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Chandrashekhar Dasgupta: Raising the heat on climate change

Contrary to his claims, Jairam Ramesh weakened the pillars on which India's negotiating position rested

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta 

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

With characteristic charm and persuasiveness, Jairam Ramesh has recently set out his version of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun (The Hindu, June 17 and 30). Since the articles raise important policy questions, a different perspective from a former negotiator might be of some interest.

India's stand in the climate negotiations rests on three pillars. First, the atmosphere is a global resource and every human being has an equal right to the resource (the per capita principle). There is an optimum range of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Without a certain minimum level, life could not have existed on the planet, but exceeding the optimum range carries the risk of climate change.

Second, it follows that developed countries, which have exceeded their per capita share, are responsible for causing climate change and should commit to reducing their emissions. Developing countries can have no emission commitments while their per capita emissions are still low and their emissions will increase as they strive for inclusive development.

Third, the emission reductions of developed countries should be periodically reviewed. Review or "verification" cannot apply to voluntary national actions of developing countries that have no emission limitation commitments under the climate change convention. For these countries, there can be "verification" only in the case of projects that are financially supported by an international agency, where the recipient country has contractual obligations.

"Review", "verification" or "consultation" of unsupported national measures imply an international commitment and their acceptance by developing countries would open a door to the conversion of voluntary national actions to treaty commitments. There is no real parallel with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or International Monetary Fund (IMF) dialogues or consultations, since we have certain obligations or commitments under those regimes, unlike the climate regime.

During his controversial stewardship of the environment ministry, Ramesh weakened each of the three pillars.

He began by undermining the third pillar - our position on "verification". In his June 17 article, Ramesh recounts how he took the initiative in the Copenhagen meeting to propose that the unsupported, voluntary national actions of developing countries could be subjected to "international consultations". In fact, Ramesh had gifted this concession to his US interlocutors in New York months before Copenhagen, while keeping his own negotiators in the dark - as I discovered in a preliminary round of negotiations in Bangkok in October 2009. The following extract from my report to the government tells the story.

"Early in the session, I had occasion to explain our position on 'verification' of independent NAMAs [Non-Agricultural Market Access negotiations] on the lines of our brief. The US delegate, Jonathan Pershing, took the floor to question my statement, claiming that it was at variance with recent statements made by our minister in New York! I responded by suggesting that delegates should speak on behalf of the governments they represent and refrain from seeking to interpret the positions of other governments…During a subsequent bilateral meeting with the US delegation we were informed in clear terms that the US interprets our minister's offer of a WTO-like 'dialogue' as covering all the essential elements of 'verification'."

Ramesh replied somewhat vaguely that his statements had been "misinterpreted perhaps deliberately in Bangkok". However, in an interview to Nitin Sethi on the eve of the Copenhagen conference, he came out in favour of a "consultative process in the IMF/WTO sense of the term" for unsupported national actions of developing countries (TNN, December 5, 2009). When I sought a clarification, the minister said these actions "will be for consideration only by the UNFCCC…it will not be scrutinised" (UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). On December 7, Sitaram Yechury asked Ramesh in the Rajya Sabha to explain what he meant by "for consideration". Ramesh initially tried to duck the question by saying that it "will be defined by the UNFCCC" but, pressed more closely for an explanation, he assured the House that it only meant "for information".

Ramesh finally revealed his true colours in the last hours of the Copenhagen conference. As he himself recounts, at President Obama's meeting with leaders of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) group, Ramesh offered to subject the unsupported, voluntary national actions of developing countries to "international consultation". The US side had, however, already pocketed this concession in their earlier meetings with Ramesh and they now asked for more. In the end, Ramesh conceded "international consultation and analysis". The reader may judge whether this honoured the minister's assurance to Parliament, or the assurances he had offered earlier to his American interlocutors in New York.

Next year, at the Cancun conference, Ramesh took the axe to the two other pillars of the Indian stand. Departing from the prepared text, he declared, "All countries, we believe, must take on binding commitments under appropriate legal forms". This implied that India was ready to convert its voluntary national targets into internationally binding commitments in an "appropriate" legal form. Facing a storm of protest on his return, the minister sought to explain away his statement by claiming that by "appropriate legal form" he only meant domestic legislation. He did not explain why he had not the used the simple phrase "domestic legislation" in his speech instead of an elaborate formulation with a very different connotation.

Finally, Ramesh turned his attention to the all-important per capita principle. Ramesh had assured MPs, in a circular letter of October 6, 2009, that the "equal per capita entitlement principle is the only legitimate internationally acknowledged measure for reflecting equity". However, Ramesh chose to jettison the standard Indian formulation at Cancun and replace it with a totally meaningless phrase - "equitable access to sustainable development". This reduced to gibberish a well-understood principle in the negotiations. Justifying this move, Ramesh claims in his recent article that the new formulation was "superior to the phrase 'equitable access to carbon space', which somehow connotes a fundamental 'right to pollute"'. He deliberately distorts the Indian formulation, which refers to the "atmospheric resource", not "carbon space"; opposes all claims to a "right to pollute"; and which also explains that carbon dioxide per se is not a pollutant and that the climate problem arises only from excessively high per capita emissions. If all countries had the same carbon footprint as India, the world would not have faced a climate change problem.

Reciprocal flexibility and mutual concessions are essential features of any negotiation. However, offering one concession after another without obtaining - or even seeking - reciprocal concessions to protect one's vital national interests is the path to capitulation, not a fair compromise. Indian negotiators often felt that their US and EU counterparts had a clearer picture than they had about Ramesh's ultimate intentions. Cheered on by the opposing team, Ramesh scored successive goals against his own side.

The writer is a former ambassador, climate negotiator and member of PM's Council on Climate Change

First Published: Mon, July 07 2014. 21:46 IST