Former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh set a cat among the pigeons, in his inimitable style, at a recent national conference on climate and sustainable development at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. He asserted that India would be “the last man standing at Paris”, referring to the United Nations climate negotiations which will culminate in France in December 2015. India’s current stance was “inflexible and moralistic, saying no till everybody says yes”, he added.
Other participants cited how his successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, was surrounded by all other countries at the Durban climate meet in 2012, when she refused to budge, an indication of India’s obduracy. The African group, the island states and least developed countries were ‘astonished at India’s ostrich-like stance’. India was a champion of climate equity and the yardstick of per capita emissions, but it would be taken more seriously if it addressed equity in its own backyard, domestically. As Lavanya Rajamani of the Centre for Policy Research put it, “India uses equity as a shield, not a sword.”
Ramesh has taken credit for breaking the logjam at the inconclusive UN climate summits at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun the following year, when he articulated India’s position as environment minister. In Mexico, he added a clause: “All nations must take on binding commitments in an appropriate legal form.” He believes that by proposing that such actions be reviewed by international agencies, developed countries would be subject to such verification.
At TISS, he elaborated on this theme and emphasised that a top-down approach, such as under the Kyoto Protocol, which established limits for industrial countries’ emissions and penalties for exceeding these, was not on the cards. Instead, he favoured a bottom-up, pledge and review process. Such voluntary disclosures, however, would hardly address the global climate crisis. If countries continue to burn fossil fuels without any constraints, and the earth’s temperature rise exceeds 2 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels, there is no way to prevent an irreversible catastrophe. Further, as India’s former climate negotiator, Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, has argued, such scrutiny would open the door for developing countries’ national mitigation actions, which are now also voluntary, to be treated as a treaty commitment.
The year 2015 is a landmark one for another reason: It will mark the deadline for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — such as halving the number of the world’s poor — and the ushering in of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While developing countries, including India, have performed better than expected in the former, developed countries have not met their targets. Thus, the goal for rich countries to contribute 0.7% of their GDP as aid has been observed in the breach, except for a few Nordic countries. The United States contributes only 0.19%. What is more, while the MDGs were mainly addressed to developing countries, the SDGs will be applicable to all.
Rich countries have also reneged on the amount of finance they offered in Copenhagen to help developing countries cope with climate change. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that they would provide $100 billion for a Green Climate Fund. It later transpired that this target would be met only by 2020 but that it would include ongoing aid programmes as well as private finance. The fund is nowhere near getting even $10 billion a year it was promised after Copenhagen.
The world is quite different from what it was in 2000, when the MDGs were established. China has now replaced the US as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases — though far below in per capita terms. In 2012, it accounted for 29% of the world’s total, compared with 16% of the US, 11% of the EU and 6% of India. But it is becoming the world’s leader in solar and wind power and will not hesitate to bypass the BASIC coalition of emerging economies — which includes Brazil, South Africa, India and China — to enter into a bilateral treaty with the US before Paris.
As TISS argues, ‘sustainable development’ is more an ethical than a technical term. Equity should be explicitly acknowledged as an integral part of all post-2015 goals. When it comes to climate, countries should adopt the carbon budget approach where each is either in excess or deficit of emission limits. India has to articulate its position keeping in mind its long-held position of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, which formulation has come under fire by the US and like-minded countries. The US believes that climate deals with other countries should be on an equal footing, rather than an equitable one.
India’s muddled policies on the climate front are predicated on it being a member of the G20 (group of the largest economies), which collectively account for 85% of the globe’s GDP. It is also eager to sup at the high table of the G8 industrialised countries, where it occupies a side table as the Outreach Five developing countries, which are invited as guests. It should actually be throwing in its lot with the G77 group of developing countries, which it has now abandoned, and speaking for it.
The grim reality is that our human development indices are abysmal. As many as one in every four people cannot access electricity and the widespread burning of biomass as cooking fuel extracts a terrible toll on health, not to mention contributing to the Asian Brown Cloud and accentuating global climate change. The Paris summit can prove a watershed if India dovetails its moves to provide energy to at least the poorest 50 million people, which can also represent India’s commitment to reducing emissions on a planetary scale. Only then can India stand up and be counted.
Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India
The views expressed by the author are personal