The reactions of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to the final round of negotiations ahead of the climate change meet in Copenhagen leave us with a sense of déjà vu.
We have seen it before—at the global trade negotiations in the 1980s—and we are seeing it unfold yet again. Till the last minute, India will be a perennial outlier—leaving it open to isolation. And then, once outmanoeuvred, talk tough for the benefit of domestic audiences while suffering the consequences.
This was easy to comprehend in a world when India was a $100-200 million (Rs463-926 crore at the current exchange rate) economy and punching well above its weight. But it is baffling in the new world order with India’s current economy (with its potential yet to be realized) measured above a trillion dollars, giving it an in-principle place on the global high table.
So far, the script has read true. Till last week, it appeared that the Copenhagen talks were heading for a dead heat—with disagreements seemingly insurmountable. All this began to change after US President Barack Obama’s visit to China, eventually leading to voluntary commitments—some like China claiming reduction in energy intensity and others like the US on emission reductions. The very same day China, which is the world’s largest polluter, announced its symbolic intent (but not binding) at reducing emissions, India’s final scramble commenced.
Environment minister Jairam Ramesh rushed to Beijing to call on the Chinese leadership and hold consultations with representatives of other major emerging economies. Two plans have emerged: one, where India has proffered similar energy intensity cuts as China. Second, the emerging economies have decided to combine forces to combat pressures from developed countries to change the contours of the climate change negotiations as set out in the Bali action plan hammered out under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The big question is, what is Plan A and what is Plan B for India. If a united stand of emerging economies is India’s Plan A, then it is going to once again fall into a familiar trap; trusting China or any other country in such a crucial negotiation, where self-interest is paramount, would be naïve, to say the least. If its voluntary actions are Plan A, then it begs the question as to why India had to wait to make its proclamation well after the US—which till a month ago held the dubious distinction of being the worst polluter and also a non-signatory to the previous deal on climate change—and China made their claims.
Especially since Ramesh had done sufficient heavy lifting in this context after the stage had been set in July when India was co-signatory to a statement put out by the Major Economies Forum on energy and climate on the sidelines of the G-8 deliberations. The gist of the statement was that all countries (including developing countries such as India) would have to be prepared to make some emission cuts linked to their growth strategy—it was a tacit acceptance, at least that is how the developed countries see it, of emission cuts.
Ramesh accelerated this process in subsequent months as India positioned itself as a deal maker. In an interview, while elucidating the new approach, he said: “We (India) have to learn to conduct bilateral dialogue and negotiate multilaterally. That is what I call walking on two legs.” Later, addressing a conference on climate change in Copenhagen in the first week of October, he articulated India’s new position as the “per capita plus” approach—a refinement of its earlier stand.
Until then, India, along with other developing countries, had argued mitigation efforts should be in proportion to a nation’s historical record of emissions on per capita terms. According to this measure, vehemently opposed by developed nations, India is well behind the worst polluters.
Ramesh maintained that not only has India placed a “self-imposed” cap of per capita emissions—by committing that it will never exceed the levels attained by developed countries—the country was now moving to take on “mitigation efforts voluntarily”. This, he said, will be captured in the new legislation—Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Outcomes (Namos)—that the UPA was proposing to put up for public discussion.
Parts of a leaked communication (which distorted the context) from Ramesh to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh articulating the above, and activism—in the media and among political parties— scared off the government. Not only did the UPA not place Namos in the public domain and gain some crucial brownie points, it now comes across as a “me too” emulating China; India has failed to keep the contours of the per capita argument in the negotiations lexicon.
A debate in Parliament—it would have also underlined our democratic credentials— could have helped the UPA generate political consensus on an issue which will be critical to current and future generations of Indians. What was the UPA thinking? More importantly, will we ever learn?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at email@example.com