India at the UN Climate negotiations: back to the wall

Anju Sharma's picture
Insight by 
Anju Sharma
22 December 2011

Of all the baffling going-ons at the recent climate change conference in Durban, what bewildered me most was the position of India. As traditional alliances appeared to fade and new emerge, India appeared allied to the blockers rather than the movers.

During the weeks preceding Durban, it was clear that Brazil, South Africa, India and China – often referred to as the  BASIC countries – would come under pressure from the European Union to agree to take on legally-binding commitments in the near future. This was one EU pre-condition for keeping the Kyoto Protocol (and hence legally binding emission cuts by some developed countries) alive.

In response, Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan made it clear that India would push for a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol for developed countries, but that it was opposed to any new treaty or agreement with cuts for developing countries.

At a media briefing in New Delhi, she said: “…a long-term binding agreement cannot be a quid-pro quo for a second commitment period. Cannot. Should not. A new legally binding agreement is not required for climate change talks to continue, because a framework based on the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities already exists in the form of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.”

Equity was the basis of this position – developed countries had not gone far enough to cover their share of responsibility, and developing countries like India needed space to grow. However, not all was clear with the Indian position at this stage. For instance, would India be willing to sign on to post-2020 commitments if developed countries agreed to a second commitment period for Kyoto, and if the commitments were based on an equitable framework?

China, meanwhile, had a very similar position to India. It came out clearly in advance of Durban stating that if developed countries agreed to a second commitment period, it was not averse to legally binding obligations as part of the post-2020 regime, as long as they were based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities written into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which calls for developed nations to act first and fastest.

India: poor communicator at Durban

This lack of clarity or poor communication, call it what you will, resulted in all the difference at Durban. While China was viewed as open and willing, India was painted the grim reaper who, along with US, Canada and Japan, was signing the death warrant for poor African countries.

The EU, meanwhile, teamed up with the vulnerable countries, including the Alliance of Small Island States and the Least Developed Countries. They sent out a joint statement calling for countries to develop a legally-binding instrument applicable to all countries, respecting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard held a press conference saying half of the BASIC countries were on board with this proposal. She made it clear India was not, and implied that the Indian position was unreasonably inflexible.

Natarajan made some stirring speeches in response to these allegations. "India is asking for space for basic development for its people and poverty eradication. Is this an unreasonable demand?” she rightly asked. "She said she could not "sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people and many other people in the developing world," by agreeing to something that could limit their ability to grow.

But, given that Natarajan also said equity had to be “the centerpiece of the climate discussion and our negotiations should be built on it," why did she agree to launch a process to develop another legal instrument or a legal outcome under the Convention applicable to all Parties, without a specific demand that this outcome incorporates equity or a  reference to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities?

The difference in legal terms between an agreed outcome with legal force and a legally binding instrument will be argued in the weeks, months and years to come, but if a legal outcome had to be conceded, why could it not at least include a stronger reference to equity and to developed nations – which caused much of the pollution affecting the poorest countries like India – to act first? 

The reference to the convention could be viewed as a very weak and roundabout reference to CBDR, but certainly not anywhere as strong as the Indian position on equity at the start of the Durban conference, and during the conference. Surely this was the time when a commitment to fairness and equity could be extracted in exchange? What did India gain, in exchange for its concession to an agreed outcome with legal force?

Slippery slope

As it is, the next four years during which the new outcome is to be negotiated will be extremely perilous for India’s 1.2 billion – not to mention its poor, who number more than the populations of all the least developed countries put together. This is the slippery slope India feared.

What a far cry this is from the first climate conference in 1995, when India cast her lot firmly with the countries most vulnerable to climate change and emerged a leader, building bridges between the Alliance of Small Island States and the EU.

Lack of clarity and poor communication has failed to highlight either India’s more vulnerable position, or limited contribution to emissions (compared even to China) to the global community. This, combined with the lack of proactively making equity central to the global negotiations, resulted in India’s isolation and defeat at Durban.

Sure, India’s emissions have gone up– but as Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environment Institute pointed out, it still has much more in common with poor and vulnerable region of Africa than the other countries it was unfortunately identified with in Durban. If Africa’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are only 1/6th of an Americans, then India’s are only 1/10th. If 17 Africans live on the income of one American, then India is not much better off – 16 Indians live on the income of one American. Natarajan’s predecessor Jairam Ramesh  stated in the Foreword to a recent book that “there is no country more vulnerable to climate change than India, on so many fronts.” 

Missed opportunity

Given all this, India missed a real opportunity to re-align itself with the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change at the UN Climate talks in Durban, as it has done in the past. Perhaps a more positive position that made it clear that India was not afraid of commitments in the future as long as they were grounded strongly in equity, responsibility and capability, would have resulted in a slightly different outcome.

Other than Natarajan’s sporadically splendid rhetoric, India had its back to the wall at Durban. It will continue to do so for the next four years or more, unless it can come up with a proactive, considered and workable proposal on how the outcome with legal force can still deliver the global equity Natarajan was so keen on.

Anju Sharma is Head of the european capacity building initiative publications and policy analysis unit and a visiting fellow with IIED’s Climate Change Group. This blog is based on a forthcoming comment in the Oxford Energy and Environment brief series to be published in early January.