If nothing else, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has sparked off a debate in India as to whether the country should consider a legally-binding cap on its carbon emissions. This is more than just a matter of abstract jargon. Capping carbon emissions means putting a limit on the country's energy production and consumption. And this has enormous consequences for a growing economy of a poor country like India.
Mr Ramesh subsequently diluted his original statement, arguing that developing countries would only accept voluntary mitigation commitments and that the commitments of rich and poor nations would be different from each other. But his statement at the Cancun climate summit had an impact, helping salvage an otherwise flaccid get-together. It also indicates a willingness of India to take a leadership position: offering to take a stance that will hurt its interests in the short-term but would benefit in the long-run. Mr Ramesh seems to have concluded that given India's vulnerabilities to climate change, India needs to go beyond its traditional policy of “do something only after everyone does.”
This is commendable, but only to a degree. India has many reasons to want to reduce its energy dependency on fossil fuels going beyond the merely environmental. Nonetheless, it cannot afford to take on the economic costs of binding emissions when there is scant evidence of other countries wanting to do the same. Unilateral disarmament in a world of warriors is a recipe for suicide not peace. Consider the case of the US and China, the two largest emitters. None are likely to accept an emissions bind. Yet India can be relatively pleased at its role at Cancun. It played a constructive role on the issue of international inspection of domestic mitigation projects and the technology-sharing agreement. Not much was expected from this summit given the continuing recession and the damaged credibility of climate science.
India still likes to think of itself as the leader of the developing world, but it should understand that its interests are now closer to a Brazil or South Africa than they are to a Maldives or Mauritius. The principle that an emerging economy should not be required to accept legally binding carbon emission curbs has been a bedrock principle of India's climate change policy. There may be grounds for tossing this aside. However, this has yet to be explained in any coherent fashion — either in terms of potential economic costs or how it fits into the country's negotiating strategy. Talk of saving the planet places a halo around climate change talks. But the halo comes with a price tag. And that tags needs an explanation.