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Jairam Ramesh in climate hot seat

india Updated: Dec 08, 2009 10:18 IST
Anika Gupta

The Indian government, already under intense international pressure on climate change, faced a serious challenge to its climate change policy on Monday from opposition leaders in Parliament.

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh attended zero hour to take questions, but instead found himself facing harsh criticism of the government’s evolving climate change policy.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley said carbon intensity cuts, announced on Thursday, are a “bad strategy” that gives away too much and compromises India’s global negotiating position.

He accused the government of buckling under international pressure and “totally altering” India’s previous stand on climate change, which was based on the principle of equality in per capita emissions. India’s per capita emissions are still 20 times lower than those of developed countries.

“There is simply no compromise on India’s national interest,” Ramesh told the House. “I am prepared to come here again and again to answer any concerns.” He said that he would try not to take attacks on the climate change policy personally.

BJP leaders, dissatisfied with Ramesh’s response, staged a walkout. Members of the Samajwadi Party and the Left, among others, joined in. Ramesh later said the walkout was “pre-planned”.

The oppositions’ harsh criticism has put intense pressure on Ramesh, even as he faces dissent with his own ranks and criticism from the outside world. On Sunday, he was forced to call an emergency meeting to talk two of his key negotiators out of abandoning the Copenhagen talks. They too said they were confused about what exactly India's official stance is.

The past few months have seen Jairam Ramesh - the central figure in the government's climate change battle - struggle to balance competing environmental demands. He hasn't violated India's traditional stance, but over the past months he has consistently questioned it.

"We must be flexible without compromising basic national interests," Ramesh said, during a four-hour Parliamentary discussion of the carbon intensity cuts. He also suggested India would be willing to do more if offered finance and support by developed countries.

The current cuts, as well as efforts to share information with the international community, reflect the views that Ramesh suggested in a summer letter to the Prime Minister. The letter, which questioned India's decades-old position on climate change, caused an uproar when it was leaked to the press.

India's stated position on climate change is that every person should have "an equal entitlement to the global atmospheric resource." That's the language laid out in the government's 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change.

Practically, it means that India will never agree to binding emissions cuts until its per person greenhouse gas emissions match those of the developed world, which by most projections won't happen for the next several decades.

India has also said that it won't allow international bodies to review its mitigation projects until and unless rich nations agree to fund those projects.

The opposition, led by Jaitley, strongly advocates sticking to this position, which has been India's official stance for years.

Meanwhile, the economies of the West, dogged by the recent recession, have put increasing pressure on growing economies like India and China to relax this stance.

Science, also, has put pressure on India to reconsider. Mounting evidence suggests that India will face catastrophic resource shortages if climate change advances. RK Pachauri, leader of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has said even the two degree Celsius global warming target agreed to by the global community might be too high for developing countries like India, which will be first to suffer as sea levels rise and food production falls.

India isn't the only nation to relax its position in the runup to Copenhagen. The US, led by president Barack Obama, reversed its decades-old resistance to emissions cuts and recently proposed to cut its emissions by 17 per cent over 2005 levels by 2020.