It is for the first time India has rented space for a country pavilion at COP to improves its outreach. Here’s how a country that was once known as a champion of the developing world, started losing ground in climate negotiations due to poor communication in recent years

Prakash Javadekar, Indian Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Chang (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

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

India started the UNFCCC negotiations in the late eighties and early nineties from a position of strength. It had attended the Stockholm Conference at the highest level, it had passed a number of laws to protect the environment, it had some internationally renowned climate scientists, it had strong green activists who had ensured that the 1992 Rio Earth Summit included the right to development as one of the pillars of the new world.

And from the 1950s or even before, India had a record of being the champion of the developing world. This was extrapolated to the climate negotiations arena. It worked well in the initial phase, but is not working half as well in recent years.

Earlier in 2015, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh wondered at a public speech if India would be “the last man standing in Paris?” In recent years, India’s stand at climate negotiations has been criticised by the richest as well as the poorest countries. The only difference is that the rich countries, led by the US, have been far more vocal in their criticism. The criticism from the LDC and AOSIS groups has been mostly behind closed doors.

Indian Strategy

To understand why, one has to go through the history of Indian strategy. Climate negotiations under the UNFCCC started in the backdrop of two events. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The second a round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations on agricultural issues, where India had positioned itself as a balancing force between rich and poor countries.

India tried to take this balance to climate negotiations and as a champion of the global South, often opposed positions held by both the US and Russia. Such a stance won it kudos from the G77+China group in initial years, but left the country with few strong allies.

From within the country, two main briefs have been given to negotiators over the years. First, ensure India’s right to development is not hampered in any way. Second, maximise the money, technology transfer or any other support available from rich countries.

The first brief has led to India historically being the champion of the right to development by developing countries. It has made its position clear by repeatedly pointing out that:

  • Almost all the greenhouse gases now warming up the atmosphere has been placed there by developed countries since the start of the Industrial Age, so rich nations have a historical responsibility they cannot ignore
  • Per capita emissions in India are still about one-tenth of that in the US and about one-sixth of that in the EU
  • There are still over 300 million Indian without access to electricity, India’s first priority has to be to ensure the development of these people, India will have to continue and expand coal-based power generation for this, and rich countries that have built their wealth on coal-based technologies have no right to ask India to eschew coal use now.

Developing these themes, India has consistently held that rich nations have a legal obligation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, but any action taken by poor nations can only be voluntary. It has also consistently stressed the need for rich countries to provide financial and technology support to developing countries for mitigating emissions as well as for adapting to climate change effects.

All this led to one of the pillars of UNFCCC – that every country has a responsibility to combat climate change, but they shall do so on the basis of their “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. Shortened to CBDR&RC and then to CBDR, this became one of the commonest bits of jargon heard during climate negotiations.

Changed World, Changed India

The Indian strategy worked very well till the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and reasonably well till 2007. But from the Bali Roadmap drawn up at the climate summit at the end of that year, it became evident that questions were now being raised about the positions taken by bigger developing countries, especially China and India.

These questions gained momentum as the 2008 recession hit rich countries hard. Now there were studies pointing out that China was on its way to becoming the world’s largest emitter, which it became in 2010. It found India to be the fifth largest emitter; by 2012 it had overtaken Russia and become fourth, after China, the US and EU.

Since then, rich countries – most vocally the US – have made it clear that they will not mitigate their emissions without strong action from emerging economies. This has led to innumerable arguments inside and outside negotiating rooms. Just a few weeks before the Paris summit, US Secretary of State John Kerry once again described India “as a challenge”, leading to an angry reaction from Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

But in a more quiet way, India has also been under attack within G77+China. As soon as China and India supported the goal of keeping average global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius rather than 1.5 degrees, they were criticised by AOSIS. This is an issue that has not gone away since 2007, it was raised once again by heads of governments from Pacific island nations when they met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi recently. During that summit, Kiribati President Anote Tong told indiaclimatedialogue.net that since the 1.5-degree goal had not been accepted, “Whatever happens in Paris we are already doomed”.

The LDCs and at least some members of the Africa Group have also been critical of emerging economies, because they have been told that China and India were holding up a global climate agreement, so the developed world was unable to give them more money and green technologies. After the Copenhagen summit, China made a proactive bid to explain its position to other developing countries. India did not.

The recent fault line between India and the LDC group is over accessing money from the Green Climate Fund. As India’s INDC shows, it needs serious money to combat climate change, and it wants to access GCF money. But it is being told by some countries in the LDC group that they need the money more, so instead of seeking money from the GCF, India should be paying money to it. The issue is still unresolved. In the process, developed countries that have not pledged to put money in the GCF or those who failed to keep their pledges, have not been criticised as strongly as they may have been.

Successes and setbacks

For India, one major positive fallout of the UNFCCC negotiations was the large number of projects it obtained under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). However, by the end of 2009, it was evident that CDM only benefitted a few countries in the developing world, mainly China and India. Moreover, not all activities under CDM were truly environment friendly; many were technology fixes by private companies.

The money for CDM came as a small percentage of the money received per tonne of carbon emissions, which was a commodity traded in the open market. But as UNFCCC negotiations stalled and the carbon emission price collapsed, CDM was called into question. The number of projects has gone down drastically, but the process, while it lasted, led to many jealous  whispers in other developing nations. There were allegations of impropriety too. While CDM was a success from the financial point of view, from the diplomatic point of view it was a setback.

One success that endures is the drawing up of the global technology sharing mechanism. It was India’s brainchild and it has been accepted by all countries. Also, India has played a key role in preparing the structure of the Green Climate Fund.

But there has been little success on the most important point India has been trying to make – the equitable sharing of carbon space among every human being in this world. The theory and the justice of this position are unexceptionable. But the problem has been India’s inability to come up with a formula that can make it work. India sees this as a red line that must not be crossed, but it has failed to come up with a proposal and with a basis of differentiation between countries that will not contravene the red lines of other countries.

India’s negotiating position has also suffered due to inadequate homework. Climate negotiations are hard, and no country willingly gives an inch. When a dissenting note comes from a delegate of another country, there is little point in saying India’s position is principled, so it will not budge. That only leads to an impasse, which harms the cause of combating climate change.

Most big players identify their red lines, but they also have a plan B ready on the issues that are likely to prove recalcitrant. India has been markedly lacking in that.

As an example of lack of homework, when Brazil did come up with a formula for differentiation, India was caught unawares, and did not know how to react. The result of all this is that over the years, India has conceded substantial ground to developed countries in its principled stand on the issue of development and equity.

Defensive Play

When India was attacked by AOSIS and some LDCs in closed rooms, it went on the defensive. The result is that India’s stature as a leader of the developing world in climate negotiations has eroded substantially. Many now see it as a regressive force, keen to use coal despite the emissions connected with that use. India has failed to really convince many developing countries why it wants to continue using coal.

As part of its new strategy, India has been reaching out to a number of Latin American countries. But its choice of allies has been based more on Cold War era relationships than climate blocs. Many developing countries that have been left out fail to understand the rationale behind the positions India takes.

On one hand, it is clear to the whole world that India has the technical ability to mitigate its emissions and to adapt to climate change impacts. On the other hand, it talks of over 350 million very poor people for which the government needs support. This duality irks smaller developing countries, especially the small island states that are the most vulnerable from one effect of climate change – sea level rise. Many of them see such underdevelopment as failure of governance rather than scarcity of resources.

In recent years, internal tussles have complicated the problem. The negotiations are led by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC), but the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) plays a role. Sometimes this role is purely in terms of logistical support, but there have been times when the two ministries have not seen eye to eye. MOEFCC officials work on the brief that India is a developing country and must act as one. Some diplomats would prefer to see India play the role of an emerging economy, as China has often done in recent years. This tussle has been apparent during recent climate summits.

Paris Prognosis

At the Paris summit, India will launch an International Solar Alliance under which it will provide cheap solar power generation technologies to other countries. Such a move is being universally welcomed, but after that India will find it even more difficult to ask for climate finance. It can get a lot of money for green technologies from the private sector, but the money from rich country governments is more likely to go to LDCs.

Historically, India has been a weak communicator of its position. Its negotiators have been reluctant to speak to the media and civil society representatives, especially if they are not from India. It has lacked outreach. This has had an adverse effect on its negotiating position. During the Paris summit, for the first time India has rented space for a country pavilion. Maybe that will help the country win friends and influence people.

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