The battle for India’s climate policy

While we’re on the subject of comings and goings on India’s climate team, worth noting that the Indian press is full of talk of an epic fallout between India’s Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, and Shyam Saran, the Indian PM’s Special Envoy on Climate Change – who’s just quit. So what’s the fight about? Over to the Times of India:

Indian negotiators are up in arms against minister of state for environment and forest Jairam Ramesh commissioning a study and proposing a meeting of experts that could redefine India’s fundamental principle of `per capita emissions’ norm while negotiating how the burden of reducing greenhouse gases is shared.

The per capita norm, embodied in the Kyoto protocol, has been backed by successive governments and reiterated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself.  Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, the seniormost Indian negotiator and member of the PM’s council on climate change told TOI: “I am deeply concerned that the per capita equity approach, which provides the foundation for India’s position on climate change negotiations, is being questioned at the level of minister of state (Jairam Ramesh).”

The study that Ramesh is commissioning is to be undertaken by Arvind Subramanian – formerly at the IMF, now at CGD and the Peterson Institute. The reason for the consternation, according to the TOI, is that Subramanian’s published work rebuts the idea of per capita equity – and a quick web search confirms that a piece he co-authored with CGD’s director Nancy Birdsall in December last year (summary here) does indeed implicitly rebut “equality of greenhouse gas emissions per capita as a desirable long run objective”.  Instead, it argues for “industrial countries [to] drop their demand that developing countries commit now to binding emissions targets”, and focus instead on improving access to energy for the poor – although his paper does also call for sharp improvements in emerging economies’ carbon efficiency.

All this has now become a political issue in India. The opposition BJP has picked up on the issue:

On Saturday, BJP alleged that Saran had to go because of his resistance to UPA government’s bid to dilute the country’s stand in climate change negotiations, attracting allegation of irresponsibility from the Congress. The BJP attributed Saran’s departure to his reservations against environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s attempt to “weaken” India’s negotiating stance on emission cuts.

Meanwhile Ramesh is trying to cast himself as the victim in all this, as in this piece in The Hindu on Thursday:

Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has cast himself as a lonely crusader for the environmental cause within the government, with no support from any quarter except the Prime Minister and the UPA chairperson. In an interaction with journalists on Wednesday, hours before a meeting called by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to iron out differences within the Cabinet over Bt brinjal, Mr. Ramesh said he had “zero” friends in the government.

“I have no friends, only the Prime Minister supports me in the Cabinet… At times I feel I am fighting a lonely battle. The odds are tremendous against anyone trying to do anything right and rational when it comes to the environment and forests,” he said, using the words ‘thankless’ and ‘friendless’ to describe his job.

So is Ramesh really ‘selling out’?

Well, not necessarily. Back in November last year, David quoted an analysis by Indian policy analyst Malini Mehra, who noted that Ramesh was attempting to act as a reformist and dissolve some of the stalemate in the climate debate:

As the Major Economies Forum got underway in London, 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 …

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.

At the same time, it’s also worth noting that India’s long-standing advocacy of per capita equity is not the same as proper Contraction and Convergence (see this if you don’t know what that is), but instead just an indication that it’s willing for its emissions not to exceed those of developed countries. Not so much a framework for solving climate change, then, as a promise not to screw the planet any faster than the developed world does: not much solace for small island states.

Contraction and Convergence, after all, isn’t just ‘equity for equity’s sake’ – the whole point is that it’s intended as a way of sharing out the global emissions budget that gets created as soon as you take a decision on the level at which to cap greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. If you don’t have that stabilisation target, then you don’t have zip – and right now, India’s endorsement of per capita equity doesn’t start from such a target.

So what happens now? Well, the consensus in India is that the PM’s climate envoy is unlikely to be replaced, which seems to put Ramesh – and hence also Subramanian – in the driving seat for now.

In tactical terms, this may be helpful, especially if Ramesh can play the BASIC coalition skilfully to manoeuver emerging economies into a better place. Positioning himself as arguing for tougher action “in response to western arm-twisting but in response to increasingly unequivocal climate impact projections” definitely looks like a smart starting point – and of course, there’s also the fact that China’s strategy really depends on staying very close to India in negotiations, which gives Ramesh additional leverage.

But what Ramesh still needs is some kind of proposal for an overall global framework on climate change.  Although Subramanian’s an Birdsall’s work on this area is interesting, it’s not clear to me that they have such a proposal.