Saturday, December 12, 2009

India’s position on climate subverted (December 13, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
At the risk of sounding a complete killjoy, I feel there is a compelling case for making serious international conferences joker-free zones. The images of the Copenhagen conference on climate change illustrate the point. At one level, there are fractious, but nevertheless serious, deliberations involving sovereign nations and multilateral bodies. There are also non-official specialists, think-tanks and the media who are observing and reporting the proceedings. And finally, there are those who have landed up in Copenhagen for the sole purpose of providing diversionary photo-ops and making a spectacle of themselves.


It is tragic that some Indians — whose sojourn in Copenhagen must have been paid for by someone — have joined the carnival. One newspaper reported on Saturday that some of these visitors have joined exhibitionists who have stripped to their underwear to demand that the world be saved. There was also a report of a kisan who barged into a meeting and spoke eloquently in Hindi about the need for rich countries to subsidise agricultural research in poorer countries including, presumably, India.


This is precisely the type of sloganeering that detracts from the main purpose of the Copenhagen conference. More to the point, such apparently well-meaning kisans actually play the part of agent provocateurs. Why, for one moment, should taxpayers in the European Union or the US subsidise agricultural research in India unless, of course, they perceive a benefit for themselves? There is nothing called a free lunch any longer. Going to town with imaginary Third World grievances and guilt-tripping exercises end up hardening stands in a West that is unsure about how to deal with its own economic recession. Such idiotic demands actually serve to bolster the credibility of those who believe that the Copenhagen conference is aimed at punishing hard-working souls in Alaska and Texas and rewarding the corrupt in Zimbabwe and even India.


It is important to recognise that aid has become a term of abuse in the West. There is a growing body of over-taxed individuals, particularly in the EU, who believe that it is preposterous to transfer resources to fast-growing economies such as China and India because the Kyoto Protocol established the principle of non-reciprocity in tackling climate change. In an article in the Washington Post last week where she pressed on President Barack Obama to stay well away from Copenhagen, Republican poster girl Sarah Palin argued that “any potential benefits of proposed emission policies are far outweighed by their economic costs” for the US. She highlighted the apparent iniquity between Obama’s proposed carbon emission cuts and proposals in Copenhagen that allow India and China to actually increase their emissions. Since any US action has to be endorsed by the Senate and will confront grassroots fears of more economic dislocation, Palin’s outburst shouldn’t be viewed as merely the hunting call of those out to slaughter polar bears.


The principle of historical responsibility on which the non-reciprocity of the Kyoto Protocol is partly based is increasingly coming under attack by a West which is fearful of its long-term decline in the 21st century. American negotiator Todd D Stern told the New York Times “I completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations…For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect.”


Stern is right that those who created gas-guzzlers and turned the Earth into a less agreeable place were ignorant of the consequences of their action. But that is also true of tobacco companies who didn’t know that smoking causes cancer. It is also true that the manufacturer of thalidomide didn’t know that the drug would result in deformed babies. Yet the courts have made such companies pay hefty compensation for their miscalculations.


What is being attempted in Copenhagen is the complete negation of the architecture of Kyoto. But it doesn’t stop at that. The Danish draft, which was praised by the White House, establishes two classes of world citizens: Those from rich countries who can emit 2.67 tonnes of carbon per head and those from less fortunate places who will be allowed 1.44 tonnes. And yet, our very own Jairam Ramesh chose to ridicule India’s stand that the ‘per capita principle’ is fair and just.


For the past two years the West has stepped up its lobbying in countries such as India to overturn Kyoto and replace it with a new so-called level playing field that institutionalises the historical advantage enjoyed by it. The climate change business is only tangentially about saving the planet and preventing the island states from going under the sea. It is primarily about the emerging balance of power in the world.


For the West, the stakes are very high because it is attempting to reverse a larger process of economic decline. This is why there’s been a concerted bid to subvert India’s negotiating strategy and paint the national interest as obstructionist. A clutch of NGOs and individuals, many funded by the West, have sprung up to rubbish the national consensus and press for “flexibility”.


There is no persuasive evidence to show that India’s Environment Minister wasn’t a part of the subversion. He has attempted to shift our negotiating position through quiet subterfuge. Every move of his has been cheered by those who make no secret of their distaste for the Kyoto model. Indeed, had it not been for an alert Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the West would have been celebrating its success in getting India to be more “realistic”.
Ramesh has not been alone. It is scarcely possible that he could have got away with his wilful inconsistencies had he not enjoyed high political backing. This is why India’s attention must not be derailed by populist tomfoolery in Copenhagen. Our future is being negotiated by slippery politicians and we need to be alert.

Sunday Pioneer, December 13, 2009

1 comment:

Viva said...

As someone who immensely enjoys your writing and your TV appearances , I was pleasantly surprised to see you writing about climate change .However,I am surprised that someone like you actually has not come out in support of Jairam Ramesh. I would go further and say Jairam Ramesh has been a breath of fresh in Indian climate politics.
Within a couple of weeks of assuming his new Ministry, Ramesh quickly filled the decades of a vacant leadership zone in climate change and did some out of the box thinking.
He is right – per capita CO2 emission is misleading. Our current average per capita emission is about 1.67 tonnes which is pathetically low compared to the 23 tonnes of the average American and below the world average of about 5 tonnes per person. So just who is behind India s low average number? The upper 150 million Indians out of a billion plus people? Or the 823 million who have no access to energy? To me it looks a very heavy footprint of a relatively small wealthy class – camouflaging behind India s poor -this is how we have been getting away from inaction.
Either way you look at it, per capita or aggregate, both numbers are consequential. As the 4th largest emitter and as a country that is very vulnerable to climate impacts and for the 823 million who after 62 years of independence do not have energy rights, it is time that someone took leadership on the issue.
It has been a long road to Copenhagen -from Kyoto via Bali – protocols or no protocols, binding targets or non binding targets -in our own self interest we must act. Ramesh has drawn the red lines very clearly for India, what India will do and what India will not do. He stressed that India would not agree to a ‘peaking year’ on emissions for India as the country had a “huge backlog of development” that need to be addressed particularly with respect to rural electricity supply.
If we choose a path that is low carbon, surely we have a better chance for survival?