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The Paris Agreement Lost Its Way

Under grey-blue skies in Paris, a day after the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, was initially scheduled to end, the intense two-week negotiations ended in backslapping and hugs and much self-congratulation. Nearly 200 countries adopted an agreement that could ostensibly save the world from disastrous climate change.

Whether it will succeed, how it will succeed, and who exactly will have to pay for this ambition hides under the veneer of nice-sounding words and crafty side-steps. Somewhere in there, science, history, equity, and decisions based on hard reality seem to have gone completely missing.

Here’s how the operative part of the final, much-lauded text shakes down:

“…Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;…”

What does this really mean? A temperature target must necessarily correspond to a carbon budget. That is, how much carbon headroom do we have before the average temperature increase hits 1.5 degrees Celsius? And who will use how much of that headroom? By when?

The developed countries have used up their budget, even overdrawn on it. But there is no mention of correcting or balancing this historical inequity in favour of developing countries.

Moreover, the current plans of nations – the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – puts the world on course to warming well above 3 degrees Celsius. A telling infographic by  shows us how many years of current levels of emissions will use up this carbon budget. The final text, however, does not seem to base itself on this science.

Infographic from

Infographic from

Onus on developing countries

To contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will take an inordinate amount of investment by developing countries. Here’s how the text proposes to offer finance to developing countries:

“This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

The Centre for Science and Environment, located in India, points out that this differentiation becomes weak when left to “capabilities” and with no reference to “historic responsibilities.”

The developed countries were to make available $100 billion per year to enable developing countries to mitigate and adapt to the disastrous effects of climate change. In the final agreement, however, this number figures only in the preamble but not in the operative, legally binding section.

Under this agreement, small island states and coastal areas already suffering severe losses because of rising sea levels and extreme weather, not to mention farmers and fishermen facing the brunt of droughts and floods, cannot claim anything from the developed world for liability and compensation. In other words, the big historical polluters essentially walked away from Paris having washed their hands of any responsibility for the damage they have already caused.

That the small island states who were so vocal in the run-up to these talks capitulated and signed on to this agreement gives one an idea of what went on behind closed doors. For an idea of how the spirit of the text changed over the second week, here is a telling example: The draft that was presented by the Platform for Enhanced Action to COP21 had these words in the important Article 2, the “purpose”:

[This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, and in accordance with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and on the basis of respect for human rights and the promotion of gender equality and the right of peoples under occupation]

All of it was bracketed, which meant that it was under review and discussion. (The run up to the final day of any COP is all about what “is bracketed” and what is “now out of brackets” or “completely gone.”)

Here’s the bit that made the final text:

“This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.”

In other words, “equity,” “science,” “human rights,” “gender equality” and the “rights of peoples under occupation” were all sacrificed in the Purpose.


Traditional knowledge

There were indigenous people from around the world at the conference fighting to get their rights heard, to have those key clauses “put back” into Article 2, but to no avail.

In passionate press conferences – a refreshing change from the clinical insipid conferences held by non-governmental organisations and government lackeys – the indigenous people spoke of protecting freshwater ecosystems, the land, wild fruit, medicinal plants, food security, and land integrity. They spoke of the violation of collective land rights, and of the “double discrimination” their women face from being, firstly, women and then indigenous to boot.

Indigenous women are at the short end of the stick when it comes to climate change. They are the ones that build houses, find fuel to cook and energy to run their homes, they fetch the water, they produce the food.

Speaking at the women’s caucus one early morning at COP21, Edna Kaptoyo, a Pokot woman from Kenya, said, “We had a culture where we preserved wild fruits for when we didn’t have enough food and grains. My mother did this for our family. But today, these fruits have disappeared. Our rivers are rain-fed. But now, they are drying out – something that has never happened before.”

Coming from the Arctic north, Mataali Okalik, an Inuit Youth Council leader dressed in a sealskin skirt and reeling from jet lag, said, “We have been seeing the impacts of climate change for many years. Our elders have been saying for decades that these impacts are detrimental to not only our people but for the rest of the world. But traditional knowledge is not deemed important. If it had been, we would have been steps ahead.”

These indigenous people expected COP21 to recognise their rights, and to respect their traditional knowledge as sustainable and valid. Frank Ettawageshik, representing the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, said in his address to the Closing Plenary on December 12:

“It is essential that the rights of indigenous peoples be recognised, protected and respected within a broad human rights framework. We sought such assurance in the operative section of the Agreement. We are keenly disappointed that the Parties did not see fit to accommodate this request in which we joined with a broad constituency.

“We … came seeking recognition, respect for, and use of our traditional knowledge, with our free, prior, and informed consent.  We appreciate that a provision appears in the operative section under adaptation, but it should apply everywhere in the Agreement and Decision without the qualification “where appropriate”.”

How nations negotiate their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and what, if anything, will balance equity and rights in this new, but-not-really-new, regime remains to be seen.

The preamble of the Paris Agreement seems to have its heart in the right place. The operative text, however, seems to have sold its soul to the highest bidder. Some insist it is a start, that there is now something on the table – but to hail it as the saviour the world was waiting for is anything but the truth. This is no “get out of jail free” card.

But wait. It is exactly that for some.


<This work was produced in Paris for COP21 where the author was hosted by UN Women as part of their Climate Change & Gender capacity building initiative. It was first published on December 15, 2015 in >

21 students. 30 days. 1 story.

“How does Mr Paul Salopek do it?”

The question was among the first to be asked, in the very first hour of a 12-hour workshop on slow journalism spread over September 28-29.

Who knows? The scope and scale of Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk, and its over-arching ambition, is way beyond our ability to explain. We did tell the students, though, that the workshop — the first in a series of fortnightly interactions with students of the digital media stream at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai — was Paul’s idea, and the outcome of his advice to us.

The workshop was divided into two distinct segments. In the first, spanning the whole of Monday afternoon and evening, the students were prompted to arrive at their own understanding of narrative journalism and its younger sibling, slow/deep journalism.  Read more

Enduring the drought

“I’ll see you at your house in the evening,” I said to Mahendra on the phone as I was driving from Pune to Dhawalpuri.

“No,” he said, we have moved. Not staying at our usual place. Come into the village and call my cousin. He will bring you to our camp”.

Two weeks ago, I was in Pune and decided to visit Mahendra and catch up with him after a gap of about nine months. As I drove past the dry arid areas of Ahmednagar district, I noticed something peculiar: although the fields along the highway had been ploughed, not a single one had been planted with a crop. Abhishek, my driver, pointed out that people had abandoned farming this season due to lack of rains.

India is going though a fourth consecutive year of drought, and this year might be the worst.  According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 42% of India is rainfall deficient this season, with the south-west monsoon having failed.

The districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra are facing the worst ever drought in 100 years, and people in the area get drinking water only once a week. Eighty-seven per cent of Marathwada depends on these seasonal rains for agriculture.

Read more

“The way government thinks about land is completely capitalistic”

Pankaj Kapoor, the managing director of Liases Foras, a real estate analytics firm in Mumbai, met with me at his office in a new building at Andheri East. Columns of large box files about Mumbai’s land prices teetered in the conference room. Although it was evening on a Saturday, the place was occupied with a row of staff who stared at their screens. Kapoor sipped on a cup of light tea and talked about real estate in Mumbai, NAINA, and what exactly set off land prices in the city (hint: it wasn’t demand).

When did you first start seeing the wealth effects of land?

You know, all this started in 2005. The seeds of the exuberance were put in when realty was open for foreign direct investment. That was the first time the government came forward and started land bidding. Mill land that belonged to the National Textile Corporation was sold, and the price of that land was being discovered. The NTC mill land deals, the MMRDA deals, and similar deals across India set the prices. I remember a time when a couple of land deals in Lower Parel happened. My own estimations for Lower Parel at that time was Rs 6000 a square foot. Land was sold, if you look, for over Rs 10,000.

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How much water do we have?

According to a report in Down To Earth, not enough. India’s reservoirs are 40% deficit and monsoon is retreating.

Availability of water in country’s 91 major reservoirs fell to 95.313 billion cubic metres or 60 per cent of the total storage capacity, as on September 23, according to an official release.

“This storage is 75 per cent of the storage of corresponding period of last year and 77 per cent of storage of average of last ten years,” says the release by the Ministry of Water Resources.

Read more

What smart cities should do

Update below.

In the plans and communications of government, smart cities are outposts of miraculous technology that preempt unnecessary pauses in everyday life. “Smart cities are about clustering smart people, smart institutions, and creating an economic model that can evolve with time,” a global strategist at Deutsche Bank told Bloomberg Philanthropies in a promotional video for India’s smart cities campaign.

On, where citizens were asked to send in suggestions for the ideal smart city, people saw these new urban habitats as a chance to fix what regular cities could not. Far from demanding technological solutions, their concerns were rooted in ordinary problems: better walkways, better garbage disposal, more transparency around local governance. Have a look at the comments for Jabalpur.

One wrote, “In a smart city all roads should be broad enough so that at least two cars can cross simultaneously. Unluckily in Jabalpur many road are not even broad enough for a small car to pass through it. Please for the ease and beauty required in a smart city broaden these roads.”

Another wanted the ideal smart city to have a university free of political influence.

A third wanted traffic to be managed “properly without political influence. No Juloos, Baraat, political gathering on roads, whether it’s local [politician], [chief minister] or [prime minister], and no bazaar on road please.”

Read the whole thing.


Update: The Jabalpur page is missing, so the screenshot below should help.


Khejri: the sacred tree of the desert

It was early on a hot summer day deep in the Thar desert. Chattar Singh — desert shepherd, farmer, my friend and guide — interrupted a deep slurp of chai to point out fruit to me in a far away tree. A wind whispered the boughs low before snapping them back upright sending oblong beans-like fruit into bright green shivers.

Voh dekho peD pe pakii hui saangri hai!”
Look there! That tree is full of ripe saangri.

It was pure love in his voice.

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Who speaks for the Sundarbans?

The 2015 UNEP Champion Of The Earth‬ (Policy Leadership) award has gone to Bangladesh‘s PM Sheikh Hasina.

With a population of 140 million, Bangladesh is one of the world’s most populated countries. It is also one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Cyclones, floods and droughts have long been part of the country’s history but they have intensified in recent years. Her vision is to turn Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041 through implementing environmentally aware policies.

The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan of 2009 made Bangladesh the first developing country to frame such a coordinated action plan. Bangladesh is also the first country to set up its own Climate Change Trust Fund supported by nearly US$300 million of domestic resources from 2009-2012.

Her government earmarks 6-7 per cent of its annual budget on climate change adaptation.

In addition, the Bangladesh Constitution was amended in 2011 to include protection of the environment and safeguarding natural resources for current and future generations. Prioritized in the constitution along with wetlands and wildlife, the forestry policies initiative by Prime Minister Hasina has provided a natural barrier from some extreme weather events and the country’s forests cover has increased by almost 10 per cent.

Here’s the irony.

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The desert lives again

Not long ago, I got a call from my shepherd-farmer friend in the deep deserts of western Rajasthan.

Kal jordaar baarish hui hai saa. Khadinen bilkul phull! Biprasar, phull! Sab khush hain saa.
(It has rained heavily last night. All the khadins are full. Biprasar (a lake) is full! Everybody is happy.)

He belly-laughed. His voice trembled with thrill. It was infectious.


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A boatmaster reads 50 shades of grey

“This is a game of danger and courage,” the boat-master says in Hindi.

Does he mean “… danger and daring?” The word he uses, “saahas”, walks a tightrope between the two meanings.

 We are navigating up the Brahmaputra and the boat-master is reading the river.

The Brahmaputra is a moody river. The path we used in the morning has changed by the evening. Sandbars now rise where water flowed just hours prior. What was deep is now shallow. What was shallow is now deep. With this river, nothing is as it was or as it will be.

The Brahmaputra suffers from short-term memory loss.

Read more