India's position is seen as a move to boost image, but it has little support from allies

India's attempt to be part of a climate change solution was reflected in a major departure from stated policy on Wednesday, when Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh said all countries must take on binding commitments in an appropriate legal form. He was speaking at the plenary of the high level segment of the United Nations climate change conference here.

Mr. Ramesh departed from his written speech in the afternoon to make this statement and later clarified to the Indian media that “a legally binding agreement is not acceptable to India at this stage.” There were various ways of looking at legal forms, and even the Conference of Parties (COP) was a legal form, he added. The way forward for negotiations on a binding agreement was however open.

Mr. Ramesh's statement has been seen as a move to give India's image a boost but it may backfire as it has little support from the country's allies and the developing countries. He told the press that this was a deviation from policy.

Mr. Ramesh told the media that there was pressure on India and China to agree to a legally binding agreement and there were divisions on this in the BASIC group with Brazil and South Africa keen on a legally binding agreement, and even the G 77 was split on this issue.

The chief climate negotiator of Brazil, Luiz A. Figueredo, reacted, saying it understood India's constraints and “we share India's view.” However, he indicated Brazil was not opposed to a binding agreement.

Saying that there was pressure from a number of countries, Mr. Ramesh defended his statement at the plenary, pointing out this gave India room for manoeuvre and flexibility. “While we are sensitive to Africa and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) countries, we want a discussion on the legal form rather than commit [ourselves] to a form,” he said. The 43-member AOSIS countries had some time ago proposed that Article 17 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) be taken up for discussion. Article 17 provides that the Conference of Parties to the UNFCC can adopt protocols to the Convention.

The smaller and more vulnerable nations and India's neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, apart from Maldives and Africa, are hoping for some clear-cut commitments on emission cuts and funds for mitigation.

Earlier at the contact group meetings, held to consider a proposal by parties to Article 17, India already stated its case: when the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol hangs in the balance, why discuss Article 17? It also made this clear at the plenary session that form was important, not substance, and only once the substance was decided would the form be possible.

India had also clarified that it did not want any new instrument that would affect the Kyoto Protocol.

Mr. Ramesh's statement on India's reluctance to agree to a binding agreement also arises from the mandate he got from the Union Cabinet just before he left for Cancun. The Cabinet was clear that there were three red lines for India — no absolute emission cuts; no committing itself to or signing any accord which does not have a second period of commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and, thirdly, no signing an internationally legally binding agreement at this stage.

Options open

This decision keeps India's options open for the future, Mr. Ramesh said. Any legal system must have content in the sense of what's in the agreement, apart from penalties for non-compliance, and a system of monitoring. While India was not going to accept a legally binding agreement, it was willing to engage and discuss the content, and systems of compliance which, however, could not be done by the conference now. It ended on Friday.

The two-track process must be taken to its logical conclusion. It should take a year at least for this process to be completed.

“We should have a total understanding of what is in the proposed legally binding agreement,” he said.