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Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s emphasis on sustainable lifestyle is not only futile in its attempt to affect climate negotiations, it is also out of step with the aspirations of modern India

Prakash Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

Prakash Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

While the world waits to see what India will unveil as its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has sent out mixed signals by asking the world to debate on sustainable lifestyle issues.

Making a statement at the informal meeting of environment ministers at Paris early September, Javadekar said that greed and unsustainable lifestyle should have no place in a new world regime to fight climate change and its ill-effects. “Lifestyle adopted in developed countries is unsustainable and it will require five earths to fulfil their lifestyle demands. On the other hand, Indian lifestyle is sustainable where one earth is sufficient.”

The minister’s statement received an unexpected fillip when the think tank Worldwatch Institute published its annual report on global consumption this September. It showed that consumption of almost every commodity was up, and there was no sign of a slowdown.

Javadekar held that India was choosing the low consumption lifestyle not because of poverty, but because of Indian value systems. “We believe in need-based consumption and our lifestyle is against extravagant consumption. We have an ingrained sense of responsibility where wasteful consumption is abhorred. Therefore, the Paris conference must include a debate on lifestyles.”

The statement came even as the aspirations of the Great Indian Middle Class keep showing diminished signs of this “ingrained sense of responsibility”. India is now the world’s third largest GHG emitter, after China and the US. While India points out that its per capita emission is 10% of that of US and a quarter that of China, other countries ask why they should pay for India’s large population. Plus, India’s per capita emission is rising quite fast.

The minister added that the poor of the world need “climate justice” which is sufficient carbon space to ensure sustainable development and emerge out of poverty.

The environment minister had perhaps taken the cue on the concept of climate justice from the speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking on September 3, after inaugurating a Hindu-Buddhist conference at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. “I want to say that we, the present generation, have the responsibility to act as a trustee of the rich natural wealth for the future generations. The issue is not merely about climate change; it is about climate justice.”

He said that every time a climate-related extreme weather event happened, it was the poor that were affected the worst, since they were the most vulnerable. “We can’t let climate change keep affecting people in this manner. Which is why I believe the discourse must shift focus from climate change to climate justice.”

A dilemma

These statements on climate change by India’s top political leadership are a reflection of the country’s climate dilemma at a time when the world is preparing for an international agreement that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol. While there is pride in the country becoming an emerging economy in the two decades since the climate negotiations started in 1992 and an acceptance that this has led to increased GHG emissions, there is reluctance to surrender the carbon space for further growth.

This has led to intransigence in India’s negotiating position, and also an effort to put all the blame on lifestyles of the developed countries. And this is where India’s relative positions in the international economy in 1992 and in 2015 are in stark contrast.

During the past fortnight, the Indian government ignored this contrast as it participated in the international discussions building up to the climate summit in Paris this December. The meetings were both at the level of officials and politicians. The Indian official negotiating team participated in the meeting held at Bonn from August 31 to September 4. The Indian environment minister was a participant at the informal meeting of ministers held at Paris.

Considering the fact that climate change issues cannot be managed only by technical discussions and require political buy-in, the international community is engaging in the dual mode. It is good that India is participating in both these processes since the country is no longer a side actor in the global economic or the global emissions theatres, and its voice is important.

After all, in the recent past the country pushed ahead to fruition the idea of a BRICS Bank for meeting the needs of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. One of the objectives of the BRICS Bank is to finance sustainable development efforts, which may mean that the emerging economies are trying to be their own funders for climate change mitigation efforts.

Some of India’s concerns came from the technical meeting, where participants were trying to develop a draft agreement text that is scheduled to come into effect at the Paris summit. For instance, when Javadekar expressed concern that at the Bonn meeting there was an effort to “steamroll and thrust new ideas” instead of discussing the draft text, he was referring to India’s objection to the introduction of the concepts of net zero emissions and climate-resilient development into the agreement.

According to reports from the Bonn meeting, India’s concerns remained the same as in the past. It was for the continuation of the differentiation concept (common but different responsibilities for developed and developing countries) and it wanted the developed countries to strengthen support on finance, technologies and capacity building.

Despite rounds of hectic discussions over the years, many of the positions taken by blocs of countries have more or less remained the same. According to an analysis by seasoned negotiation watchers, the issues that could cause contention during the Paris summit are differentiation, finance, loss and damage and the legal nature of the agreement. These, in essence, have been the contentious issues since the start of the negotiations. Of course, in addition to finance, access to technology and support for capacity building has been points of dispute between developed and developing countries.

It is in this context that indications from the political leadership are watched with interest to see if there is something new of substance being added. China took an early lead in this game with its November 2014 joint announcement with the US. Though in reality China bought itself time till 2030 to peak its emissions (additional 16 years of growth), it gave an immediate image makeover for the country as one wanting to mitigate emissions.

Moving backward

Javadekar’s statement on lifestyles, on the other hand, took the discussion backward by two decades. India has been raising the lifestyle issue since the time climate change negotiations started and culminated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. However, then there was legitimacy in India’s position, since it had just emerged from a near-bankrupt economic situation and had started on an economic liberalisation programme.

Today, while India takes pride in being the leading emerging economy as China dithers, it does not cut much ice to ask for a relook at the climate change negotiations from a lifestyle perspective. Neither would a jingoistic position serve the purpose. There were media reports recently that the Indian government’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian had recommended that India change its position to be more in line with developed countries. More recent reports indicate his advice has been junked.

At the Paris summit effective dialogue and engagement will be an absolute necessity. It will require a pragmatic appreciation and articulation of India’s strengths and weaknesses in the current time frame, and taking a position that will indicate India’s commitment to reduce emissions even while giving the country enough space to grow.

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