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With the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit round the corner, it is time for India to come out of defensive mode and put forward ambitious plans on climate actions, and not just re-hashed actions that it has already been doing within the country

With just 14 months left to negotiate a global treaty on climate change, India needs to play its cards well, and to win allies across groups of countries. (Image by Greenpeace)

With just 14 months left to negotiate a global treaty on climate change, India needs to play its cards well, and to win allies across groups of countries. (Image by Greenpeace)

The Indian position in climate negotiations and posturing at the political level on various climate change issues has been met with mixed reactions from across the world. This is partly due to India’s choice of allies at the negotiations,the position it takes as a group and also the way it communicates to the world on important political issues related to climate change.

Most climate activists in India have been advocating in the recent past for a review of the strategic position of the government in various forums on climate change. The new government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party raised the hope of doing so by adding the phrase Climate Change to the name of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

This was important on at least two counts: (a) it sent a positive signal about the new government’s seriousness on dealing climate change issues both domestically and internationally, and(b) it seemed that with the specific mention of climate change, the ministry would advocate for developing a coherent approach to climate change actions which sometimes transgress the domain of the ministry in the earlier system.

Environmentalists welcomed this move. But the time has now come to take a closer look at the actual approach of the government, India’s posturing and strategic engagement on climate change issues.

The most important of these recent international engagements have been the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit held in July. The focus of the meeting was to develop and establish the modalities of the BRICS bank. The group also has substantial geo-political clout. So decisions on climate friendly actions in the field of energy cooperation, financial support and a plan of work on climate actions would have sent a message to the world. That opportunity was missed.

In climate negotiations, two of the key issues that bother India are access to technology and financial support for its climate actions. But during the BRICS summit, India did not raise either issue, though that would have been an excellent forum to do so and agree to clean technology cooperation between the five countries.

While some may argue that the BRICS summit was not meant to focus on climate change, no one can deny that with the upcoming UN Secretary General’s Summit on Climate Change and next year’s crucial climate negotiations in Paris, the world is prioritising this issue. Failing to address it at the BRICS summit was a lost opportunity to set at least some of the agenda on climate negotiations.

BASIC meet

The other important forum was the BASIC environment ministers’ meeting held in August. This meeting has always focussed on climate change negotiations from the points of view of Brazil, South Africa, India and China – the four member countries. In their recent past, all these countries have sought clarifications of the INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) that were agreed during the Warsaw climate summit last December.

The BASIC group has differed from the understanding of most industrialised countries that see INDCs as just information on greenhouse gas emission mitigation actions undertaken by all countries. The BASIC countries have maintained the information on support provided by industrialised countries is part of the INDC information. This difference has made the issue more political than technical.

Thus, clarity on the content of INDCs by the BASIC group would have set the ball rolling for the forthcoming sessions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The BASIC group has maintained the need for information sharing should be made under the context of common but differentiated responsibilities between industrialised and developing countries to combat climate change.

This is very welcome, but discussions on how this could have been made applicable in the context of INDCs would have been a move forward and could have set the agenda for the future discussion.

As the host country during the BASIC meeting, India should have led the process and put ideas on the table. It has failed to do so, and has limited itself to the broad principles which will not lead to substantial outcomes. It is very clear that the BASIC group has been playing a defensive game, rather than setting the agenda at the UNFCCC discussions.

The real tussle on INDCs is the interpretation of the term ‘contribution’. While developed countries mostly understand it from the perspective of putting the actions on mitigation by the countries in the public domain, developing countries including the BASIC group reiterate the need to include information on all the key elements of the Bali Action Plan by the developed countries, more specifically on more transparent information on support.

It would have been ideal for the BASIC group to put out a template on what information should be included, and how they should be represented in the INDCs as part of the contribution from developed countries. This would have served two purposes: (a) it would have nailed the opacity of information on support which is being provided by developed countries; and (b) it would have set the agenda for discussion in the upcoming UNFCCC session at October in Bonn. The issue must have been discussed behind closed doors, but little except the broad framework is in the public domain.

MEF moment

The other moment of reckonings was the Major Economies Forum (MEF) meeting in Paris followed by the Petersburg Dialogue in Berlin this July. In both meetings, India remained silent rather than push its causes and concerns.

This raises serious questions about the intentions of India at climate negotiations. The lack of proactive attitude in these meetings somehow reinforces the claims of some groups like the European Union and the Cartagena Dialogue countries that India – and the group of Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), of which India is a member – continues to be the regressive force in the international climate arena.

This labelling hampers domestic Indian efforts to tackle climate change. India does not get the credit it deserves for doubling the cess on coal and promoting solar energy.

Such labelling comes at a time when China is portraying itself as a major force for climate actions through effective media management and propagating what it has been doing; South Africa through effective use of nuanced positioning;and Brazil through maintenance of creative exploration of language in describing its efforts.

The Prime Minister and the environment minister have reiterated India’s role as a constructive force in climate negotiations. With just 14 months left to negotiate a global treaty on climate change, India needs to play its cards well, and to win allies across groups of countries. For this the government has to send right signals. Though the Prime Minister is not going to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit, the environment minister should put forward ambitious plans on climate actions, and not just a rehash of actions being taken already. At the negotiations India needs to put forward ideas on crunch issues and set the agenda for the negotiations rather than defending itself.

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