6 november 2009

Climate & credibility

Praful Bidwai, Frontline, November 7-20, 2009

India’s climate policy swing from a do-nothing hard line to tailing the U.S. will damage the chances of a worthy deal and hurt the poor everywhere.

WHEN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss climate change, among other things, he will face the full onslaught of the brand of diplomacy that the United States specialises in: intense pressure, backed by hardball tactics and gentle arm-twisting (if that is possible), and some cajolement and promise of rewards for joining hands with Washington.

Manmohan Singh will not find it easy to cope with the pressure, for three reasons. First, India’s own stand on what constitutes a good and desirable global climate deal that succeeds the Kyoto Protocol seems confused, divided and contradictory. The recent storm caused by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s letter to Manmohan Singh proposing a sharp break with the G-77 southern countries’ grouping and a wholesale shift towards the U.S. has seemingly blown over, but not without damaging India’s credibility and exposing deep fissures in its climate policymaking.

Second, there is such a yawning gap between what India demands of the developed North (both on its own, and as part of the G-77+China bloc) and what the U.S. is prepared to concede, that genuine reconciliation seems near impossible. The bloc wants the northern countries (called Annex 1 under Kyoto) to reduce their 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. Climate science tells us that such large cuts are essential if the world is to cap atmospheric GHG (greenhouse gas) concentrations under 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide-equivalent and limit global warming to under 2°Celsius over pre-industrial levels, thus preventing catastrophic climate change.

The U.S. is extremely reluctant to go beyond a miserly 4 to 7 per cent cut. Going by the domestic U.S. mood, anything more ambitious is unlikely to go through the Senate. The hiatus cannot be bridged through a compromise over numbers. Reconciliation may involve an altogether different compromise, with totally asymmetrical obligations.

Third, Manmohan Singh is so heavily invested in building a strategic partnership with the U.S. that he will find it hard to reject outright any U.S. insistence that the two countries coordinate their stand on a global agreement within the ambit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Only last year, Manmohan Singh staked the very survival of his government on the India-U.S. nuclear deal. It survived only because the Samajwadi Party opportunistically changed sides. He also sacrificed the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. To please the U.S., India has also signalled a softening of its stand in the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Doha Round. It has indicated its willingness to buy high-end military equipment from the U.S.

A close, special, intimate relationship with the U.S. is pivotal to Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy framework. He is better known as a pragmatic economic administrator who bows to reality than as a fighter for convictions. He has taken an unusually firm stand on only two issues in his public career: neoliberal economic policies, and a foreign/security policy orientation that decisively breaks with the legacy of non-alignment.

Jairam Ramesh’s maladroit intervention through a letter, which nearly triggered the resignation of one of India’s climate negotiators, must be seen in the dual context of this foreign policy orientation, and pressure from the North, led by the U.S., to reshape the climate negotiations, and minimise the obligations of the Annex 1 countries, which ought to reduce their emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, and 95 per cent by 2050 over 1990 levels.

The climate negotiations have followed a tortuous, mean and downhill course since the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, followed by Poznan (Poland 2008). Subsequent inter-sessional talks showed the North’s leading powers in the worst possible light – obsessively short-sighted, mulishly resistant to accepting their responsibility, persistently adversarial towards the South, and inclined to use the dirtiest tricks in the book, from bribing to threats to outright bullying, to push for a manifestly unfair climate deal.


The Bangkok talks (September 28-October 9) exposed the ugly underbelly of the global power system. There, the European Union – the good boy in the climate cast, which has made unilateral reductions commitments – joined the U.S. in assailing the UNFCCC and Kyoto and demanding an altogether new agreement that would abolish the distinction between the industrially developed and developing countries and bury the principle of differentiation in their responsibility to combat climate change. This was a rude surprise to many southern negotiators because the larger developing countries had put their best foot forward by adopting cooperative deal-making postures and declaring their willingness to undertake significant voluntary commitments.

The aim of the North’s crude, morally reprehensible and reckless attack on the Kyoto Protocol was twofold: mount pressure on the South’s bigger economies to reduce emissions and push for a weak global climate regime, which would enable the North to evade its obligations. So ferocious was the northern attack on Kyoto that even the most radical of civil society organisations, which have been unrelentingly critical of the Protocol’s flaws, were forced to defend it, holding their nose, as it were.

The threat to the edifice of the UNFCCC and associated arrangements united the G-77+China. But it left them shaken and demoralised. Norway brought some relief when it offered to reduce its emissions by a handsome 40 per cent by 2020 (although this would be conditional upon an ambitious Copenhagen agreement and on offsets trading). But the relief was minor. Particularly reprehensible was the role of the U.S., which had kept out of the Kyoto Protocol for all the wrong reasons.

The U.S. appears bent on working for a weak climate deal that only mandates incremental changes in the north’s emissions obligations while extracting substantial commitments from fast-growing Southern economies – to reduce the energy intensity of their gross domestic product, or GDP, (China and India) and rates of deforestation (Brazil and Indonesia). The U.S. also wants to prolong the UNFCCC process by stressing technical measurement and monitoring issues as part of the Bali requirement of MRV – measurable, reportable and verifiable voluntary mitigation actions. This parallels the U.S.’ past insistence on verification in various arms-control negotiations, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Some U.S. policymakers and -shapers would like the climate negotiations to be transformed into a framework-type process like the WTO negotiations. This will prevent a single, unified, comprehensive climate treaty that could yield immediate results in the post-2012 period. Rather, the emphasis would be on a prolonged process of talks, discrete agreements, and complex monitoring and verification arrangements.


The U.S.-led northern attack on the Kyoto Protocol poses a conundrum. On the one hand, the Protocol has failed to deliver what it promised on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Global emissions have increased almost three times since the 1990s. Only three of the European Union’s significant economies, Germany, Britain and Sweden, are likely to meet even the modest targets set by Kyoto. Britain has “achieved” its target by excluding transportation-related emissions from accounting, buying cheap carbon credits abroad, importing (rather than making) emissions-intensive goods. Canada will soon exceed its target by 30 per cent. The general record of compliance with Kyoto is appalling.

However, Kyoto has a rational kernel. That lies in its acknowledgement of North-South iniquities and the North’s historical responsibility for GHG emissions and bringing the world to the present pass. Thus, Kyoto imposes quantifiable obligations on the Annex 1 countries, but exempts the South. It is precisely this kernel the U.S. wants to undermine. Its proposal for an undifferentiated framework for mitigative actions by major economies from both North and South is an attempt to obliterate the North’s responsibility and its vastly greater obligation to support the decarbonisation of the global economy.

India must defend Kyoto’s rational kernel, consolidate the G-77+China bloc, and staunchly resist U.S. pressure for a new climate agreement that dispenses with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Capitulating to Washington’s pressure or inducements on the pretext of “bringing the U.S. into the mainstream”, as Jairam Ramesh put it, would mean colluding with it to produce a bad, ineffectual deal that imposes meagre emissions reduction obligations on the North, with weak compliance clauses and no penalties – an agreement that is guaranteed to aggravate the climate crisis.

The poor, especially in the South, are the worst victims of climate change. India’s poor are particularly vulnerable to it. From this perspective, not having a deal would be preferable to a bad deal that locks the globe into a high emissions trajectory. The best, or least harmful, outcome in such a situation would be a broad, principles-based political agreement at Copenhagen, which respects differentiation and commits all states to conduct negotiations in good faith to stabilise GHG concentrations at 350-450 ppm.


However, India faces a major credibility problem. Until September, it adopted a rigid and negative stance, which refused even voluntary, non-binding commitments to reduce emissions – although it is the world’s fourth largest emitter, spewing out warming gases at a rate that is twice the global average. This turned a blind eye to India’s moral and environmental obligation as a fast-growing advanced southern economy, along with China, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.

The climate cannot be stabilised with the North’s efforts alone. The South’s bigger economies will have to join in soon, in 10 or 15 years’ time – with voluntary cuts, to start with. The Indian offer to link its per capita emissions to those of the North is paltry and inadequate.

As has been repeatedly argued in this Column, it is tantamount to hiding behind the poor, while continuing with an elitist high-emissions growth trajectory that allows upper middle class “luxury” consumption to rise. This is as reprehensible as the U.S.’ attempt to hide behind China’s and India’s rich to evade its own obligations.

India is also guilty of climate change denial in respect of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. It is a scientifically settled and established fact that the glaciers are melting at unprecedentedly high rates, so high that most will vanish in 30 years’ time. The causes of the phenomenon, confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and by independent scientists all over the world including India, lie in the warming of the mountains to levels two to four times higher than the average global rise in temperatures, and the short-term effect of Black Carbon, consisting of soot and other products of imperfect combustion of coal and biomass (firewood, twigs, vegetable refuse and crop residues) widely used in India as cooking fuel in extremely inefficient stoves. Black Carbon, as researchers such as V. Ramanathan argue, is probably responsible for one-half of the glacier-melting and recession observed in the Himalayas.

However, the government has adopted an agnostic position on the glacier melting issue and downgraded the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) into a data-gathering and research project rather than one focussed on urgently needed remedies including a mass-scale switch to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves with an efficiency of 60 per cent (compared with 2 per cent for traditional stoves).

India’s response to climate change has been paltry, half-hearted and directed at preserving existing elite lifestyles. The NAPCC was hastily drafted, without consultation with independent experts and civil society organisations, and without proper strategies, measurable targets, budgets and timelines for the eight National Missions under it. Only three of the eight Mission Documents have reached any stage of maturity and been discussed in the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, which has approved “in principle” the National Solar Mission and the Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency.

India has to do far more, and better, if it is serious about containing climate change – for its own people’s sake, independently of the global negotiations process. There is a broad agenda for urgent domestic measures, some of which may be externally supported, but all of which are needed. They include rational energy planning; reform of energy generation (the biggest source of emissions in India); across-the-board energy efficiency improvement; reorganisation of the transport sector through promotion of public transport; low-energy housing construction; reform of agriculture to promote sturdy drought-resistant and low water- and energy-intensive crops; reorganisation of the water sector; reforestation and sustainable forestry; and good waste management.

Many measures involve low or no costs and a payback period as short as four months – for instance, a switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent lamps or improvement in the efficiency of motors used in countless industries. Prayas Energy Group estimates that energy-efficient lights, fans, television sets and other domestic and commercial appliances could save an astounding 70,000 million units of power – equivalent to the installation of 20,000 megawatt of additional generation capacity. This is more than twice the new capacity installed in the past three years.

India must quickly start picking such low-hanging fruit even as it drafts thoughtful medium- and long-range mitigation and adaptation plans. That would be the best way of regaining credibility and rebuilding a measure of North-South trust, which is necessary to drive the climate negotiations to a worthy conclusion.

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