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India's climate volte face: Tragedy or farce?

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has suggested to the PM that India opt out of the Kyoto Protocol, jettison the G77 developing countries, and voluntarily accept cuts in emission without any guarantee of funding or technology from industrial nations in return. This goes against every principle which India has articulated on behalf of all developing countries, says Darryl D’Monte

With tension building up over the UN climate treaty being renegotiated in Copenhagen this December, journalists may be forgiven for dusting their dog-eared copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare – or, more likely, googling Hamlet. The most obvious pun would be to liken the likely absence of the US -- the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a country which under President Bush signed, but refused to ratify, the Kyoto Protocol – to Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. However, another few moments of web search would reveal that there are other themes in this complex play which may well surface in the Danish capital.

So as not to be seen as overly sensational, we can omit the incest from Shakespeare’s play (although the temptation is great), but other themes persist: treachery and moral corruption. There is no one playwright here, but interlopers and upstarts, and the script is changing by the day. The overarching villain, the usurper King Claudius, remains the US in contemporary times, even with the benign visage of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama occupying the throne. There is no dearth of thespian talent to play the role of Ophelia. Japan was grooming itself in the earlier dress rehearsals, with a pathetic offer to cut its emissions by 2020. Its new government, however, has upped the ante. Till a few days ago, the main contender in the make-up department was Australia, which has gone along with the US, and even a couple of steps further, in opposing the principles embodied in the Kyoto Protocol – of “common but differentiated responsibility” between nations in tackling climate change.

But, dramatic as it sounds, India – or rather Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh -- is now proffering itself or himself for the role. The Times of India  has leaked a confidential letter which Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has written to the PM, suggesting that India should opt out of the Kyoto Protocol, jettison the 131 G77 developing countries (and China), and voluntarily accept cuts in emissions without the slightest guarantee of any funding or technology from industrial nations in return. Simply and baldly stated, this goes against each and every principle which India –during the epoch-making UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and nearly two decades since – has in fact articulated on behalf of all developing countries.

To be fair, India gave sufficient indication that it was undergoing a major change of costume in the dressing room during these rehearsals. Last month, it indicated that it was ready to undertake cuts of emissions, although it couched this as part of its internal adaptation strategy. It was even prepared to quantify the cuts over a period of time – although Ramesh himself, no vacillating Hamlet, had told Hillary Clinton on her visit to Delhi after the G8 meets in Italy precisely the opposite. No less a person than the prime minister has gone on record to refuse to specify what cuts India will undertake, stating that it will never allow its per capita emissions to rise above the current global average of 4.4 tonnes.

Who is changing the script, and does it have the authority of the cabinet to do so, on a treaty which literally is a matter of life or death? A day after the furore erupted, the Congress party is already in damage-control mode. In his letter, Ramesh says: “India must listen more and speak less in negotiations”, as its stance is ‘’disfavoured by the developed countries, small island states and vulnerable countries. It takes away from India's aspirations for permanent membership of the Security Council".  So the Security Council has higher priority in a country with the largest number of poor people in the world, people reeling under perennial droughts and episodic floods? Let’s be clear: if the world doesn’t get its act together and keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels (it is already 0.8 degrees), we are in for some very cataclysmic changes, which will drag everything and everyone down with them.

In September, Ramesh told the Indian Express regarding the acceptance of voluntary cuts by India: “Yes, there is a nuanced shift. But the shift is not in our negotiating stand. That stand remains the same. We are not going to accept any legally binding commitments on reducing carbon emissions. We will not allow the dilution of the per-capita principle. There can be no compromises on these. The shift is in the atmospherics around the negotiations. For long, this canard is being spread that India has been holding up an agreement…that India is not proactive on climate change. This should be able to nail those lies.

“We are already taking a number of actions that will result in significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. We are in a position to quantify these reductions into a broadly indicative number that can be shared with the rest of the world. I see no problem with that…it will completely demolish the myth that India is doing nothing to reduce its emissions. India, which has no historical liability in polluting the atmosphere and has no commitment  to reduce its emissions, is doing much more than the countries which are responsible for the current mess and bound by international law to take targeted emission cuts.”

Brave new words, and seemingly without much prompting from the wings. On the face of it, the stand appears unexceptionable: India should take the wind out of the sails of the US, Australia and even in the far recesses of the greenroom: the really proactive EU, by announcing voluntary cuts and thereby putting the pressure on the major polluters of the world. But Ramesh’s leaked letter signals an altogether new trajectory. First, it seeks to bury the Kyoto Protocol, contrary to what the PM’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, Shyam Saran, has been repeating ad nauseam at meetings of the UN climate change convention parties in the build-up to the major enactment in Copenhagen. He has always said, in relation to almost deafening whispers and – at Bangkok earlier this month – open endorsement by the EU of the US stand that Kyoto is a non-starter, that there is one UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which some 190 countries have signed, and that is the only basis for moving ahead on negotiations. ..

Saran has been at pains to emphasise that the Kyoto Protocol was born out of this convention which the US also signed, and therefore it is the only valid international treaty on which to negotiate when the first phase of the protocol ends in 2012, not the protocol itself. At Bangkok recently, Saran told Indian journalists how betrayed the Indian delegation felt that the EU had revealed that it already decided on scrapping the protocol one whole year ago. India’s negotiators, and all of G77, understandably felt let down that it has been painstakingly negotiating a text all along, which at one stage ran into some 200 or more pages, twice at Bonn earlier this year, when this was not apparently on the EU’s agenda at all (the US has at least been consistent in opposing it). After Ramesh’s latest missive, one negotiator is contemplating putting in his papers.

In reply to a question by this columnist, experts familiar with the UN negotiations admitted that the only reason why the EU was contemplating a change of setting for the drama was the obduracy of the US to the K word, the very mention of ‘Kyoto’. They further admitted that this had much to do with President George Bush’s explicit statement that the US wouldn’t sign the protocol not only because major emerging countries like China and India weren’t coming on board. He also made the atrocious remark that when it came to cutting emissions, and thereby hurting less energy-efficient sectors of the US economy, it wasn’t kosher because “US lifestyles can’t be compromised”, or words to that effect. So here’s the scenario: while the play Hamlet deals with the eponymous character’s congenital indecisiveness, here on Claudius’ part, it is a question of downright self-absorption and self-indulgence, the shadow of Obama notwithstanding. The generous will argue that his hands are tied because he has to face the concerted opposition to any domestic energy bill from the Republicans, not to mention a few Democrats thrown in for good measure. There’s a heavy dose of moral corruption in this play…

Second, Jairam wants to us prostrate ourselves before Western interlocutors, who have been crying themselves hoarse about India’s obduracy in resisting cuts in the negotiations. Nitin Sethi reports in Times of India: “In his letter to the PM, the Environment Minister has said India will suffer no harm if the Australian Proposal does not dilute the distinction between Annex 1 [industrial] countries and others, and recognises difference in obligations. Significantly, the Australian Proposal has no such provisions. The proposal, which the US has lobbied India in bilateral forums and in multilateral meets to accept, asks all countries regardless of existing status, to take obligations. In its present form, when read with other proposals, it seeks to cap India's emissions by 2020 and force further reductions later on. A cap on emissions automatically converts into a cap of how much energy India can use.”

One has only to read the triumphalism exhibited by Western leaders after the PM agreed to the 2 degree cap in Italy. Ed Miliband, Britain’s Climate Change Minister, said that the meetings “produced real breakthroughs in negotiations when global leaders pledged for the first time to agree to keep a global temperature rise within 2 degrees Centigrade. This means from now on, both developed and developing countries will have to demonstrate that their actions and commitments are consistent with this scientific framework.” The UK government added: “For the first time, developing countries have committed to undertaking low carbon development plans; agreed to take action to deliver 'meaningful deviation' from their projected Business as Usual emissions; and have committed to their emissions peaking as soon as possible.” Give them an inch, these leaders, as we ought to know from the protracted trade and intellectual property rights negotiations, and they’ll take several miles.

It should be quite clear if we follow the sacred principles of laissez faire economics that the polluters must pay. India has less than a quarter of carbon dioxide and total greenhouse gas emissions of the leading emitters of the world, China and the United States, in both annual and per capita terms. India’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are almost a third of the world average of 4.4 tonnes. Each American emits on average 20 tonnes a year. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its Reference scenario, projects that India’s emissions will grow at about 4%  per year, contributing less than 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 (though India is home to almost a fifth of world population). 

At the Bangkok meet, the EU, which has been the most proactive on climate and has announced a 20% cut below 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 30% if the US comes on board, itself came in for criticism by several international green organisations. According to them, the EU needs to double its cuts to 40% by 2020. The G8 declaration, astonishingly, left it to individual countries to determine the baselines from which emission levels have to be reduced: 1990 “or later years”. Germany, the UK and other European countries, which are the greenest in this regard, want to cut theirs by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The US, which accounts for a fifth of all emissions, wants to reduce its emissions from current levels. It doesn’t require much maths to calculate that shifting the baseline by 19 years makes a huge difference to commitments. Industrial counties’ emissions have grown both in absolute and per capita terms till 2007. This was precisely at a period when President Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that China and India weren’t agreeing to cut their emissions.

While there is a consensus even in the US that 2050 is the ultimate deadline for the world to get its climate in order, the intermediate goals are by no means settled. As Dinesh Patnaik, a ministry of external affairs negotiator, says, “For any long-term goals, there have to be credible mid-term goals.” If major industrial countries intensify their efforts only as this date looms near, it will be virtually impossible to prevent temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees, the “tipping point”. The much-vaunted Waxman-Markey bill in the US, which seeks to cap emissions by the world’s biggest polluter, kicks in only towards the end of this period. By some calculations, to keep within 2 degrees, global emissions must reduce by 10% from 2010 itself and 25% by 2012, which no country will accept. 

The semi-final act, or possibly not in this fast-moving scenario, where domestic opposition in G77 countries and at home may force India to retreat to the wings, was reported in The Guardian in October. “The Obama administration is hoping to win new commitments to fight global warming from China and India in back-to-back summits next month,” it stated. ‘’China and India are both critically important to achieving our international goals on carbon,’’ said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat who serves on the Foreign and Environment Committees…”Indian officials are looking to Singh’s visit [to the White House on November 24] to replicate an energy agreement signed between the US and China in July. India wants help in speeding its adoption of new, greener technologies and expanding its use of solar power.”

China, let it be said, has no moral scruples in its foreign or domestic policy; but India? The US has a time-honoured method of entering into bilateral relationships with developing countries to further, if not force, its national interests, as we have seen in trade talks. On global warming, the Bush administration had introduced the abortive Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Energy & Climate, with Canada, Australia (the erstwhile Ophelia and still a strong contender for the role), Japan, South Korea and India precisely to bypass the UN climate change convention, with its compulsory emission cuts and penalties for violations. The sectors it targeted for an exchange of technologies, like cement, steel and power generation, are precisely those which the US and Australia fear China and India will have a competitive advantage in, if they do not undertake to cut their emissions.

If, as the US and EU are now proposing, the Kyoto Protocol is scuttled and a brand new entity comes into effect, it will presumably funnel some of the funds that will be paid by industrial countries to mitigate climate change but also have the powers to monitor the moves in each country to reduce emissions, rather like the World Bank with its loans or International Monetary Fund with its structural adjustment policies or World Trade Organisation with its eagle eye on removing trade barriers , all of which have plunged the world economy into deep crisis. These institutions, as Saran has repeatedly emphasised at the UN negotiations, are far from being democratic, since there is no “one country, one vote” system. The very fact that the US always chooses the head of the World Bank from one of its nationals, and the French, the IMF, speaks for itself.

There is only one moral to be drawn from this sordid drama, which is being played out before our very eyes. A section of India’s decision-making elite – both in the political-bureaucratic system on the one hand and business interests on the other -- clearly believes that it is in India’s interests now to align itself with the US in its foreign policy. President Obama has made no secret of the fact that climate is one of the cornerstones of US international policy. This is of a piece with India signing the nuclear deal with the US, even at the risk of destabilising its own coalition, on the specious plea that this would boost India’s energy  supply. If and when the entire Indo-US nuclear energy deal goes through, it will supply just 7% of the total energy, which is hardly substantial, leaving aside the serious objections to nuclear energy itself.

Who will take a bow when the curtain falls in Copenhagen? By all accounts, India and China are waiting in the wings, to flank the US and EU who are the main dramatis personae, with Japan and Australia in between. In the interval, Ramesh and others of his ilk would do well to recall the immortal words of the Bard:

This above all; to thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night the day,  Thou canst not then be false to any men.

Infochange News & Features. October 2009