ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Will India Change the Climate at Copenhagen?

A misplaced sense of global power is undermining India's principled position on climate change.

Last month, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, called for a change in India’s well-established position that has framed its international climate change policy for nearly two decades. In a “confidential letter” to the prime minister, conveniently leaked to the media, he asked for India to disassociate itself from the G-77 group of developing countries at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and to dump the Kyoto Protocol in favour of a new agreement proposed by Australia. He argued that India should be seen as “pragmatic and constructive and not argumentative and polemical”. While the normal rituals of denial – of the letter, of the contents, of any change in India’s position on climate change negotiations – were carried out, the leaked, supposedly secret, letter had served its purpose. The focus of domestic discussion shifted from the issue of how to push the developed (Annex I) countries to live up to their legally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help developing countries on a cleaner path to development by transfer of technology and funds, to the question of whether India’s “national interests” were best served by cutting deals with these developed countries and agreeing to their demand for dumping the Kyoto Protocol.

We should be clear on what is entailed here. There are many criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol, not least that it set targets for carbon reduction which were far too low and that it relies overly on market mechanisms, but it did place the question of equity and development at the centre of the climate change negotiations. It was based on the principle that those who had drawn more than their fair share of the global commons were required to compensate those who had suffered for this and it defended the rights of the poor to work their way out of poverty. The United States (US) had been the only state which had kept itself outside of these legally binding commitments despite contributing about one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions. There was some hope with the election of Barack Obama as US president, that the unilateralism which had marked the reign of his predecessor would be reversed and the world’s greatest polluter would join the global compact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, over the past months, it has become increasingly clear that the US is unwilling to take on any legally binding international commitments (not that these have stopped other developed countries from increasing their emissions).

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