A short-term victory for a long-term loss

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Illustration: Anand Naorem

INDIA EXCHANGED a tactical victory for a strategic defeat at the recently concluded UN talks on climate change in Durban. When the Durban Platform results in a climate treaty in 2015, India will be left struggling to defend its national interests while looking like a climate felon before the international community.

First, the minor victory. Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan was instrumental in dragging the talks two days beyond the stipulated end of the conference, and ensured that future negotiations are based on the principle of equity. This means each person’s right to the atmosphere is acknowledged, and emission cuts are based not merely on total emissions of a country, but on per capita emissions. India’s per capita emissions are low at 134 among 195 countries, while China is 40th. Major developing countries (like Brazil, South Africa, India and China, together called BASIC) have large populations of poor, who emit very little, while a section of their society has emission rates comparable to western Europe.

India’s victory was pyrrhic, though. The two-page declaration, announcing the Durban Platform, does not mention the word equity. It means when preparatory talks begin in 2012 to draft an agreement, Indian negotiators will have to work really hard to defend its interests. The slightest slip — almost a certainty given India is one of the few countries without a permanent negotiating team — will compromise this victory.

With the Durban agreement, climate negotiations are alive again. Gradually, there will be a cap on total carbon emissions, with quotas apportioned to each country. With increasing pressure to cut emissions, all countries will be fighting for a share of the emissions pie.

Climate talks are less about the environment and more about international politics and economics. Rich countries use diplomacy to minimise responsibility to cut emissions. Poor countries plead for money and relief for survival. Developing countries like India have everything to lose; they want to grow before they take binding emissions cuts.

In 20 years of climate negotiations, India has taken the moral high ground by leading the efforts of poor and developing countries to corner rich nations. After the Durban declaration, it will negotiate with its back to the wall. It has relied on support from other BASIC countries — China, Brazil and South Africa — because their situation is similar to India’s.

That support will now end.

By 2020, other BASIC countries and even poor nations will not want to stick with India

Based on per capita calculations, India’s emissions are the lowest among large developing countries, which means we have larger numbers of very poor people. Brazil and South Africa’s per capita emissions are comparable to developed countries like France, so their interests will align. They will not push for the principle of equity like they have done so far.

China is a different story altogether. At the speed it is developing now, it would have done a lot to grow economically by 2020, which is when an emissions reduction treaty will come into force. But 2020 will be the time India will be taxiing on the economic runway with power plants and other carbon-intensive growth options, which will be very unpopular. It will have poor and powerless countries for company then, and even they will not have any interest in sticking around, seeing India as a rich country with large emissions that wants to play the poverty card.

Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh is partly to blame for the situation India finds itself in. Over the recent years, he put all his eggs in the BASIC basket and had too many friends among negotiators from Europe and the US. According to sources, in Durban his western friends were very well briefed about India’s position, and actually had access to internal government documents, knowing fully well India’s tact in the negotiations.

Sopan Joshi is Independent journalist.
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