After letting itself to be cornered on the issue of climate change at the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month, India has managed a short time-out from the U.S. by means of the joint statement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama signed in Washington on Friday. There was no recouping lost ground, only buying time.

Instead of right away agreeing to begin the dialogue for a phase-out of greenhouse and refrigerant gases, or Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), under the Montreal Protocol, India has consented to do so after a quick bilateral round on the issue with the U.S. In the run-up to Dr. Manmohan Singh’ visit to the U.S., American diplomats had demanded that the two leaders sign an agreement in Washington that would kick-start the process. They had warned that if the deal was not cleared before the visit, the President would raise it directly with the Prime Minister.

The U.S. was able to take such an aggressive stance on the issue because the Prime Minister had signed on to the G20 communiqué in St. Petersburg, accepting the idea of handling HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, despite an earlier explicit Cabinet decision against it.

But the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Environment balked at the idea and told the Americans they would not agree to an immediate keel-over. (The Prime Minister had signed the G20 communique with Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia acting as his ‘sherpa’ at the talks.) The Hindu reported on this controversy, and the rupture within the government on the issue.

Consequently, in the Indo-U.S. joint statement the two sides have now agreed to set up a working group on climate change and immediately convene a meeting of the India-U.S. Task Force on HFCs to discuss the matter. The task force has existed for around four years but could not agree on even the basic principles.

India gained some time from the U.S. and did not accept an immediate announcement on HFCs, but it did trade this off against the U.S. demand for an early meeting of the HFC task force and finalisation of its report. If the task force is able to agree on the issue by end-October, the U.S. will still be on track to get India on board to kick-start discussions on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol when member-countries convene the annual meeting in November. In that sense, the Prime Minister saved himself the immediate public embarrassment of having to agree to a demand from Washington that went against a decision of the Union Cabinet.

By October-end, the Indian government will be redrawing the negotiating redlines on tackling HFCs under both the Montreal Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). If the U.S. is able to get the Indian side to finalise the bilateral HFC task force in its favour by end-October, it would automatically force India to ease the Cabinet decision on HFCs in time for the meetings of the two conventions in November — where Mr. Obama could finally claim victory.

If India is able to withstand the pressure till November, it may buy another year or two for itself, during which it could possibly seek some trade-offs at the UN climate talks before giving in on HFCs. This aside, how far the procedural process to amend the Montreal Protocol and take HFCs out of the purview of the UNFCCC, could stretch, remains unclear.

As The Hindu had reported, the HFCs deal is a strategic personal goal of Mr. Obama; he needs it to refurbish his green credentials. HFCs are refrigerant gases and they harm the climate. But unlike previously used refrigerant gases that were dealt with under the Montreal Protocol, it does not harm the tropospheric ozone layer and so are dealt with under the UNFCCC. India so far wanted to maintain this arrangement because the principle of common but differentiated responsibility is well embedded in the UNFCCC and forces developed industries to pay full additional costs of technology transitions, including costs imposed by intellectual property regimes. The Montreal Protocol does not do so and only defrays part of the costs.

The U.S. already uses HFCs in its refrigeration business but wants India and China to leapfrog to cleaner but more costly gases. A couple of U.S. chemical manufacturers hold the patent to some of the key alternatives. It would be much easier for the U.S. to open the large and exponentially growing Indian and Chinese markets to push these alternatives through the Montreal Protocol than through the UNFCCC.

For Mr. Obama it would work well. It would show him as being green and make it seem that he forced India and China to take most of the immediate climate actions while bringing home business for American industry out of the entire episode. It would also ensure that the most costly and troublesome mitigation actions in reducing emissions from fossil fuels under an international regime, for which the industrialised economies have to bear a greater burden, are postponed.

India, along with other developing countries, has been wary of the U.S. move to turn the UNFCCC hollow, carving it empty scoop by scoop by taking as many emission reduction actions as possible out of the convention’s ambit to other forums where the burden of costs is not shared on the basis of historical responsibility or principles of differentiation. Reduction of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol instead of the UNFCCC is seen as one such move.