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No jet lag on climate

France says there can be no free riders on the environment and that India needs to be more proactive, says Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2009 22:29 IST
Lalita Panicker

The only element of humour in the never-ending pre-Copenhagen meets was when someone asked how much jet fuel, with all its attendant damage to the environment, it would take to cart all the thousands of participants
to the Copenhagen talkfest that kicks off today. Otherwise, the business of greenhouse gas emissions brings out the unsmilingly serious side of most people, notably officialdom. And perhaps nowhere more so than in France where the government and its ancillary bodies feel more has been done to save the planet than anywhere else.

And they wouldn’t be too far off the mark. France leads the world in nuclear energy, read clean energy, and, therefore, feels it has the right to be a bit preachy. But, this has not clouded its sense of realism about the outcome of the Copenhagen summit. Laurent Stefanini, Ambassador of France for the Environment, is clear that no treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol will emerge in Copenhagen. The best-case scenario is an agreement that could eventually become legally binding. This, he feels, might just get the notoriously reluctant Americans on board. The very fact that US President Barack Obama plans to drop by in Copenhagen signals that the US might be a little more bendy than in the Bush era of ‘emitter takes it all’.

France, meanwhile, has arrived at a joint position with Brazil on the climate change issue and as Phillipe Leglise-Costa, Permanent representative of France at the European Union puts it, would be more than glad to do the same with India. But with the developing countries and least-developed countries still sticking to variations of the polluter pays principle, the financial architecture of a new climate change regime becomes a problem. The French position is that whatever a new global fund on the environment notches up must go on a priority basis to Africa and other poor countries that have no capacity to deal with the problem themselves. That money should come from the carbon market, he feels.

India’s position that it would undertake mitigation and adaptation measures internally has received a cautious welcome in France. This is because New Delhi has made it clear that none of these would be open to international scrutiny. The ebullient Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh has said as much. There is some logic in opposing this position. If the greenhouse gas emissions are a collective problem, there have to be international yardsticks on assessing reduction measures. It cannot be that any one country decides on the parameters of reduction unilaterally.

Christian Masset, Director-General of Global Affairs, Development and Partnerships in the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, is more clear in his stand. “There can be no free riders on the issue of the environment.”

He is obliquely critical of developing countries. He is aggressively pushing for a world environment organisation that will ensure compliance with whatever comes out of Copenhagen, coordination and framing a compendium of rules. Today, there are 500 conventions on the environment. There are many which overlap each other. The idea is to bring them under one umbrella body and make sure that the rules apply to all countries.

Underlying all this is the threat that a carbon tax could be imposed on those who don’t play ball. Could this mean sanctions for those who don’t fall in line? In that delightful obscure French way, the answer would seem to be that this could be a possibility in the future but how it would hurt to have to hurt others. And we can see how that would go down with countries like India and China. The old dictum of trust but verify would be desirable though in environmental jargon, it sounded so much nicer when it was put as ‘we need a multilateral surveillance’.

Leave aside the developing countries, the countries of the EU are in different states of development. With 27 nations, the EU has its own share of problems. While France is clear that the EU will not adopt a business-as- usual policy, it acknowledges that countries like Poland that have a long way to go cannot be held down to high emission targets.

The same applies to India and China, given the latter’s headstart in industrialisation and its vastly greater polluting capacity. Here the Chinese seem to have played their cards better than the Indians in showing greater willingness to undertake emission cuts. Whether they do so or not is a moot point. But whereas in China, the monolithic state is taking the initiative, in India private companies seem to have left the government behind in their zeal for green technology.

This is because many of them have studied the European model, especially that of France, and seen that green technology actually enhances the bottomline in the long-run.

But as with the Kyoto Protocol, at the end of the day, the position still remains that even if the whole world bends over backwards to enforce cuts, the threat to the environment remains as long as the US continues its flagrant lifestyle. The only difference now is that the rest of the world seems determined to go ahead and leave the US to its own devices if it continues its intransigence. The idea seems to be that a US in recession will have to come to its senses if it wants to keep its head above the water. Which explains why Obama has gone to Copenhagen.

There is a sense of slight unease at India’s shifts in position from time to time. But also the belief that unlike an inflexible US, India has understood that while poverty is its prime preoccupation, it will not put off trying to
implement emissions’ reductions at this stage of industrialisation.

While India might not buy the theory that it must pay its way, as France seems to suggest, it does seem to acknowledge that it cannot wait for full industrialisation to take place before it catches the emissions’ reduction bus. Which would suggest that all that jet fuel may not go to total waste after all.