Environmental activist groups in India are divided on Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's stance that all countries must take on binding climate change commitments in “appropriate legal form.”

While those focussed on India's status as a developing country have joined Opposition politicians in bashing the Minister's departure from the country's longstanding negotiating position, the local branches of global green pressure groups have welcomed India's emergence as “a progressive leader” in climate action.

“This is most unfortunate and uncalled for,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment, pointing out that India has always maintained that its domestic mitigation actions are voluntary in nature and not binding international commitments. The Minister's statement removes the distinctions between developing and developed countries, he felt.

“Industrialised or developed countries have a historical responsibility to cut emissions, since they have been emitting for several years. The developing world, on the other hand, needs the right to develop. This is the key premise that differentiates the two blocs from each other,” he argued.

He was sceptical about Mr. Ramesh's defence that he had been under tremendous pressure. “It is difficult to understand what kind of pressure might have forced the Minister to buckle down in this manner. Haven't Indian negotiators stood their ground all these years despite all the pressure?” he asked.

“Huge setback”

Prodipto Ghosh, who has been a senior climate negotiator for India for many years, was also critical. “This is a huge setback,” said the former Environment Secretary and current fellow with TERI. He felt that the Minister had already given way on “international accountability” of India's domestic actions, while this was a further compromise with regard to “international enforceability” as well.

“This is not about India wanting an equal right to pollute as some have put it, but a right to use energy. Once you put a constraint on that, how will you provide electricity to millions of villages? It will have a severe impact on our energy choices, on economic growth,” he said.

“Progressive step”

However, Greenpeace India felt that India should show leadership in making such changes in its energy choices. “It's a welcome progressive step, commensurate with India's global status,” said Divya Raghunandan, campaigns director for the Indian branch of the global environmental group. “We have to deal with the fact that other countries, including developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa are already accepting legally binding commitments. India needs to set the pace, rather than play catch up,” she said, urging domestic planning for a decarbonised growth pathway.

The Indian arm of global NGO WWF was more cautious in welcoming Mr. Ramesh's statement. “We don't completely disagree with him, it's just a more nuanced view of India's position,” said Aarti Khosla, campaigns manager of WWF India. “This is just opening up room for negotiation and trying to break the deadlock…We must realise that a binding commitment does not have to be a new treaty or protocol. It can just be a COP decision which is legally binding, but has no punitive consequences,” she said.