In a letter to MPs last week, Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh has clarified that his effort at the United Nations climate change conference at Cancun was “to walk the thin line between safeguarding our position while showing a level of sensitivity to the view shared by the majority of countries at Cancun, including many of our developing country partners.”

Mr. Ramesh, who was under fire for his statements on legally binding commitments at Cancun, believed that it was this stand that enabled him to “walk this thin line effectively.”

“This nuancing of India's position will expand negotiating options and give India an all-round advantageous standing,” he concluded.

Due to India's insistent efforts, the parties avoided a decision at Cancun on the phrase “legally binding agreement.” Instead, the Ad Hoc Working Group has been requested to “continue discussing legal options” with the aim to reach consensus, if possible, on this issue by the next Conference of Parties.

There has been criticism that India veered towards the U.S. and supported its interests. It was during his speech at the high level segment that he said that “all countries must take on binding commitments in an appropriate legal form.”

He clarified that the immediate context of this statement was that there appeared to be a view being pushed by a majority of developing and developed countries at Cancun that all countries must agree to a legally-binding agreement. Most countries, including BASIC partners Brazil and South Africa, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), least developed countries (LDCs), Africa, and four of the SAARC partners (Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan) shared this view. The only countries opposing this were the U.S., China, India, Philippines, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia and some others. It was therefore important for India to demonstrate that it was not completely insensitive to the views and opinions of a large section of the global community, he said.

Mr. Ramesh said he called for commitments in an “appropriate legal form” and not a legally binding commitment. This is an important distinction. His statement left open the need for differentiation between Annex I (developed) countries and non-Annex I (developing) countries. Annex I commitments could be legally binding with penalties. Non-Annex I actions could be purely voluntary and without penalties. Moreover, the reference to an “appropriate legal form” is a very broad one.

Mr. Ramesh had written to MPs on October 5, 2009 where he had mentioned the idea of introducing domestic legislation that will not contain explicit emission reduction targets but will have implicit performance targets for mitigation and adaptation (such as mandatory fuel efficiency standards by 2011, mandatory energy conservation-compliant building codes by 2012, 20 per cent contribution of renewables to India's energy mix by 2030). Many countries such as Brazil and Mexico already have such laws and others such as China and South Africa are also considering such legislation.

Secondly, he said that contrary to some misquoted references in the domestic media, he did not make any commitment on India undertaking absolute emission cuts. India has made it very clear that while it will undertake voluntary mitigation actions, including reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020 on a 2005 reference year, India will not take on any emission cuts or agree to any peaking year for its emissions. There is no change in this position.

Thirdly he confirmed that a legally binding agreement is not acceptable to India at this stage. Unless there is clarity on the substance of such an agreement is, what the penalties for non-compliance are, and what the system for monitoring is, India will not be able to even consider a legally binding agreement. This position remains unchanged.

Mr. Ramesh, who said earlier that India was emerging as a player in global environmental diplomacy, listed five specific contributions to the final agreed text, in addition to its contribution to the process over the entire period of the Conference. India ensured that for the first time the phrase “equitable access to sustainable development” found mention in the shared vision text.

India's detailed formulation on international consultation and analysis (ICA) of developing country mitigation actions in a manner that is non-intrusive, non-punitive and respectful of national sovereignty was the key input that broke an important deadlock and helped achieve progress on issues relating to mitigation, Mr. Ramesh pointed out.