UPA’s course correction on climate change

UPA’s course correction on climate change

All of them were impressed by the performance of environment minister Jairam Ramesh, especially for his handling of the debate and the ease with which he won the approval of the Lok Sabha for the dramatic shift in the country’s negotiating stance that he articulated. They also flagged the fact that a little over one-fourth of the 25 speakers were first-time members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha and most of them belonged to the younger demography. And finally, that senior leaders across the political spectrum as well as key members of the Union cabinet skipped the discussion.

Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns

Perusal of the transcripts—viewing it on television, one would miss out on the nuances—of the debate confirms that these observations were spot on. It is no doubt impressive that the younger MPs not only made it a point to partake in the debate, some of them (pleasantly) surprised Ramesh with their call for a more pragmatic approach to the negotiations. But what is surprising is that the senior leadership of the House preferred to ignore the debate, especially given what is at stake in Copenhagen, summed up so succinctly by a Nobel laureate and a specialist on climate change in a recent interview to Mint: “Climate change is a very important global phenomenon that makes in some places droughts more likely, hurricanes more severe. That does not mean you can attribute a particular drought or a particular hurricane to climate change with total confidence. That doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that these kinds of phenomena are likely to be more often and severe... Climate change is of fundamental importance to development. (It) has huge risks to development and India runs huge risks."

The biggest takeaway, though, was the fact that Ramesh had effected so openly one of the most dramatic shifts in India’s policy towards climate change and encountered virtually no political opposition. The normal practice, turned into a fine art by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), is to serve a fait accompli. Here the government, in a welcome move, chose to play it differently (suspect this has more to do with the personality of Ramesh) and actually announced all the major policy changes in Parliament.

The debate also showed up the need for providing research support to MPs. Addressing such complex issues is not an easy task, and the government wields an unfair advantage here.

What the minister did was to dump India’s long-standing argument that cuts in carbon emissions should be apportioned on the basis of per capita emissions—wherein India is nowhere among the big polluters—which was threatening to be a deal-breaker. Instead, he lined India up behind the position articulated by the top two polluters and global powers, China and the US, to volunteer emission intensity cuts. Emission intensity is the greenhouse gas emissions required to generate one unit of national income. At the same time, he drew some red lines and announced an action plan to reduce emissions by using clean energy.

What are the implications?

Firstly, Ramesh has successfully settled the internal debate within the government in his favour. He did so by managing political consensus in rejecting the per capita argument—something that has the tacit backing of the Prime Minister.

Secondly, the country has managed to avoid being dubbed a deal-breaker. However, the fact that this move comes after China and the US did the same is an unfortunate example of a “me-too".

Thirdly, India may have unwittingly or otherwise endorsed the dilution of the provisions defined under the Kyoto Protocol—prescribing mandatory emission (as opposed to emission intensity) cuts for developed countries. What a commitment to emission intensity does is that it reduces the rate of pollution, not the actual levels—which will grow proportionately as the economy grows. The US, which is not a signatory to any climate change pact, and China, the world’s biggest polluter, would any day prefer emission intensity targets. This may be the price to be paid to bring the US to the table, but a no-brainer in any long-term effort to combat climate change.

Fourthly, the UPA has dealt away a trump card—the domestic political opposition. The trenchant criticism of the Left was key in getting the US to cut corners to expedite the civil nuclear deal. By managing to obtain a virtual blank cheque of faith from the Lok Sabha, Ramesh may have empowered himself within the government, but probably made it easier for the developed countries to pressurize India.

The die has been cast for some sort of a deal with the Prime Minister confirming his presence at Copenhagen along with other global leaders. The least they can do is to ensure that they don’t, in their attempt to have the cake and eat it too, turn the clock back on the efforts of the last two decades to fight climate change.

They owe it to our children.

Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comment at capitalcalculus@livemint.com