On the wrong side of history at Copenhagen

(This column was published in DNA edition dated December 23, 2009.)

Venky Vembu

In the late 1990s, when India faced international ostracism following the Pokharan nuclear tests, BJP leader Jaswant Singh, one of Indian politics’ most delightful raconteurs, explained the cynical mechanics of ‘big power’ geopolitics with an earthy metaphor. Gaining admittance into the league of big powers was, he said, like jostling with a crowd to get into an unreserved railway compartment. You do whatever it takes to get in, whereas those inside want to keep you out; but once you’re inside, your best interests are in ensuring that no one else gets in.

After the Copenhagen climate change conference, where India was among a handful of countries at a meeting that fashioned a political accord, the perception appears to be that India has made it into an exclusive club of global decision-makers, whereas large numbers of developing economies were still banging on the doors of the railway compartment. And that by standing alongside China, Brazil and South Africa to thwart US-led attempts to get developing economies to commit to legally binding and verifiable cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions, India had defended its interests and done the right thing by other developing countries.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. By being part of a political arrangement that effectively thwarted a more meaningful agreement at Copenhagen, India demonstrably failed to protect its interest, which lay in securing greater access to funds from developed countries for clean-energy initiatives. Access to those funds was to be made conditional on the fashioning of an internationally acceptable mechanism to verify and validate the emission reduction claims by developing countries.  

The country that had the most to lose from such a verification mechanism was China, the largest recipient of funds from the UN-run Clean Development Mechanism, particularly given the widely shared scepticism over the authenticity of Chinese statistical data. This explains why China did its utmost at Copenhagen to thwart US President Barack Obama’s extraordinary hands-on effort to secure agreement on legally binding, verifiable emission cuts all around.

In fact, it was to secure an alibi for itself that China hastily cobbled together an alliance with India, Brazil and South Africa last month ostensibly to represent the interests of developing economies. It came right after environment minister Jairam Ramesh went public with his stand that India should, in its own interest, agree to emission reduction targets. China was at that time in the middle of hectoring and harassing India over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, but it paused long enough to send its minister to New Delhi to signal an ‘Asian solidarity’ on climate change issues – because it was in its interest.

With that agreement, and with the stalemate at Copenhagen, China’s objectives have been well met. Status quo suits it just fine: it still has access to clean-energy funds, but isn’t accountable on its emission reduction claims. On the other hand, a comprehensively outmanoeuvred India, which would have gained greater access to funds if there had been a more meaningful agreement at Copenhagen, is still banging on the door of the railway compartment – and banging the drum for ‘developing economies’.

At other levels too, India’s negotiating position at Copenhagen, and the thought process that underlies it, put India squarely on the wrong side of climate change history. Its abidance by the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates emission cuts from developed countries (but not developing economies) may seem sound in principle, but it overlooks its meaninglessness in a polluted world where, going forward, it’s the developing economies that will do much of the polluting. China is already the world’s leading polluter, with India not far behind; yet they claim unfettered right to ‘development’, although that right comes with an enormous environmental price tag that they will eventually have to pay, and ecological consequences that are already manifesting themselves at home.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in China, Economy, Geopolitics, India and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On the wrong side of history at Copenhagen

  1. Pingback: ‘Chindia’ bee in Jairam Ramesh’s bonnet | It's only words…

  2. Pingback: China, India can’t grow without conflict: Jonathan Holslag | It's only words…

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