New Delhi should stop its flip-flops and adopt a coherent policy in its negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions
If the great Scott Fitzgerald were to have walked into the grand plenary hall of the Durban climate conference in 2011 to announce once again, “show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” all fingers would have pointed to the tiny Indian contingent in the room. There, Fitzgerald would have caught a glimpse of the feisty Jayanthi Natarajan, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, holding the fort against attempts by developed countries to impose binding emission cuts on the global South. The “greatest tragedy of all time,” Ms Natarajan would herself acknowledge, would be for negotiators to abandon the principles of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Two years later, this tragedy is imminent — only India’s heroism remains.
The first signs of this tragic denouement were visible a few minutes after the Durban plenary closed. Negotiators from the European Union, the United States and the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries simply huddled together and struck a deal to negotiate an international agreement with legal force on, inter alia, emission cuts by 2015. In this arrangement, known now as the ‘Durban Platform,’ equity and CBDR principles struggled to find relevance. India somehow claimed victory in helping resuscitate the Kyoto Protocol — a treaty rendered worthless without its engagement with the world’s largest carbon emitters, China and the U.S. Throw in a vacuous institution like the Green Climate Fund to save face, and India’s message was clear: we will live to fight another day.
That day is nowhere near the horizon. What is, though, is a perfect storm of international and domestic politics that threatens not only to produce an agreement which fails the imperative to tackle climate change, but also derail India’s core concerns in the process.
The news from Bonn, where U.N. climate negotiators met last month to flesh out details of the 2015 agreement, is not reassuring. The U.S. has proposed a mechanism by which countries define their own “contribution” to emission cuts. Once such contributions have been agreed upon nationally, a peer review mechanism could be put in place for monitoring and compliance. The U.S. submission, which Washington claims is driven by ‘realistic’ expectations, is nothing new. In fact, the narrative of “contributions” takes two steps backward from the language of “commitments” that the Durban platform recognises. Even within this minimalist framework, the U.S. has audaciously called for an agreement that lends “flexibility” to countries to “update their contributions.”
What is worrisome, however, is the international community’s surprisingly warm reaction to the U.S. proposal this time round. To some extent, this was inevitable. Negotiators in Bonn were well aware that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide had neared a staggering 400 parts per million (ppm); a week after their meeting, this threshold was crossed. If the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose very existence hinges on the outcome of these negotiations, had already thrown in the towel for the sake of an(y) agreement, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) too have joined the chorus. As Sebastian Duyck, an analyst and blogger at the ‘Adopt a Negotiator Project’, observes: “negotiators of many countries have begun to consider how to accommodate U.S. intransigence.” The U.S.’s “bottom-up” proposal, which emphasises national autonomy over multilaterally negotiated commitments, comes too little and too late to achieve any measurable progress in setting the climate clock backwards.
The jury is still out on the fate of equity and CBDR principles — what India refers to as ‘non-negotiables.’ Over the next two weeks, as negotiators who have returned to Bonn discuss contentious issues relating to reduction targets and technology transfer, differences between the BASIC group and developed countries will be thrown into sharp relief. That said, the European Union’s position, which takes off from the Durban consensus, has evolved to be more accommodative. In its submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Ad Hoc Working Group, the EU calls for a ‘spectrum of commitments’ that is fair and equitable to countries at different levels of growth. Its bottom line is, however, clear: commitments should be comprehensive and legally binding.
India is reluctant to accept either a bottom-up or a top-down model — the former, we have rightly argued, offers little to address climate change. Yet, while discussing the issue of binding commitments, we have stubbornly held up the ‘sovereignty’ card, saying it is for none to dictate what India should do to mitigate carbon emissions. This is a fair contention, but New Delhi has set no qualitative or quantitative parameters for the equitable distribution it would take to agree on a legal framework. Taken in sum, the U.S. and EU proposals — along with India’s established position — set the stage for a head-on collision in Paris two years from now, the result of which has only been too frequently visible at previous Conferences of the Parties (COPs).
The emerging strategic framework between India and the U.S. is also likely to prove decisive in future climate change talks. The Obama administration could present a possible deal on shale gas exports to India as a carrot in return for a flexible negotiating posture. Unlike the nuclear deal which served a largely symbolic purpose, shale gas exports — which India has sought desperately, given its rapidly depleting fossil fuel sources — are an effective bargaining chip. What lends credence to this theory is the U.S.’s recent courting of China (India’s Man Friday and de facto negotiating partner at COPs) and Japan (which refused to extend its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol after 2012) on climate change. If the U.S.-China Joint Statement on Climate Change, issued during Secretary Kerry’s visit to Beijing in April, is any indication, the U.S. is likely to work with major carbon emitters on a bilateral basis than go through the rigours of multilateral agenda-setting. After all, China, Japan and the U.S. have a mutual interest in seeing the Kyoto Protocol off.
Arguably, the biggest obstacle that stands in India’s way of articulating and achieving its goals at climate change talks is internal politics itself. Much has been said and written about India’s lack of a ‘coherent’ negotiating strategy — there is little doubt that between the COPs at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011), India did a volte face on the issue of emission cuts. That neither Jairam Ramesh, then Environment Minister, nor Ms Natarajan sought to ‘tie’ India to legally binding commitments is moot. In 2009, we presented a radically different vision of equity — one that departed from the age-old claim that India has had historically low emissions per capita, and thus shouldered little responsibility vis-a-vis developed countries for the damage caused by greenhouse gases. By 2011, we reverted to square one, pretending that the stance at Copenhagen was a result of ‘personality politics.’ Without commenting on the merits of Mr. Ramesh’s views, one must ask why India’s climate change negotiations have lent themselves to internal turf battles between diplomats, bureaucrats and ministers.
This question assumes importance as India prepares to elect a new government next year. Thus far, the United Progressive Alliance could have afforded not to institutionalise internal deliberations in India’s climate diplomacy. Ultimately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Union Cabinet were able to paper over differences between negotiators. Since 2007, when the Bali Roadmap was announced, the same handful of policymakers has decided India’s negotiating strategy on an ad hoc basis. But the luxury of continuity is short-lived: it is far from certain whether the incumbent will remain in power after 2014. In particular, a fractured mandate, prone to federalist compulsions, can have serious consequences on India’s empty-shell position on climate change.
Two years stand between the Bonn Conference and COP 21 in Paris, where negotiators are expected to churn out a legal instrument. For now, India’s stance runs contradictory to its desire to confront climate change. If our future per capita emissions are likely to be small compared to other industrial economies, of what use are voluntary ‘green initiatives’ without having major emitters on board? A new report by the International Displacement Monitoring Center has put a number on people displaced by climate-induced disasters in 2012. The tally reads thus: India 8.9 million, European Union 0. Yet India continues to press, almost unconscionably, for “incentives” to be part of a climate deal. We will be one of the worst-affected when the effects of global warming precipitate; our reactive climate diplomacy conveniently ignores this truth.
New Delhi would do well to reassess its notion of equity, as other developing nations have rightfully done. When, in 2011, Ethiopia announced its intentions to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2025, it effectively abandoned the premise that low emitters can forever point fingers at industrialised countries. Just as developed nations bear responsibility to assume more ambitious commitments, India should treat its differentially positioned population in equitable terms. The pernicious effects of climate change will be most acute among India’s vulnerable sections. If the West owes a historic obligation to the rest in confronting climate change, so too does India towards its impoverished.
(Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University)