India needs both a principled approach and a strategic vision to take its negotiating position forward

An interesting recent public duel over India’s past approach to climate negotiations and tactics illustrates both the dissonance of Indian climate policy and the opportunities lost for a creative strategy. Former Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote in The Hindu (June 17 and 30, 2014) of his efforts to evolve India’s negotiating position in the context of real-time negotiating situations and politics at the Copenhagen and Cancun climate talks, even while seeking to safeguard India’s interests. Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a mainstay of India’s negotiating team for two decades, retorted in the Business Standard (July 7) that Mr. Ramesh’s efforts weakened the pillars of India’s long-standing positions while winning no concessions, amounting to own goals that were cheered on by the opposition.

Mr. Ramesh’s account criticises a dogmatic adherence to past negotiating positions, which he feels speak inadequately to current geopolitical reality and side-step rather than engage with key legal issues. Mr. Ramesh implicitly urges the need for an updated geopolitical map and correspondingly creative and strategic new approaches. Mr. Dasgupta critiques Mr. Ramesh’s failure to adhere to the principled moorings of India’s position, which he elaborates and defends at length. He urges continued use of the compass that has long guided India’s negotiating stance. Clearly, both map and compass are required for successful negotiations: flexibility in the context of changed political circumstances is needed, but is most useful when it can be calibrated against a clear understanding of interests and clarity of strategy.

India faces a challenging context before the next landmark climate negotiating session, planned for December 2015 in Paris. While exhuming the past can be illustrative, and even entertaining, it is now perhaps time to look forward and anticipate how a principled approach, strategic vision, political acumen and technical expertise can be better combined in India’s negotiating approach. What should we be preparing for between now and Paris?

Unsettling political calculations

First, by all accounts the U.S. and China are on the brink of a bilateral understanding on climate change that will completely unsettle existing political calculations. The U.S. has recently unveiled its most ambitious effort (albeit by its rather low standard of past effort) to domestically address carbon emissions, and China has sent out signals about capping its emissions in the near future. A potential shift in China’s position toward emission caps will be tectonic. Most notably, without China, India’s current favoured group of allies, the ‘like-minded developing countries’, will be reduced to an assorted assemblage of oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and some Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador. India will be making cause with countries that many climate vulnerable nations view as obstructionist in climate talks. In reality, India is both a highly vulnerable country, and also a large emerging economy. Our alliances need to account for this national context, and consider the likelihood of a U.S.-China rapprochement before Paris.

India faces a challenging context before the next landmark climate negotiating session in Paris in 2015

Second, the negotiations toward Paris are premised on preparation by countries of ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ to be submitted in early 2015. There is a reassuring recognition that these contributions will be tailored to national circumstances and constraints and backed by a national processes that take into account domestic priorities and plans. Many countries, including our BASIC partners, have launched national consultations to determine what their contributions should be. In the negotiations there is an emerging understanding that these contributions should contain an emissions mitigation component (which could include sectoral and/or emissions intensity targets), but could also contain adaptation, finance, technology and capacity building components identifying needs and current and proposed investments. India needs to carefully prepare these contributions so as to demonstrate not just what we can do with our own resources but what additional actions we could take with appropriate support. While the need to develop contributions is mentioned in the recent Economic Survey, we are starting extremely late. There is little evidence of a serious national dialogue on such contributions, which is critical to ensuring ownership of, responsibility for and delivery of these contributions across levels of governance and segments of society. Without carefully considered contributions, India will be hard pressed to ensure domestic objectives are well safeguarded even while contributing to building an effective global climate response.

Third, India has long and effectively championed the cause of equity in the climate talks. It has argued and continues to argue that the strict division of responsibilities between developed and developing countries in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992, based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, must be honoured. It has thus managed, at least so far, to ward off quantitative emission mitigation commitments for developing countries. Beyond this, however, it has neither offered concrete ideas for operationalising equity in the ongoing negotiations nor supported others who have. Indeed, India, with some other like-minded developing countries, has actively rejected an Africa Group proposal for a ‘Equity Reference Framework’, which has focused on how burdens may be equitably shared given differing historical responsibilities, development needs and current capabilities. Operationalising this framework would require a multilateral assessment of national contributions. India has proven suspicious of any assessment, even though the use of criteria proposed by the Africa Group can only work in India’s favour. In the political and legal context of the ongoing negotiations, a rigorous and consequential multilateral assessment process is the solitary mechanism under discussion that could potentially assess and perhaps even deliver equity in the distribution of climate burdens as well as adequacy of contributions by countries in relation to the agreed 2°C temperature goal. India’s rejection of an assessment process sacrifices an opportunity to operationalise equity and risks allowing developed countries off the hook.

Effective and equitable deal

Updated strategic alliances, substantive domestic policies well articulated with international negotiating positions, and a savvy approach to achieving our long-standing principled objectives are all important ingredients of a proactive and strategic Indian approach to the climate negotiations. An effective and equitable climate deal is in our interests as a climate-vulnerable country with development imperatives. We need to shape the emerging climate agreement to our needs, not merely seek insulation from mitigation commitments at any cost. There is still time to craft a forward-looking proactive approach premised on our development imperatives, faithful to the principles that inform our climate policy, yet tailored to the emerging geo-political context.

Lessons from the past are useful, but more useful still if used to productively and collaboratively address the sizeable task of looking forward.

(Navroz Dubash is senior fellow and Lavanya Rajamani is professor at Centre for Policy Research., New Delhi.)

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