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Going in to Copenhagen, the “Rashomon” narratives of the conference varied more than many realised. It is obvious that the Copenhagen Accord has disappointed many sections of world public opinion that had looked forward to an equitable and viable global plan of action to combat global warming. Those hopeful of substantive progress at Copenhagen did so at their own risk of being disappointed. The post-mortem exercise of Copenhagen has revealed that it’s not just about emission reduction and financial assistance numbers, but about redefining geo-political structures. Perhaps, very few anticipated such an outcome. The next ten months will unravel this redefinition and determine the fate of not just the Kyoto Protocol but the entire climate negotiation process, with India at its core.
While the Accord commits its signatories to keeping the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, it does not specify any global plan of emissions reduction that would enable this goal to be achieved. The Indian Prime Minister, Manmonhan Singh has admitted that while only limited progress was made at the Copenhagen summit, there was no escaping from the truth that sooner or later nations have to move to a low greenhouse gas emission development path.[1. ‘Copenhagen outcome not satisfactory’, Deccan Herald, 4 January 2010]
The Copenhagen Accord and India
Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, has offered the conclusion that the Copenhagen Accord is a “good deal” for India. This perspective seems to be based on the claim that India’s redlines of no cuts, no nationally specific peaking year, and no international verification had been met. This is also where the national debate is engaged with respect to India’s stance at climate negotiations.
India’s Copenhagen strategy has, so far, largely delivered the objective sought: India has limited international commitments, the architecture of the climate process remains two-track, and it has also avoided being tagged as deal-breaker. India succeeded with the latter in part due to the alliance with other BASIC countries and cover from the African group who fought strongly for the Kyoto Protocol.
Consistent with the hitherto dominant political emphasis on inter-country equity, India’s negotiation strategy so far has had a single overriding objective of ensuring that the climate regime evolves in a manner tightly consistent with the principle of differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities. “Differentiated responsibilities” places the burden of mitigation primarily on industrialised countries that are responsible for the majority (75%) of current stocks of GHG emissions. Many developing countries point to low per capita emissions, which in India’s case is about a tenth that of the US, as evidence of “limited capabilities”. The result is a principle-based negotiation stance around the decision rules for sharing climate or development “space” in an equitable way.
The issue is constructed quite differently in the industrialised world. As the lead US negotiator, Todd Stern, put it in the midst of the Copenhagen talks: …for most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions cause the greenhouse effect… It’s the wrong way to look at this. We absolutely recognise our historical role in putting emissions in the atmosphere that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I categorically reject that. [2. Quoted in Darren Samuelsohn, “No ‘Pass’ for Developing Countries in Next Treaty – Stern”, Greenwire, 12 September 2009]
Industrialised countries construct the problem around what they see as pragmatic politics aimed at changing future emission trends rather than around principles to redress past wrongs. This fundamental inconsistency continues to dog the negotiations and was only incompletely addressed at Copenhagen.
From Hopenhagen to Make-it City
While many hopes were depressed with the outcome of Copenhagen, pressures are already building to make it work at Mexico City. A clear lesson emerging from Copenhagen is that, without a broader political shift, the structural tension around differentiation versus comparability that dominates the climate negotiations will lead inexorably to a watered down and environmentally weak outcome. A national political debate is required to discuss whether and how India can play a role in resolving this tension.
Copenhagen has reinforced the perception that, other than the US and China, no single country can shape the course of the climate negotiations. Constructing a negotiating strategy around the dual objectives of equity and carbon effectiveness will be far more challenging and will require greater strategic skill than building one around a single objective, not least because there may well be trade-offs between the two negotiation objectives.
For example, to preserve the principle of differentiation, a strategic alliance with BASIC countries as a way of maintaining pressure for action and preserving the Kyoto Protocol proved to be extremely useful, and was the right thing to do. However, if carbon effectiveness is also an objective, then in the near future, the high and growing level of emissions from China will also become a concern. Based on current pledges for action,[3. Using Waxman Markey Projections for the US, 20% cuts from 1990 for EU and 40-45% reductions in intensity for China.] by 2020, China’s emissions will be 2.4 times that of the US, and its per capita emissions will be 55-60% as much as US levels but 15-30% higher than EU per capita emissions and well above the expected world average. Engaging this problem will require developing a more sophisticated and nuanced notion of differentiation, even while preserving India’s interests.
Climate Change to Geo-political Change
The big surprise at Copenhagen perhaps was India. After sending some mixed messages before the conference, New Delhi finally made it clear that as far as it was concerned the meeting was about long-term strategic options. India’s clear message was that while it wants an equal alliance with the US and its allies in the EU, a subservient allegiance is not an option.
This was clearly reflected in India’s stance on the issue of “binding verification”. It is suspicious that the West will use the proposed “binding verification” of emission cuts as a means for finding justifications for “green tariffs” and even for industrial espionage.
While the US and the EU pushed for verification, Indian concerns about the deal gave an opportunity for China to entice India into an alliance with it, despite the vastly different mix of emissions of both countries. India then brought along its IBSA partners South Africa and Brazil. It was this expanded group that saw its conclave gate crashed by President Obama in his search for solutions.
Two very important messages were delivered in Copenhagen. India said to the West that it could no longer be taken for granted – it had options. The other message was from China to India. China told India it would be open to a new relationship with India based on mutual interest.
The West primarily thought it was negotiating a trade deal – as evidenced by the drop in EU carbon trading prices after the talks failed to deliver a climate market deal. China was negotiating for a trade deal, but kept options open for larger strategic advantages. India wanted to drive home big geopolitical points.
If the US and the EU are to coax India – and by extension a substantial portion of the developing world – into going along with an ambitious emissions reduction programme and an acceptable climate regime, it will need to desist from seeking to impose measures that are seen by New Delhi as protectionist or too self-serving.
Copenhagen, therefore, was about geopolitics pure and simple. India, as the world’s most populous democracy, with a thriving economy and one of the world’s largest English-speaking populations, is a natural ally for the US and the EU. However, India is wary after its recent experience with nuclear cooperation with the US and trade issues with the EU. Such paranoia gave Beijing an opportunity to entice New Delhi into an alliance with it at Copenhagen, despite the two emerging powers’ many conflicts.
The gain of getting the world’s most populous democracy on its side – not on China’s – is worth some concessions, not just for the sake of a climate deal but for larger strategic purposes. The West made the mistake in Copenhagen of lumping India together with China, and this mistaken view proved to be self-fulfilling.