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With the heads of Indian and Chinese governments deciding to skip the UN Secretary General’s climate summit, Indian negotiators are unsure of the line they should take

The absence of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and China’s president Xi Jinping from the UN climate talks this month is likely to be a blow to the chances of progress. (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

The absence of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and China’s president Xi Jinping from the UN climate talks this month is likely to be a blow to the chances of progress. (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

The absence of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping from the informal climate summit convened by the UN Secretary General on September 23 is likely to cast its shadow on formal climate negotiations as well. Moreover, Indian bureaucrats conducting those negotiations have still not been told by the country’s new government the line they should take.

A former bureaucrat who has for long been on the Indian government’s team at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations told, “We are proceeding on our 2009 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions intensity by 20-25%. A Chinese minister has just declared that China reduced its emissions intensity by 5% last year. What more do they want from us?”

The ex-negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wanted to know how many industrialised countries had fulfilled their GHG emission reduction obligations, legal or voluntary. “And have they kept their commitment to provide the developing world with money and technology, so that we can leapfrog to a greener economy?”

The former negotiator was echoing India’s long-standing position at the climate negotiations, which is to emphasise the need for equity in mitigating GHG emissions and for industrialised countries to compensate for their historical responsibility in putting so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that it is warming up the globe.

But current negotiators do not know if they are to stick to this line. They do not even know if they are going to remain negotiators. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is undergoing a major upheaval in its set-up, with its senior-most bureaucrat replaced and many others asked to go back to the state governments from which they originally came.

“In this situation, we do not know who will be on the negotiating team, leave alone what line they should take,” said an official, who spoke to on condition of anonymity. Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, has been meeting negotiators and politicians from developed and developing countries almost from the day he took office in late May. He has reportedly been telling them that India does not want to play spoiler in climate negotiations, as long as finances and technologies were available and it had a sufficiently long time window before being obliged to do any more mitigation than it was doing now. He reportedly told one foreign visitor the window should stretch to the 2030s, another that it should stretch to the 2040s.

But, according to the official, Javadekar has not told his negotiating team if this is the stand they should take or whether they should stick to the line of “differentiated responsibilities” between developed and developing countries, which is one of the cornerstones of UNFCCC.

Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to go to New York on September 26. His decision not to advance his trip by three days to appear at the informal climate summit has created further paralysis among the bureaucrats. Most of them don’t even know if the environment minister is planning to go instead.

Reports from Beijing indicate a similar paralysis among Chinese negotiators, following President Xi’s decision to skip the summit called by the UN Secretary General.

In this situation, the statement issued after the recent New Delhi meeting of environment ministers from BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries assumes added significance. The joint statement stuck to the long-held stand of developing nations.

See: Walk the talk on climate, BASIC group tells developed countries

Since then, there have been reports in India about alleged attempts by industrialised countries to woo Philippines away from the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) group, formed three years ago to articulate the stance of developing countries in climate negotiations. Other members of the group include India, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia. During last year’s UNFCCC summit in Warsaw, Philippines took a leading position in this group by pressuring industrialised countries to live up to their commitments to mitigate emissions and help poorer nations tackle climate change effects. This position was strengthened because that summit was held in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated large areas in the Philippines.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s informal summit comes as climate negotiations are heating up because a comprehensive global treaty to tackle climate change is expected by the end of 2015. Industrialised countries – led by the US and the European Union – are pressing for all 192 nations to take on legally binding obligations to rein in GHG emissions. India has so far opposed this strongly.

At a negotiating session at the Bonn headquarters of UNFCCC this June, on behalf of LMDC the Venezuelan delegation submitted a draft of what the global climate deal should contain, a draft that was promptly opposed by negotiators from many industrialised countries. Indian negotiators now say they are waiting to see the draft being prepared by the UNFCCC secretariat. They want this ready before the next UNFCCC summit – scheduled in Lima this December – so that every government has a year to negotiate before the 2015 deadline.

Leaders of climate NGOs that regularly shadow the UNFCCC summits are apprehensive because they have heard the French government is preparing its own secret draft – the 2015 summit will be held in Paris – just the kind of activity that led to a fiasco at the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Negotiators from most developing countries are keen to see a public draft months before the deadline.

The UN Secretary General’s informal summit is being held against this backdrop, with the hope that heads of government will provide some much-needed political impulse to the negotiations. Led by US President Barack Obama, many heads of industrialised nations are expected at the summit. The absence of China and India at the highest level will take some of the sheen off, but they can possibly come back on board if leaders of industrialised countries make serious commitments about what they are going to do to mitigate emissions and help developing nations. An expert group set up by the UN Secretary General has already given recommendations on how to finance a greener economic path for all countries.

The office of the UN Secretary General is bringing business and civil society leaders to meet the heads of state and government at the summit, hoping for announcements of new commitments and practical actions to address climate change. It will be the first time since the Copenhagen summit that a majority of world leaders will get together on the issue. Green NGOs are mobilising to hold street marches in New York and elsewhere to coincide with the summit. Ban Ki-moon said in a summit-eve statement, “Solutions exist and we are already seeing significant changes in government policies and investments in sustainable ways of living and doing business. The race is on, and now is the time for leaders to step up and steer the world towards a safer future.”

The article was first published by

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