Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh tears into India’s stance at global climate negotiations, saying the government was being ostrich-like, inflexible and moralistic, and that it was a disastrous route, dangerous internationally

India may be “the last man standing in Paris”, said former union environment minister Jairam Ramesh at a recent conference on climate change. (Image by Yann Forget)

India may be “the last man standing in Paris”, said former union environment minister Jairam Ramesh at a recent conference on climate change. (Image by Yann Forget)

India may be “the last man standing in Paris”, said former union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, referring to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meet in Paris in December next year, which will mark the culmination of protracted negotiations which began in Copenhagen in 2009.

Ramesh was speaking at the opening of a recent conference on Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Equity and the post 2015 Challenge at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

“All the gains between 2009 and 2011 on the international front have been negated by our ostrich-like stance,” he said, adding that India was “inflexible and moralistic”.  It was a “disastrous route, dangerous internationally”.

He questioned why India was making common cause with the US and China, as well as OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and the Latin American bloc of Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and others.

The next year will be a milestone because it will mark an international compact based on the world not exceeding a rise of 2⁰C from pre-industrial levels. What is more, countries will move from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the deadline for which is 2015, to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“India is dreading both milestones,” Ramesh asserted, arguing that the government was being defensive, argumentative and moralistic, its position not based on enlightened self-interest. “We will be saying no till everybody says yes and India will join the bandwagon.”

He believed that a top-down approach on climate, as exemplified in carbon budgets where countries have surpluses or deficits, would not work. He favoured a bottom-up process with a pledge and review for each country.

While the MDGS were only applicable to developing countries, the SDGs applied to all. Sustainable development was important because nations could not follow the “grow now, pay later” approach due to climate change. There was the demographic factor, with India’s population growing by a third of its current size in 35 years and only declining after 2075.

While India had been championing equity among nations when it came to climate change, it would be taken more seriously if it had addressed this domestically and linked it to development, said D. Raghunandan, President of the All India People’s Science Network. Lavanya Rajamani of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research said, “India uses equity as a shield, not as a sword.”

The US had not fixed carbon emission mitigation targets for itself aspirationally and did not distinguish between developed and developing nations. “India and the US will lead the race to the bottom,” Raghunandan believed.

Ramesh castigated India’s climate negotiators for juggling with words, and being “a walking Thesaurus”. Raghunandan said they genuflected more to the grammar of Wren and Martin, while “the substance leaves a lot to be desired”.

Raghunandan agreed with Ramesh that India was isolating itself internationally. Other countries like the Africa group, island states and the Least Developed Countries were “astonished at the country’s ostrich-like stance” for not allying with them.

The “Last Man Standing” metaphor was not a prognosis but a certainty, he thought. He recalled a photograph of former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, who succeeded Ramesh, being surrounded by all countries for not taking a position at the 2011 Durban climate conference.

Ramesh argued that there should be a “trajectory correction”. The government operated in silos and the only integrative body was the Planning Commission, which is now being dismantled. The 12th Five-Year Plan had enshrined sustainable growth, and one of the commission’s last acts was to cite a low-carbon strategy.

The onus of being the climate deal-breaker was put on the US by Indrajit Bose, who represents the Third World Network, based in New Delhi. “The US too has stuck to its traditional stand of ‘inaction’ since the beginning of the negotiations,” he said. “It will not take action unless India and China would do so; American lifestyles are ‘non-negotiable’ and it treats all countries equally rather than equitably. It is also firmly against any determination of an aggregate target for developed countries for emissions reductions, insisting that no one can tell them what it must do.”

“The US was the biggest historical cumulative emitter in the world and the largest emitter until a few years ago. And yet it has committed to the least emissions reductions: 17% of emissions reduction over 2005 levels translates to about 3% over 1990 levels. Is that enough? Of the cumulative global emissions, until 2009, developed countries accounted for 72% compared to their share of population of about 25%.

“While the carbon budget approach which is premised on historical responsibility and per capita principles will benefit India and China and is actually the principled approach with a top-down approach, developed countries are hell-bent on ignoring historical responsibility and resistant to any top-down approach of this kind. Worst of all, we must not fall victims to the propaganda of the West – with those who place blame on developing countries and resort to tactics of isolation, demonizing and divide and rule.”

Low-carbon inclusive growth possible

Analysts are working on how India could adopt a low-carbon inclusive growth strategy for energy and climate security. Sudhir Chella Rajan of IIT Madras told the TISS conference: “On the basis of a detailed bottom-up scenario-based analysis, it appears possible for India to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2030 and also provide modern energy services to more than half its population who are currently unserved or under-served in this regard.”

He described how India was a highly stratified society, actually 10.5 [many] countries in one, where the top 5% consumers, earning $20,000 a year, approximated half the population of Russia which has such an income; 65% of the population had an income of $2,500 a year, while the bottommost 30% earned $500.

According to Rajan’s scenario, this would be corrected by “having to focus on providing energy services to at least the bottom 50 million or so households by providing LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) or advanced electric cook stoves where feasible, access to electricity for lighting, water, sanitation services, improved access to services in urban areas (involving changes in land-use and transport), improved agricultural services, and so on.

“India could rightfully occupy the moral high ground in the international community by arguing that it is meeting its development objectives and playing a key role (over and above its responsibility) in reducing the risk of global climate change,” he said.

“India could also press for recognition of the carbon debt under one of the more familiar equity schemes, such as historical responsibility and ability to pay, while claiming up to about 200 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) surplus emissions that could be sold on the international carbon market.”

The TISS conference called for wide-ranging consultations before the Indian government adopted its position for Paris. Government negotiators have asked UNFCCC to have a draft Paris treaty ready by the end of November this year, so that it can be discussed during the next UNFCCC summit, scheduled in the Peruvian capital Lima this December. India’s official stance is due to be ready by April next year. Delegates to the TISS conference said the focus of India’s strategy should be on removing the vulnerability to climate change of the most marginalised.

India should also play a leadership role in articulating the demands of the South. Indian actions must be predicated on actions of developed countries, which must make the deep cuts that developing countries expect.

India should, as part of the global community, be prepared to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, participants pointed out.

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