that we should be aiming for 1.5°C, to protect island states, which are the most threatened by the rise in sea levels.

By 12 December 2015, 186 countries had published their action plan; each of these plans sets out the way in which they intend to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The UN body that deals with climate change (the UNFCCC*) published an evaluation of these contributions on 1 November 2015. This study showed that despite the unprecedented mobilization shown by States, at this rate global warming would still be between 2.7°C and 3°C, i.e. above the threshold set by scientists.

Secondly, the agreement addresses climate finance.  The agreement acknowledges that $100 billion (in loans and donations) will need to be raised each year from 2020 to finance projects that enable countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change (rise in sea level, droughts, etc.) or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement specifies that this amount should increase. Some developing countries will also be able to become donors, on a voluntary basis, to help the poorest countries. This is a first. The agreement schedules an initial meeting in 2025, where further quantified commitments will be made regarding assistance to the poorest countries.

The agreement will be open for signing by the countries on 22 April in New York. The agreement can only enter into force once it has been ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55% of emissions.  This of course, would be the real turning point.

Why Forest Policy Matters

Every dimension of forest-related decision-making, including rights of local communities, conversion of forests to non-forest uses and setting aside forests for wildlife conservation, has become the subject of intense scrutiny, debate and change.   Most notably, the involvement of multiple actors, from local communities to the Supreme Court, has shifted the discourse from forest management to forest governance.

Forest Management

The reality is that India’s forests are witnessing a battle between the competing paradigms of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the 2006 Forest Rights Act.  British-era regulations sought to gain control over forests via the forest department, to enable the colonial state to meet its needs for timber and revenue in the project of empire-building. The 2006 law looked to rectify the ‘historical injustice’ of treating India’s forest-dwelling communities as encroachers in landscapes they have lived in for generations, and to recognize their traditional usage rights through forest right titles (Choudhury, 2015)

Essar Energy, a fully integrated oil and gas company, is positioned to capitalize on India’s rapidly growing energy demand.   The company has strong presence across the hydrocarbon value chain from exploration, and assets worth US$12 billion across the power and oil and gas industries (Essar, 2015).

According to Sushil Maroo, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, “One has to balance ecological concerns with India’s need for commodities and economic development.”  Essar Energy serves retail customers in India through a modern, country-wide network of 2,000 operational and under-construction retail fuel outlets.  “One way is for the government to look at the country as a whole, and say where mining can or cannot take place. Another way would be reforestation,” he continued (see Choudhury, 2015).

Forest Governance

There is no simple or broadly accepted definition of “governance,” even though the term is widely used across many disciplines.  Good governance is often associated with principles such as transparency, participation, and accountability.  In the context of international development, the notion of good governance is commonly seen as a critical foundation for achieving positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes.  Conversely, weak governance is often blamed for poor development outcomes, such as poverty and unsustainable levels of natural resource depletion.  In the context of forests, a lack of transparency and accountability is often associated with problems such as illegal logging and corruption.  Similarly, a lack of open and inclusive decision-making often contributes to the marginalization and impoverishment of forest-dependent communities and indigenous peoples.

Taken together, since decisions about forests are shaped by a wide range of public and private actors, forest governance necessarily has to do with the process of how decisions are made about forests, as opposed to focusing exclusively on what decisions are made or the outcomes of those decisions (WRI, 2013).

Why Forest Policy Matters

The forest sector in India is currently going through never before seen change.  For example, India needs coal but coal mining and subsequent usages of coal has adverse impact on climate which may risk various forest types.  Therefore forests are highly sensitive to climate change, and this has been shown by observations from the past, experimental studies and simulation models.

“Clear and secure rights to forest land are a critical enabling condition for promoting resource management decisions that value social and environmental dimensions of forests alongside economic interests.”               – Wold Resource Institute, 2013

Perhaps now, more than ever, forest policy matters.  Central to the discourse are substantive questions on forest rights, responsibilities, regulatory structures, transparency and accountability, in other words practical questions about policy and governance.

For more discussions on Environment, Forest and Rural India, follow Chitrangada Choudhury @