If India wants ‘equity' back in the climate change debate, it must develop a grand strategy and a strong negotiating team to see it through.

You know your negotiating strategy is in trouble when countries ranging as far as Norway in the developed world to partners like South Africa and neighbours like Bangladesh start quoting Gandhi and Nehru back to you.

Two months ago, this was the unfortunate situation Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan had to face at the Durban conference on climate change. That she managed, through a passionate last-minute speech, to ensure that all was not lost for India goes to her credit. But the fact that India found itself outwitted and cornered at the endgame of these negotiations, with no option but to resort to an angry ministerial plea, is an indication of how far New Delhi has lost its way on the issue.

As the dust from the conference settles, and a new United Nations deadline approaches for countries to submit their formal views on the subject by the month end, it is time to reappraise India's performance at Durban, and see what lessons it can learn from it.

Three objectives

India had gone to Durban with three predominant objectives. First, to secure the continuance of the Kyoto Protocol, whose ‘first commitment period' is scheduled to end in 2012. Second, to ensure that its particular concerns on equity, intellectual property rights and unilateral trade measures, neglected in previous negotiating rounds, were substantively integrated in the future climate agenda. And third, to preserve the notion of ‘differentiation' between developed and developing countries, recognised through the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities' (CBDR) in both the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

Notwithstanding the euphoric declarations of victory in some national newspapers that uncritically peddled the government line, the overall results of the conference do not make comfortable reading for India. On the plus side, one may point to the fact that industrialised countries have now agreed to a ‘second commitment period' of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires them to reduce their emissions in a legally binding manner, potentially up to 2020. This is something India was anxious to secure, not least given its high investment in, and exposure to, the Clean Development Mechanism of the Protocol. The progress made in operationalising the technology mechanism that India championed might perhaps also be counted as a success. But these apart, there is little else from Durban that it can cheer about.

The continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, important as it may be, offers little more than an ephemeral gain. With the United States refusing to ratify the treaty; Canada blatantly disregarding its previous ratification; and Japan, Australia and Russia equally disinclined towards it, it is only the European Union's commitment at Durban that has still kept the Protocol alive. But it is unlikely to survive in its current form beyond this extended phase. And, going by past record, its ability to enforce serious emission reductions in developed countries also remains equally dim.

What India gave up in return at Durban however holds far more serious consequences. The most important decision that Parties took at Durban was to terminate the ongoing negotiating process on ‘Long-term Cooperative Action' (LCA) that had been launched under the Bali Action Plan in 2007, by the end of 2012. Adopted following tough negotiations, this had notably maintained the ‘firewall' between developed and developing countries and also the ‘linking clause' that had made mitigation by the latter contingent on the level of technological and financial support that they received from the former.

Copenhagen & Cancun

The 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the 2010 Cancun Agreements were both negotiated under this mandate. Even though they diluted the Bali ‘firewall', they nevertheless reaffirmed the core UNFCCC norms, that nations would need to combat climate change on the basis of ‘equity' and in accordance with the CBDR principle, respecting the various provisions of the Convention.

The new decision at Durban that now replaces the LCA negotiating track with the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action' remarkably fails to make even a passing reference to these foundational principles. Calling instead for the ‘widest possible cooperation by all countries,' a preferred formulation of the West, it launches a new process to develop a ‘protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force' by 2015, which is to be ‘applicable to all Parties', and enter into force from 2020.

Given the uncertainties of what this new mandate might ultimately produce, India did well to ‘loosen up' its legally-binding character by insisting on the inclusion of the third option. But the fact that a key decision was adopted for the first time in the entire 20-year history of international climate talks without even a cursory mention of ‘equity' and CBDR should give policymakers in New Delhi serious pause. What makes this omission even more striking is that it occurred, not through any oversight, but despite India's persistent and voluble invocation of these norms throughout the two-week long conference, and the months preceding it.

Absence of bedrock principles

Some have argued that since the new process is set to operate ‘under the Convention', all its principles and provisions will automatically apply, and hence do not need repetition. While this may hold some force, the absence of these bedrock principles from the Durban Platform text should be seen clearly for what it is: a successful attempt by the developed world to detach the future climate negotiations from their existing normative moorings, and to revise the very basis on which their legal obligations, and the legitimacy of the positions and arguments of countries like India, have so far been based.

India also failed in its bid to gain substantive recognition for the issues of intellectual property rights and unilateral trade measures. Even on ‘equity', the issue closest to its heart, all that it managed to secure in the end is a ‘workshop' on ‘equitable access to sustainable development', itself an ambiguous formulation, under a mandate that is now scheduled to expire. To what extent ‘equity' will find any formal operational recognition beyond 2012 remains an open question.

The outcome of the Durban conference — and India's failure to attain most of its stated objectives — should now raise serious questions about the wisdom of its negotiating strategy, and especially its alliance management. It should also raise questions about the capacity that it has brought to bear in these negotiations to date. At Durban, India fielded a delegation of 34 members, as opposed to 96 from the U.S., 101 from the EU, 228 from Brazil, 167 from China, and even 102 from Bangladesh. And insiders well know what the teeth-to-tail ratio even within this small group is.

Complexity of climate negotiations

However capable our top negotiators are, the sheer weight and complexity of climate negotiations today will inevitably lead to more slippages in the future unless this capacity constraint is urgently, and meaningfully, addressed. This overstretch is partly also the reason why key decision makers are left with little time to think more deeply and open-mindedly about the newer challenges that are confronting India today, and to develop effective and imaginative responses to them.

In recent years, India's climate foreign policy has undergone considerable oscillation, in not always explicable ways. While climate change is a complex issue, and genuine differences of opinion can exist among our politicians and bureaucrats on how best to approach it, it is far too important and strategic a concern for the country in the long run to be weakened by either individual caprice or collective groupthink.

If the interests of 1.2 billion Indians are to be adequately safeguarded in the coming decade and beyond, it is imperative that India develops both a coherent grand strategy to address climate change that enjoys broad cross-party parliamentary support, and a strong negotiating team to see it through.

Get your act together

In a few months' time, in June 2012, the international community will reconvene in Brazil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the historic Rio Earth Summit. The developed world will then no doubt try to use the precedent set at Durban to press for a more general erasure of the principle of ‘differentiation' within international environmental law itself. If this is an outcome that India wishes to avoid, it needs to rapidly get its act together on this issue. Durban is a wake-up call that it must not ignore.

(Sandeep Sengupta is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Oxford University and has worked professionally on global environmental issues.)

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