Telling India the hard facts on climate – a lone voice

by | Nov 1, 2009

On climate, campaigners are unbelievably craven when it comes to the big emerging economies. China, in particular, gets treated with kid gloves. Within NGO circles, it is now more or less obligatory to kowtow to Beijing’s domestic track record on clean energy. Which is all very well – but I see absolutely no signs of Chinese leadership internationally (although its track record in the G20 shows how quickly it can pull out its finger when hard economic issues are at stake).

Weakness on China is especially egregious now that the country is above average global per capita emissions. Campaigners should be demanding that China ties itself to a date when its emissions will peak and then to commits to deep cuts by mid-century. (Armed with such a commitment, of course, China itself could then begin to turn the heat up on America – rather than allowing the US congress to bleat about US competitiveness.)

A failure to ask hard questions of China is bad for lower income countries. Not only will they suffer worst as the climate changes, they are going to wake up in ten years’ time to find that most of the global carbon budget for 2 degrees has been spent. Their interests are being sacrificed on the altar of G77 solidarity, with the global NGO community helping sharpen the knife.

The problem is similar, if less extreme, for the world’s other rising powers. Their per capita emissions may be lower than China’s and NGOs less terrified of offending them. But still, a country like India has 17% of the world’s population – which gives it quite a stake in our collective future. It is also massively vulnerable to a changing climate (especially as a lack of water disrupts food production).

Malini Mehra

But yet India is notoriously rubbish at international climate talks. So all the more credit to Malini Mehra, from the Center for Social Markets, for her persistent (and unusual) attempts to shine a light on India’s failings.

“In recent months, India has sought to challenge its image overseas, and in growing quarters at home, as recalcitrant and obstructionist on climate change,” she writes in her latest critique.

“[But] in a showdown this week with the old guard, the reformist environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had to tone down his climate advice to India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Political correctness won, but the loser was India’s climate security.”

Here’s the rest of her analysis:

In a tumultuous week for Indian climate politics that saw Delhi hosting a major UN technology and climate change conference, a regional meeting of South Asian environment ministers, a Sino-India climate change workshop, and MOUs with China, Japan and Norway, the political air is charged. As the week opened, the driver-in-chief of these high-level meetings, Jairam Ramesh, was engulfed in a firestorm over a leaked confidential communication to the Prime Minister.

As the Major Economies Forum got underway in London with Gordon Brown saying there was no ‘Plan B’ for Copenhagen, news broke in Delhi that Jairam Ramesh had allegedly proposed dumping the Kyoto Protocol, ditching the G77 in favour of the G20, and taking on carbon cuts without concomitant financial or technical guarantees. In a country with a well-entrenched political consensus on India’s role in international climate negotiations, the Minister’s alleged remarks were seized on as heresy. Partisan press reporting, well-oiled with anonymous quotes by India’s aggrieved negotiators and threats to resign, added fuel to the fire. Outraged opposition parties railed that the Minister had capitulated to the United States and NGOs charged him with damaging India’s credibility with developing country partners.

In the storm that followed, the papers were full of indignation at Ramesh’s supposed deviation from India’s traditional hard-line climate position, but silent on India’s climate risk.  No words spent on why it might make sense to be ‘flexible’ on climate change. No effort to explain why new approaches were imperative if India wanted to craft a fiendishly difficult global climate compact. Instead, everything was cast as a sell-out to western interests – an unedifying neo-colonial spectacle more focussed on political point scoring than protecting India’s people. Why is it that we are more concerned with doctrinal purity than climate catastrophe?

We have been down this road before. In July just after the G8 meeting in L’Aquila when Dr. Manmohan Singh acceded to language agreeing a 2 degree Celsius limit to warming, a similar political firestorm erupted. His actions were also interpreted as a capitulation to western interests and a restraint on India’s right to development.

Confusing degrees with percentages, some politicians screamed about agreeing to “two per cent” under U.S. pressure.  That the Maldives and Bangladesh were asking for a 1.5 degrees limit with much deeper emissions cuts by all nations, went unreported. As President Nasheed of the Maldives, the world’s lowest-lying island nation, said in Delhi last week: “with so much damage being caused by less than one degree of warming, why on earth would we aim for two degrees?” At present trends, we are heading towards a 6 to 7 degree world by 2100. As the world’s fourth largest emitter and potentially the worst victim of climate change, India cannot afford the complacency its political class is fostering. Our water and food security lie wounded, our coastal aquifers are turning saline, our glaciers are melting.

Ramesh’s suggested shift in India’s hard stance has created momentum in climate talks, forcing developed countries to contemplate much deeper cuts than they wanted. A new set of possibilities has thus opened up that might just manage to dispel mutual fears of inaction and mistrust. The Minister no doubt had to publicly step back towards the party-line on India’s climate negotiating position, but he opened a deadlocked debate and let fresh air in.

Interestingly, China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and even Indonesia are all considering variations of domestic emissions peaking, national and sectoral caps – not in response to western arm-twisting but in response to increasingly unequivocal climate impact projections, energy security, development and economic competitiveness concerns. Though the uproar over his reformist advice has momentarily slowed his pace, a new political consensus on climate is forming. It has hidden, powerful supporters both within government and the opposition who are poised to occupy the climate spotlight and will have to respond to India’s 670 million farmers and 100 million fisherfolk who are sure to ask: “If you knew about this climate threat, why did you keep it from us and why did you not act in time?”

Meanwhile the science races on. Climate change is occurring faster and deeper than previously thought – while India’s politics remains stuck. Ramesh has let the reform genie out of the bottle. New constituencies are clamouring for change. Hopefully the world will finally get the debate it deserves and India the politicians we deserve.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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