India's bumpy path to green, by Sarabjit Singh

Indian Environment Ramesh in Cancun
Indian environment minister Jairem Ramesh in Cancun, December 2010. Photo:

India’s path to green is littered with challenges. The country faces a staggering roll-call of problems that will need to be addressed before it can implement the emission reductions the West demands.

One year after the fiasco that was Copenhagen 2009, the expectations going into the UN climate summit at Cancun earlier this month could not have been lower. The last time the negotiators from
around the world sat around the table, they produced no legally binding contract, no unanimous
agreement, and a final accord that was not even “adopted” but merely “taken note of”.

Cancun however, turned out to be an unexpected success; a success, said many, that would not have been possible without India’s first-ever-call to all countries for binding commitments towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So when India’s environment minister - Jairam Ramesh boarded the flight back to New Delhi, he had reason to be pleased with himself.

In the eyes of many of his fellow negotiators, India’s role at the summit was constructive like never
before. “Indian minister Ramesh has made important contributions,” said the German chancellor Angela Merkel. “The minister (Ramesh) has been instrumental in bridging gaps,” according to Mohamed Aslam, the environment minister of the island-nation of Maldives.

Even the Americans, who have often publicly sparred with the developing-nations bloc had good things
to say this time. “India really played a particularly constructive role in trying to find solutions that would bring everybody to the table,” said U.S. special envoy Todd Stern.

In a different world, minister Ramesh may just have expected a garland of flowers and showers of praise on his arrival back home.

In this world though, he knows better. So when his flight landed back in New Delhi, he was probably
quietly putting together his talking points against what he knew would follow - allegations from the
political opposition that he was a sellout, a weak negotiator who had just compromised away the hard-fought positions of the men and women who had represented the country before him.

Internal struggle

It seems to have become a fashionable sign of functioning democracies that political oppositions have
few qualms about exercising their constitutional birthright to disagree with everything that the
government stands for, irrespective of the principle or the challenge at hand (at times even earning
themselves titles such as the Party-of-No in the process).

Some of this boo-hooing from the Indian opposition can therefore be dismissed as political. The rest of this mud slinging however demands a more careful explanation, for it points to a substantive struggle that India is currently having with itself.

Ever conscious of its rising profile in the world, the country still seems to be unable to make up its mind: is the best defense against climate change an intransigence that forces the West to own up to its misdeeds; or is it a willingness to tighten the economic belt around its impoverished millions and join its richer friends to fight a threat that faces us all?

Democracies are at their worst at fixing problems whose effects are long term and disputed, but whose solutions require immediate and clearly visible compromises. ‘Pray tell me sir,’ a legislator is entitled to ask, ‘why should I tackle an issue that will only show its worst effects 10 or 20 years from now, when in doing so I risk being voted out within the next five?’

Add this to the social and economic challenges India faces, and you’ll begin to understand
why the country is unable to present a consistent and constructive front at international forums.

Need for development

In a widely-reported study featured in the UNDP Human Development Report earlier this year, it was
revealed that there are more poor people in just eight Indian states than in 26 of the poorest African
countries combined. Whereas over the last couple of decades, there has been incredible development across the length and breadth of this vast nation, there is clearly still a long way to go.

The private sector drives much of India’s development. It is essential therefore that the government do all that is necessary to build an environment that encourages initiative, nourishes entrepreneurship, and rewards development.

This fact has led many to argue that imposing a tax on carbon emissions, or any such measure, will retard the country’s ability to pull itself out of poverty. In 2008 in a speech to the Indian Foreign Service, the country’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke for many when he said that “for a poor country like ours, development and the eradication of poverty is the supreme concern. So we have to marry the concern of management of global climate with the concern for development, for removal of poverty.”

India’s lack of access to education among the country’s poorest has significant ramifications on the population’s awareness of global warming and its readiness to respond. In a broad Gallup survey of global opinions about climate change, conducted in 2009, fewer than a third of Indians responded that they knew anything about global warming.

The surveyors concluded that “although India has emerged as a key player in global climate negotiations, the average Indian remains unaware of climate change.” As long as issues of food and shelter occupy more room in the public psyche than climate change, any politician who picks up the cause is likely to be castigated for missing the point.

Ambiguous numbers

Even among those Indians who are aware of the issue, many say that developed economies such as the US, Germany, and Japan should take the first steps to reduce global emissions.

There is a general feeling, more so among those that walk the corridors of power in the country, that the West caused the problem, and so should shoulder the responsibility for cleaning things up.

For their part, some Western countries have accused India of focusing solely on historical emissions, for which the west is largely responsible, and ignoring the current flow of emissions, to which developing nations such as India and China add significantly.

The problem is that both sides seem to have enough numbers available to prop up their claims.
Without a doubt, India’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen sharply in the last few decades, sixty per cent between 1994 and 2007, and are expected to continue to rise for some time to come.

At 5.5 percent of the total global emissions, the percentage that the country contributes to emissions is still relatively small, less than a quarter of China’s. and growing more slowly as compared to the rest of Asia or even the Middle East.

Furthermore, when adjusted for the country’s population (per-capita) or the GDP (carbon intensity),
India’s contribution to climate change seems even less significant. In 2008 on average, each Indian
choked up just 12% more CO2 as compared to someone living in Africa. Over the next 25 years, that
number goes up to 40%, but will still be less than a third of the projected global average in 2035.

In the same period, the country is expected to account for only 7% of the growth in global coal-related
emissions, compared to China’s 78%.

It isn’t entirely surprising then that some Indians feel they are being asked to bear an unfair amount of the burden. Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi belongs to this group - “The fact is,” she explains in an interview to TIME magazine last year, “even if India stopped breathing today, the West would have to undertake cuts at home to save the world from an ecological catastrophe, [but] there is no serious effort towards lifestyle changes in the West. Households need to consume less. More people need to take public transport.”

Vested interests

But it is not just a question of conducting more research to establish which side of this argument is
correct. For even if the numbers were incontrovertibly stacked up against India, the country would not
find it easy to motivate its people to act.

Just like apologists of free trade, campaigners looking for concrete measures to address climate change face a challenge inherent to the nature of this issue: the benefits are vague, ambiguous and far in the future. Slowing down emissions _may _lead to a reduction in global temperatures, which _may _slow down the projected rise in sea levels requiring the general population living in low-lying areas to move. The compromises needed to enact these measures however, will directly affect specific economic areas or industries, which can easily lobby against measures that have a perceived negative impact.

In India’s case, this means that any proposed measures to reform the country’s infrastructure and its reliance on high-carbon fuels will run up against industry unions with enough political clout to render such initiatives dead-on-arrival.

The coal industry is one such example. In a public lecture earlier this year, Dr. Fereidun Fesharaki,
chairman of FACTS Global Energy and a leading expert in energy policy issues, spoke about the Indian
government’s inability to bring foreign investment into this sector. “Coal is controlled by mafia-type
unions similar to what Mexican oil unions used to be. Because they don’t want anybody in the country,
they don’t allow foreign investment in the coal sector.”

In the face of such resistance to change, it is unlikely that the coal industry, among others, will accept
measures that threaten its own future. At the end of the day, as long as there are powerful interests vested in the status quo, it is difficult to imagine a government with the courage to make the compromises demanded of India by the West, as well as the ability to get itself re-elected in the next election.

It is a challenge of which Jairam Ramesh is painfully aware. Since arriving back from Cancun, the Indian minister has spent much of his time explaining his widely reported u-turn. In a letter to other members of parliament, he clarifies that “contrary to some misquoted references in the domestic media, he did not make any commitment on India undertaking absolute emission cuts” and that “a legally binding agreement is not acceptable to India at this stage.”

Confusing signals, one might think. But until India is able to fix issues higher up on its priority list, some confusion about the country’s ability to address climate change is inevitable.

The author, Sarabjit Singh, is an entrepreneur based in Singapore who also writes on business, economics, and other global issues.

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