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More than hot air

Why the US still hasn’t understood India on climate change

Written by Jeremy Carl |
July 28, 2009 5:04:37 am

Last week,in an incident that made international headlines,Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was,embarrassingly,publicly dressed down by Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh on the question of India’s future CO2 emissions.

Ramesh told Clinton bluntly: “There is simply no case for the pressure that we,who have among the lowest emissions per capita,face to actually reduce emissions.” Meanwhile,an uncomfortable Clinton made a vague statement about the US not wanting to hinder Indian economic growth,but hardly defended the US position in a robust manner. Nor is it easy to defend,either morally or practically.

Unfortunately,Secretary Clinton’s approach on this issue reflects all too well the reality of the disconnect that typifies the Obama administration’s position on climate negotiations with India. The institutional drivers of the climate legislation in the US know that Indian participation is important; but,at the same time,there is little understanding of Indian political realities.

Similarly,the US State Department,while substantially more disciplined than the foreign offices of most countries,still displays the penchant of diplomats everywhere to favour reaching agreements,even when these agreements are ultimately meaningless. Finally,for political reasons having largely to do with the emotional investment that many US environmental advocates have made in the Kyoto process,the US continues to prioritise it under Obama,despite a large body of evidence that suggests that the process has largely failed. All of this has contributed to the US’s unproductive stance on climate negotiations with India.

Ramesh’s very public restatement of India’s position on emissions reduction should certainly be viewed as a negotiating position. But it is also more. Ramesh is a savvy political actor; and it is likely that the general tenor of his comments will not be contrary to opinion at the highest levels,more than a simple case of a politician running off at the mouth.

From an Indian perspective,it might be difficult to see that US policymakers have not yet understood that India will find it politically difficult agree on and,in terms of governance,near-impossible to abide by,any binding targets for its CO2 emissions. If by some miracle it did agree to such a target,it would only be because such a target was so high as to

be meaningless. The history of the Kyoto Protocol is littered with such examples of illusory CO2 reductions and failed commitments.

So widespread,however,is the consensus that even R.K. Pachauri,who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf along with Al Gore) defended Ramesh and observed: “Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes… You cannot,in a democracy,ignore some of these realities and as it happens with the resources of coal that India has we really don’t have any choice but to use coal in the immediate short term,” he said. Coal,of course,is enemy number one for US-based climate-change activists.

Despite the recent dust-up,there are a number of sensible steps that India and the US could take together in the short term. A jointly funded clean energy technology development fund and a further joint collaboration on environmental regulation and management were two that Ramesh suggested. I would add that the US and India could jointly address India’s black carbon (soot) emissions — prob-

ably India’s leading current contribution to climate change,and one that is in its interest to reduce because of the effect soot has on human health.

India might also be persuaded to agree to and abide by targets of energy intensity (that is,energy usage per unit of GDP growth),which would encourage India’s inefficient industries to become more efficient — saving money and thus also working in India’s short-term economic interests. This sort of concession might be difficult to win but is at least potentially achievable.

The problem is that,politically,the US administration needs India to do something meaningful about climate if it is to advance its own domestic climate legislation,currently facing great scepticism in Congress. Conversely,given the priority that this issue has in the US and Europe,India will have to do something meaningful to show that it is engaged and is taking the issue of climate change seriously.

The writer is a research fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies at Stanford University,where his work focuses on India

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