India: Are we isolated on climate change?

Author: Rajiv Kumar

About a month ago, at a closed-door session on India and Global Climate Change, the main presenter, a former Environment Secretary, eloquently outlined the tough stand that India should adopt in partnership with China and Brazil in the forthcoming Copenhagen Summit. That this is the standard party line was clearly demonstrated by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in his recent dialogue with Hillary Clinton. India will not consider any capping of emissions by emerging economies and, in any case, advanced economies should demonstrate their seriousness by making substantial upfront funding (hundreds of billions of dollars) commitments for any meaningful advance to be made.

U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Indian Minister for Forests and Environment Jairam Ramesh at the ITC Green Center in Gurgaon, India July 19, 2009. (Photo: US State Department)

At this session (June 27), I had raised a somewhat practical question about what India’s position would be in case the Chinese had a deal with the Americans. None of us had any inkling of what was brewing and transpired exactly a month later (July 27) in Washington, when China and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on enhancing bilateral cooperation on climate change, energy and environment. Unarmed with this information, the key presenter at the seminar asserted that the Chinese would never let India down and would not have any agreement with the US. Apparently, our Minister subsequently accepted the explanation given by the Chinese Ambassador that the MoU does not and will not lead to any bilateral understanding between China and the US on Copenhagen.

There are no complaints about the Chinese signing a MoU with the US, which is clearly in their national interest, given the high level of mutual economic and financial interdependence between the two nations. But one is amazed at India’s apparent naivety in continuing to believe that when push comes to shove (and we can expect that the Obama administration, having already taken several domestic policy steps, will exert maximum pressure to secure an ambitious outcome at Copenhagen), we will not be left in splendid isolation. This happened to us in the last stages of the Uruguay Round (trade talks). It would appear that the great majority of countries feel that a consensus and globally coordinated action on climate change is necessary. Therefore, our Prime Minister did well to sign the joint statement in Aquila [pdf], despite the naysayers. He surely understands that to remain in the game, we have to be seen as a cooperative player.

One wonders how policy makers will act, now that the details of the Sino-US MoU are out. The MoU clearly states that ‘The purpose is to strengthen and coordinate our respective efforts to combat global climate change and support environmentally sustainable and low-carbon economic growth.’ It adds that, ‘The participants intend to hold regular ministerial consultations to deepen mutual understanding, and promote and guide bilateral cooperation on climate change.’ (emphasis added).

Two questions arise: First, will we continue to formulate our stance on the assumption that the Chinese will support us when the going gets tough, and is there any mileage in that support if they are regularly consulting with their US counterparts? Second, how come the Chinese are able to pull off such a publicity coup despite their stated opposition to the US? They have signed a MoU that is long on bilateral cooperation, yet gives them sufficient freedom in the ongoing negotiations.

The validity of India’s argument against accepting emission caps, which is based on our very low per capita levels and the undertaking to keep these lower than advanced economies, has also been recently challenged.

In a Wall Street Journal article (July 23) the Managing Director of Brookings, Mr William J Antholis, has questioned the credibility of this stand by arguing that by adding more than a billion people by 2050, China and India will undermine the ‘…Careful consensus (on population management) developed over a decade ago, with India’s support, at the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development.’ Mr Antholis goes on to argue that on this basis ‘… countries like India are using a double standard when they talk about history. … If developed nations are held responsible for emissions that they historically contributed, oblivious to their impact on climate change, why shouldn’t developing nations take responsibility for producing generations of people who will generate emissions into the future?’ It is clear that advanced economies will not accept the proposition that historical behaviour obliges them to accept completely asymmetric unilateral action for mitigation. The issue clearly is that somehow a workable modality has to be found for all nations to work together to prevent an unacceptable outcome. In this context, is there a way forward in which India could again regain the high ground and not lose the narrative?

A part of the answer to this question came forth in a recent interaction with senior Chinese counterparts, who said that Indian negotiators were so good that once they had spoken either at WTO or United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there was nothing left for the Chinese delegates to say! How one wished this role was reversed in the future.

Some pointers for a credible stand for India have been provided by Nobel laureates Thomas Schilling, in a recent lecture at an Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) forum, and Michael Spence, in his paper titled ‘Climate Change, Mitigation and Developing Country Growth’. Closer to home, Ramgopal Agarwala has produced numbers to show that, given the growth imperatives of emerging economies such as India and China, a more feasible cut-off date for bringing down average per capita emissions to less than two tonnes would be 2050 and not 2020. We can, he argues, work on capping the growth of carbon emissions, rather than negotiate on the basis of an absolute cap. In my view, this has the kernel of a workable idea and our government will do well to look at this more carefully. In any case, being identified as principal naysayers earns us no brownie points from any constituency, and does not serve our national interests.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Chronicle, 6th August, 2009.