Copenhagen: A key step toward new climate-change regime

Door opens to climate-change NPT

Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, December 22, 2009

The global climate negotiations in Copenhagen did
not produce
an ambitious, legally binding action plan for reducing
greenhouse gas emissions. But
Copenhagen did yield
something significant: It won political commitments from
China, India,
Brazil and South Africa to
be part of the solution and thus to an overhaul of the present climate-change
regime, which puts the carbon-mitigation onus entirely on the developed

Future international negotiations would proceed on the basis of
these political commitments, enshrined in the so-called Copenhagen Accord. The
1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 1992 UN Framework Convention — the two legs of the
current regime — would become less relevant.

President Barack Obama’s 13 hours of negotiations in Copenhagen yielded a two-fold success for the U.S.: First,
the country which emits more than a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases with
just 4.5 per cent of the global population escaped without making any binding commitment.
Second, Obama brought on board not only
Brazil and South Africa but also the much-poorer India, whose
per-capita emissions are far lower than any important developing country.
India is to submit
to a universal system of transparently reporting on national mitigation actions.

Put simply, Copenhagen
generated not a new international protocol but the political framework to
revamp the existing climate-change regime. Changing the terms of negotiations
is essential to changing a regime. The Copenhagen Accord embodies the new

For the developed countries, this symbolizes success. There isn’t
even a passing reference in the Copenhagen Accord to
historic contributions to the build-up of
greenhouse gases or to an objective criteria factoring in per-capita emission

For India, this has
meant a diplomatic climbdown from its negotiating stance. It has agreed to bear
an economic burden for combating
climate change when hundreds of millions of Indians are
still mired in abject poverty.

The rich states, by securing
an interim accord tying their carbon cuts to burden-sharing with the
underprivileged, have opened the doors to the creation of an NPT on climate
change. Indeed, Obama, in his next major international move, is hosting a
summit meeting in April to strengthen the nuclear NPT.

The significant aspect, in
comparative terms, is that the most-powerful players want to reinforce the
nuclear non-proliferation regime but revamp the climate-change regime by
re-jiggering their legal obligations. So the key words are: Preserve, uphold
and strengthen the NPT regime, but update, rework and improve the
climate-change regime.

In other words, the NPT
regime is being treated as sacrosanct that cannot be tinkered with or amended, even
as the Copenhagen Accord presents the climate-change regime as an evolutionary
process open to overhaul. Given that the NPT regime predates the climate-change
regime by a generation and a half, one would have thought that it is the former
that needs updating, if any.

Having paid a heavy price to
the NPT regime,
now has agreed to pay a price in a new climate-change regime. By contrast,
China — a winner in the NPT regime because it first
, unlike India, on acquiring military muscle
— has less to lose in a new
climate-change regime. After all, as the world’s largest net polluter,
China has more in common with the U.S. than India.

Copenhagen has shown that climate change is not just about science
but about geopolitics too. And in geopolitics, those with economic and military
muscle fare better.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at
the Centre for Policy Research, is the author of “On the Frontline of Climate
Change: International Security Implications.” 

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