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Days before US President Donald Trump pilloried China and India as the biggest free riders of the Paris climate accord, there was an alliance between India and the US on an unusual front. That alliance fructified at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva last week.
Despite their diametrically opposite views on controversial issues such as pharmaceutical patents and access to affordable medicines, India and the US adopted a common stand on a discussion about access to medicines at the 70th WHA. A committee of the WHA on 27 May adopted a proposal by India, which was supported by the US, to defer the discussion on access to medicines to next year. Many developing and poor countries led by South Africa pushed for keeping the issue as an agenda item at the WHA. The issue of access to affordable medicines is highly contentious and time and time again, US Big Pharma has blocked progress on finding constructive solutions.
Indeed, the United Nations secretary general’s high-level panel led by a former Swiss president last year submitted a bold report to ensure that patents for life-saving drugs are only awarded for “genuine innovation”. That committee made wide-ranging and radical recommendations on how to ensure access to medicines at lower prices for containing ever multiplying diseases, including cancer. The US, however, dismissed the UN report and made every attempt to scuttle discussion on issues concerning access to cancer drugs at the World Health Organization.
But, following a bilateral meeting between Indian health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda and the US health secretary Tom Price at the WHA, there was a new-found bonhomie between the two countries, said a WHA participant, who asked not to be named. The cooperation to push the discussion on access to medicines to next year was possibly an offshoot of that meeting.
Coming to the Paris climate accord, it is common knowledge that it is only the second best outcome for tackling the worst existential crisis faced by humans. Yet, a beginning was made in December 2015 in Paris, where countries finally acknowledged the urgent need for tackling rising greenhouse emissions.
Ideally, the world would have been a better place if the US Congress had ratified the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The Kyoto Protocol mandated that the developed countries lower their greenhouse emissions to 5% below 1990 levels in seven years (by the time the legislation expired at the end of 2012). Given the powerful influence of the oil industry and the Koch brothers on the US Congress, the Clinton administration failed to secure that ratification.
In some ways, the Paris agreement is now turning out to be a repeat of what happened to the Kyoto Protocol. What President Donald Trump did last week is what the Republican Congress would have done in the normal course. Therefore, Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate deal is nothing but delivering a theatrical message to his base: the US will stand up to those hypocritical Chinese/Indians who are building more coal plants even as they talk about leading on emission cuts.
Otherwise, Trump would not have thundered: “China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants” and “India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020”. “Think of it: India can double their coal production (and) we are supposed to get rid of ours,” and “India makes its participation contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from developed countries,” he growled.
In short, the erstwhile “climate criminals” (a term coined by journalist Naomi Klein) of the western world are hell-bent on hollowing out the specific flexibilities accorded to the developing countries from the international economic, trade, and climate architecture. For over 200 years, the climate sinners have pursued their carbon-intensive industrialization policies because of the privileged economic entitlements that they enjoyed through violent campaigns.
Today, the vituperative threats and tweets from Trump are a pointer that the US will not pay for all the deadly climate crimes it committed over the last two centuries. Trump alluded to some of the financial commitments that his predecessor made for the Green Climate Fund, saying his administration will not make those contributions. The US, which provides tens of billions of dollars for its renewable energy sector, will also not share its technologies on an equitable footing without conditionalities.
“Paris or no Paris, our commitment to preserving the climate is for the sake of future generations,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said. After meeting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on 3 June, Modi pledged to “continue working above and beyond” the Paris accord, to preserve the “sanjhi virasat” (shared heritage) of Planet Earth.
On the face of it, these two developments seem to be unrelated. After all, what has the Paris deal got to do with the 70th WHA? Yet, a closer look into these two unrelated developments—i.e., India’s alliance with the US for pushing a discussion on access to medicines to next year and President Trump’s vitriolic remarks on China and India for being the free riders of the Paris climate accord—reveal inconsistent stands adopted by India, more than the US.
Despite having the highest disease burden in the world and wanting to strengthen its generic drugs industry, India has joined hands with the US at the WHA on the vital issue of access to medicines.
As regards the climate deal, India is yet to demonstrate that it can stand up to the pressures of Washington and pursue autonomous renewal energy policies, including building a robust solar-based power sector.
In short, New Delhi must carefully weigh the pros and cons of embracing Uncle Sam on all fronts at a time when Washington claims that “the world is not a global community—but an area where nations, non-governmental organizations, and businesses compete for an advantage”.