Will India be the last man standing in Paris in December 2015, when the UN asks all nations to come to an agreement on coping with climate change? This is what former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh alleged at the inauguration of a national conference on “Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Equity and the post-2015 Challenge” at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on 21 August.

After what he thought was a positive contribution at the previous UN climate meetings at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun, Mexico, the year after –  in both of which he articulated India’s position  – he believed that it had become “inflexible, with its moralistic stance”.

Launching a veiled attack on his successor, Jayanti Natarajan, he said: “India is a hero internationally and a villain domestically.” He questioned how India was aligning itself with such climate culprits as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the OPEC bloc. It could not make common cause with Qatar which has a per capita income of $90,000.

Other speakers also alluded to India isolating itself by allying with the aggressive Latin American Alba countries like Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Ramesh asserted that India had to address both the international dimension in coming to an agreement as well as the domestic imperative of development. While China did not take the UN negotiations seriously, it was providing leadership in the green economy. While India was ahead of China 25 years ago in renewables, it was now importing these technologies.

He believed that India should delink its international policy with the domestic. It should invest aggressively in the green economy, the associated benefits of which would be an improvement in public health. He thought that India – with the BASIC countries of Brazil, South Africa and China – was the only country in the world to uphold the principle of per capita emissions, while not doing anything about per capita equity at home.

India was indulging in verbal jugglery at the negotiations by distinguishing between “commitments” and “contributions”. By insisting on issues such as funding to buy intellectual property rights on climate-friendly technologies, it was “paying the heaviest price”.

D. Raghunandan, President of the Delhi-based All India People’s Science Network, agreed that the Africa group of countries, island states and Least Developed Countries, all of which face the brunt of climate change, were “astonished at India’s ostrich-like stance”.

He believed that India being the last man standing “was not a prognosis but a certainty”.  It should not draw a parallel with the current impasse in the World Trade Organisation because if negotiations at the latter table failed, it would not be a threat. Climate change posed a real threat to large sections of the population whose very survival was at stake. “Therefore, India should work towards a global solution,” he affirmed.

India’s stand on per capita emissions would be taken more seriously if it also addressed development at home. The US was refusing to set targets for reducing its emissions and to differentiate between developed and developing nations, insisting on a single framework for all countries, “India and the US will lead the race to the bottom,” he emphasised.

Ramesh also pointed out that in 2015, countries would formulate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would also apply to all. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the deadline for which is next year, only applied to developing countries.

He concluded that a top-down approach to curbing emissions, as exemplified in the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to establish targets for developed countries to cut their emissions, and penalties for failing to do so, was too technocratic to work. The three largest fossil fuel-dependent economies – the US, China and India – would not accept this.

Instead, he advocated a bottom-up pledge and review process. However, as participants observed, countries would be ready to pledge their emissions cuts, but would be allergic to submitting to an international review of these.

At a BASIC consultation four months before the climate meet in Durban in 2012, China was pushing for the application of carbon budgets, which would quantify which countries were exceeding their capacity and which could continue to emit. South Africa backed out, while India hedged. The US position was: “Don’t talk to us about it or we won’t talk to you at all.”

Raghunandan advocated a regional approach to the negotiations where India allied with the Least Developed Countries. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was compromised by the positions taken by Bangladesh and Maldives, which were far worse threatened by rising ocean levels.

Professor T. Jayaraman from TISS differentiated between coalitions of countries in the climate negotiations. There were the like-minded developing countries, which included Alba, OPEC, India and China. There were countries which resorted to self-differentiation through self-selection, effectively bypassing the UN’s distinction between developed and developing countries. This included the Umbrella Group, a loose coalition of non-EU developed countries which was formed following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. This is usually made up of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the US.

The pecuniary angle

Lavanya Rajamani from the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi stressed how the Global Climate Fund, instituted in Copenhagen to help developing countries cope with climate change, had not been operationalised. It was supposed to raise $10 billion a year by 2015, rising to $100 billion by 2020. However, it was not clear how much of this funding was from private sources and bilateral funding between countries. Jayaraman questioned how much finance there would be, where it would come from, and whether it would be legally binding for developed countries to contribute to it.

Dr Abhijit Sen, a former member of the Planning Commission and now with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, cited how developing countries had achieved better-than-expected progress towards the MDGs.  However, he too raised the question of finance, where most industrial countries had reneged on their commitments.

The eighth and final MDG, setting a global partnership for development,  set a target of developed countries paying 0.7 per cent of their GDP as aid. By 2004, the US had only contributed 0.17 per cent, the UK 0.36 per cent and Japan 0.19 per cent. By contrast, Norway topped the list and exceeded the target, with 0.87 per cent, followed closely by Denmark with 0.85 per cent, and Sweden with 0.78 per cent.

Where to draw the line

Indrajit Bose of the Third World Network, based in Delhi, questioned whether India should be demonised for blocking negotiations internationally. The US commitment of reducing emissions by 17 per cent over 2005 levels amounted to just 3 per cent over 1990 levels, the year that the EU and other progressive countries were treating as their benchmark to lower emissions by 20 per cent.

“While the carbon budget approach which is premised on historical responsibility and per capita principles will benefit India and China and is actually the principled approach with a top-down approach,” he said, “developed countries are hell-bent on ignoring historical responsibility and resistant to any top-down approach of this kind. The US is also firmly against any determination of an aggregate target for developed countries for emissions reductions, insisting that no one can tell them what it must do. Worst of all, we must not fall victim to the propaganda of the West – with those who place blame on developing countries and resort to tactics of isolation, demonising and divide and rule.”

The conference ended with a call for wide-ranging consultations before India finalises its position before the Paris conclave. Participants stressed that India should play a leadership role in articulating the position of the global South, which it had done, for instance, in the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  

There was little carbon space left and developing countries were not in a position to be strategically offensive, so their unity was the only defence. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” had to be recognised and the climate policies of countries had to be assessed according to their national circumstances. India’s policy had to be predicated on the actions of developed countries, from which deep cuts were expected.