Climate: Don’t shoot the first mover

The Economic Times, October 28, 2009

By Pradeep S Mehta

Jairam Ramesh is well known for raising controversies. Now, he has stirred the hornet’s nest by his out-of-the-box thinking, arguing for a fresh approach to climate change negotiations. And the Indian intelligentsia have roundly criticised his views, expressed in his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This is typical of a country in which persistence with the ‘tried and tested’ guarantees acceptance, and out-of-the-box thinking often invites censure and in certain cases, even ridicule.

Thus, instead of congratulating Ramesh for his innovative thinking, which in any case was an input into India’s final stand and not the stand itself, we challenge the free flow of his refreshing views. That too when the climate issue has been caught in a deadlock for long with developing and developed countries stubbornly sticking to their stands. Meanwhile, the problem of climate change becomes grimmer by the year.

Jairam’s opinions are befitting from another perspective. Over the last decade or so, India has made the journey from a large, impoverished and laggard nation to an emerging power almost spoken of in the same breath as China, though still beset with significant developmental problems.

As an emerging power, India should also assume the responsibility of leading by example in climate issues. The resulting moral pressure on the rich to clean up their act is sure to have a greater impact than expressions of resolve to not compromise, which have had ‘zero success’ in mitigating climate change. After all, the impacts of climate change through decreased agricultural yield, floods, droughts and desertification will be felt mostly in the tropical zone, and therefore on India, China and their neighbours. To say that India should not innovate or adjust its negotiating stance is probably sheer folly.

In his attempt to address the logjam, Jairam has been reported to have recommended a new move for India by “not stick(ing) to G77 alone” as it is now an integral part of G20, taking positive “initiatives to bring the US into the mainstream” and “nuance” from demand for financial and technological support from the rich countries for climate change mitigation. His proposal has the potential to lead to successful climate change agreement(s) and also endorse India’s image as a deal maker, otherwise known as an obstructionist country in every international negotiation.

The minister’s out-of-the-box thinking is not as impulsive as publicised by the media and politicians. Although supportive of western efforts towards conclusion of climate change negotiations, he has also maintained the essential crucial elements of India’s stand — the need to preserve the distinction between the obligations of developed and developing nations, which has been buttressed well by the argument that binding emission reductions would necessarily slow down sustainable economic growth in developing countries, which at their current level of economic well-being is still an imperative.

The minister is also one of the first international statesmen to recognise the difference between ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ — while the South has the right to resist binding emission ceilings it has the responsibility to self-regulate. Should the South not draw a lesson from the naked display of aspirations by the North, which saw the ceaseless use of resources not only in productive activities associated with high emissions but destructive pursuits such as world wars, nuclear bombings and stockpiling of weapons? At the same time, it is true that no climate deals bound the North in its economic march and so it is not difficult to see why the South does not want to restrict its growth prospects by being limited by one. This is especially the case as southern countries have modelled their political, economic and resource use structures on the North.

Yet the counterpoint argues that it is time for the South to project a more enlightened stand as the future of the human race is at stake. It cannot afford to be blinded by the prospects of growth at this cost. The South remains wary of the intentions behind this counterpoint as it feels that the northern emphasis on southern ‘responsibilities’ rather than ‘rights’, as embodied in the new climate change deal, might be another ruse to project northern interests.

But wariness does not justify inertia or the lack of realisation of one’s responsibilities to the human race. India and China have broken the shackles of global recession ahead of others, and are thus bound to be more hopeful about faster growth. At this point, if these countries are asked to effectively put a cap on such growth, a negative response is understandable. However, they need to shift their motives to a higher plane as the future of the Earth is at stake. Climate change will ultimately drown all of us if none of us take unilateral initiatives. If India takes the initiative of floating a life boat others are bound to follow. The double dividend to India — mitigated climate change and elevated status in the global league of nations — constitutes a strong defence of Jairam’s stand.

To conclude, the climate change negotiations are going nowhere with countries entangled in a ‘prisoners’ dilemma’, with each sceptic of the motives of the other and agreeing to take measures only if others do so in equal measure. To prevent a logjam in climate change negotiations, the countries should present unilateral measures in confidence to certain chosen members of the convention.

These members would define the guidelines for the new protocol, which would essentially be based on the common measures included in such unilateral reports. This procedure avoids the problem of who goes first and would be acceptable to all, with minor tweaking possible through provisions for country-specific flexibility.

Nations need to realise that climate change is already upon us. They should now put their best foot forward to temper it and soften its impact. Consensus is needed in this regard, and swiftly! With nations indulging in a flurry of talks, the urgency being attached to the matter has become sufficiently evident. But will countries choose to be guided by the foresight of leaders like Jairam Ramesh or continue en masse on the myopic and inflexible paths of devastation and self destruction?

The author is the Secretary General of CUTS International and can be reached at Shruti Mittal and Siddhartha Mitra of CUTS contributed to this piece.

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