Atmosphere of Uncertainty – What India Wants from Copenhagen

Posted in Uncategorized by armalcolite on December 17, 2009

As the Indian delegation walked out of United Nations Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen along with other ‘developing nations’, Tarun Gopalakrishnan tracks India’s position on global warming since the Kyoto Protocol and looks at how India can help salvage the climate change talks.


Copenhagen 2009 might well be the landmark conference in deciding the planet’s future. From an Indian perspective, it’s been interesting, to say the least. The signs were all there that the Indian delegation might look to turn the official Indian position on its head – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh highlighted the willingness of the nation to achieve a 20% reduction in its carbon emissions as envisioned by its 11th Five-Year Plan. Minister for Environment & Forests, Jairam Ramesh, urged the Indian delegation to be “pragmatic and constructive”, and not “argumentative and polemical”. Contrast this with the Indian stand thus far – India has insisted that the historical responsibility for emissions belongs to industrialized nations, has pointed to the fact that it sustains a fifth of the world’s population and has highlighted its low per-capita emissions to justify its own emissions. Add to this the Indian assertion that its status as a developing economy means that any additional demand on it – such as shifting to green technologies – would harm its development chances; and a picture is painted of a nation which is less than conducive to consensus and more inclined to protecting its interest. Which is why the shift to the current position – that of conditionally accepting part of the burden for emissions – is seen as a sellout.

This negative dichotomy has characterized the negotiation over mitigation for some two decades. Painted as a ‘developed vs. developing’ debate, the deliberations consistently veer toward the question of which group of nations to hold responsible. The Kyoto Protocol answered this question by centering the mitigation burden on developed nations. This manifestation of the Kyoto regime was based upon the concept of ‘historicity’ – currently developed nations were the first to industrialize and therefore entered the emissions arena earlier. Their past emissions record meant that they were obliged to bear the bulk of mitigation. In short, the arrangement was based on that most judicious tenet of maternal wisdom – you made the mess, now get to mopping up. While preaching “common but differentiated” responsibility, the Protocol omitted to require anything of some of the largest emitters in the world, including India and China, in terms of emission reduction. Rather, these nations were merely vehicles for mitigation for the nations who were required to meet targets. Life, in the context of greenhouse emission mitigation therefore, was a bit of a cake-walk for developing economies – India included. No expectations were placed upon them, developed nations were responsible for ensuring that green technologies were made available to them at cheaper rates and there was an in-pouring of ‘green’ investment from developed nations looking to meet their targets. The lines of engagement seemed to be pretty clearly drawn – India, as a developing nation, refused to take on any mitigation burden in the foreseeable future.

In this context, when the Indian Government spoke of burden-sharing right before Copenhagen, the diplomats did a double-take. And, mid-way through the climate change negotiation of the decade, one can forgive oneself for being a bit befuddled as to precisely what the Indian delegation is trying to achieve. At the forefront of a technology-sharing proposal on one day and allegedly part of an en masse walkout the next, it is up for debate whether India wants in or out. Does India want to go ‘green’, or does it want status quo?

It is highly possible it is the former. Consider this – India currently imports 70% of its crude oil requirements, expenditure somewhere upward of four percent of GDP. To top that, it incurs an additional expenditure in the region of two percent of GDP to clean up the effects of fossil fuels on the ecology. Contrast that with the two-and-a-half or so percent of GDP spent on education annually, and one gets an idea of where India might be looking to cut down on expenditure a smidgen. Oil imports have, for long, been an enormous drain on the nation’s finances. In recent years, policy-makers have tried to circumvent this problem by trying to evade the middlemen and invest directly in oil-fields in countries like Sudan, Syria, Iran and Nigeria. These investments, however, have drawn annoyance in diplomatic circles, primarily from the U.S., which holds rather strong views, if somewhat hypocritical, of partnerships with these nations. Besides, while buying stakes in oilfields might be a prudent mid-term strategy, it still doesn’t answer the tougher questions posed by that most demanding of timelines – the long-term. What if India could find a way to bypass the oil industry altogether? As a developing nation, it still has the flexibility to change the energy basis on which its economy functions. Seen this way, India’s efforts to green its economy sound less like an altruistic cleanup drive and more like a calculated economic choice. Put simply, in the long run, going green saves an economy a lot of money. Less money spent on fossil fuels and cleaning up after them means more spent on other crucial sectors and better all-round economic development. The major economic prizes in the next few decades might well go to the winner of the race to end dependence on fossil fuels. It makes full sense for India to get a move on.

The context in which the Indian Premier’s remarks were made now becomes clearer. They were neither an admission of liability, nor an acceptance of emission reduction targets. When Dr. Manmohan Singh says he is in favour of burden-sharing in mitigation efforts, he probably means it in the broadest possible sense – that India is looking to green its economy on its own terms. What India is looking for at Copenhagen is a way to achieve sustainable development for the Indian economy with all the help it can get, at prices it can accept. The technology centre proposal paves the way for India to gain access to green technologies at affordable prices. On the other hand, as a developing nation, India cannot let go of its original position on developed nations’ responsibilities – hence the alleged walk-out over the concern that developed nations might use Copenhagen as a basis for departure from Kyoto. Looking for economically viable solutions to green its economy and holding parties to promises previously undertaken while making none of its own, India is manoeuvring along the finest of diplomatic lines.

The Indian stance though, if properly clarified, will probably benefit the Copenhagen deliberations. Whereas the present negotiations hinge on whether nations should undertake emissions targets or not, the Indian strategy is novel – no targets, yet a commitment to sustainable development. Perhaps it is time the battle against climate change was presented as carrots, rather than sticks. India for one, I suspect, would be more than willing to eat its greens.


2 Responses

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  1. Siddhant said, on December 20, 2009 at 11:36 am

    In principle, this seems to be the perfect situation. But the question still remains – how practical would going green be? I mean, despite India still being a developing economy, it still has achieved some level of development and now if all the existing infrastructure is to be changed to be independent of fossil fuel, it would create some problem. I think if the existing infrastructure is kept as it is and only the ones to be developed are developed to be green, it would be a more viable option.

  2. Tarun said, on December 20, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    Whatever fossil fuel infra we’ve got going is going to be obsolete in about 100 years at the max. And that’s stretching it. In about 20 to 30 yrs., oil production’s going to peak, which means we’ll probably be paying through our noses for oil imports by 2030, well within our lifetimes. So, actually, in terms of willingness to use, our current fossil fuel based infrastructure will probably be out of use by 2050. Green tech is not as expensive in the short-term as it’s made out to be. The restrictions are more a result of IP and a lack of innovation in developing economies. In the future, ANY option involving fossil fuels is going to be a helluva lot more expensive than ‘going green’.

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