India, climate change, and its image makeover

India, climate change, and its image makeover
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First Published: Sun, Oct 04 2009. 09 22 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Oct 04 2009. 09 22 PM IST
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has come out of the closet, as it were. In an interview published in Mint on 30 September—a little over 100 days after the UPA started its second consecutive term in office—environment minister Jairam Ramesh candidly admitted that India was indeed effecting a change in its negotiating stance on climate change. And, in his inimitable style, he justified it on the grounds that “we need to be part of the solution and not be seen as an obstructionist player”.
Ramesh has had the courage of conviction to confirm what many have suspected all along (Capital Calculus on 21 July articulated these sentiments) and something the government signalled (but officially denied) when it was co-signatory to a statement put out by the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate that took place 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 so that the efforts to contain climate change stay on course.
This is significant simply because until now India has argued that mitigation efforts should be in proportion to a country’s historical record of emissions on per capita terms. According to this measure, vehemently opposed by the US and other developed nations, India and other developing countries are way behind the curve on emissions; and hence the argument that developed countries have to make substantive emission cuts and finance expensive technology required by developing countries towards mitigation efforts in curbing emissions.
India has now delinked finance and technology from pursuing any national mitigation objectives. It is, on the face of it, a very clever argument that retains India’s stand that developed countries have to commit to emission cuts of 25-40% below the levels that prevailed in 1990 and yet frees the country’s arms, as it were, to pursue mitigation measures domestically.
Accordingly, the UPA is now proposing to move legislation in the next session of Parliament that will prescribe domestic standards to ensure that the country’s emissions are reduced?over?time.
There are several things to be read in the shift in India’s stance. It has basically signalled that it is not going to be the flagbearer of the developing world. Something Ramesh indicated when he said, “We are not abandoning or forsaking G-77 (a powerful bloc of developing countries) or China, but at the same time, every country walks on two legs; every country looks after itself, its domestic agenda and also negotiates multilaterally. We have to engage with the Europeans and Americans.”
It may be good from the Indian point of view, but it will be interesting to see how the poorer countries take to this volte face by India. It could come back to haunt India if it does make a fresh bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, where every vote counts.
It also takes the wind out of the argument, which has been growing louder by the day, by developed countries such as the US that developing countries (read India, China and Brazil) need to accept emission cuts as well. Now, if poorer countries are voluntarily doing so, it will become less tenable for the Americans and others to hold on to their positions without exposing themselves. If they do, then critics would be vindicated in their claim that the attitude of these countries has always been hypocritical.
It would also provide a very clever political argument (that the government is acting of its own volition and pursuing national objectives), which could be used to fend off domestic criticism that is bound to arise when the legislation is moved through Parliament. The Left and the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will predictably oppose such a move and seek to argue that the government has indeed sold out.
By effecting a sharp U-turn in negotiating positions, India and China (which, too, is putting in place domestic standards), have put the ball squarely in the court of the developed nations. With less than two months to go to Copenhagen, where the world is expected to thrash out a deal on battling climate change, it will be interesting to see how the developed world responds.
For India, it is also part of an image makeover strategy. It has demonstrated that it has the courage to sup with the big boys (that made up the erstwhile G-8). As we all know, admission to an exclusive club doesn’t just entail a heavy entrance tab but also includes a host of intangibles; this holds true for global forums of the rich too.
Since it is no longer a one-off, India has to rapidly adapt to the ways of the high table and associated intrigue; not an easy proposition by any means. So it is time for Ramesh and others in the cabinet, if they haven’t already, to start asking: What next?
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Sun, Oct 04 2009. 09 22 PM IST