Why India Lost Out in Copenhagen

India unwisely provided China cover

India, far from gaining anything by aligning itself with China at Copenhagen, only undercut its interest by getting bracketed with the world’s largest polluter and being made to accept mitigation obligations, writes Brahma Chellaney

Make no mistake: China, the world’s largest net polluter whose carbon emissions are growing at the fastest rate, was the principal target at Copenhagen, which has given its imprimatur to revising the climate-change regime. But China cleverly deflected pressure by hiding behind India and other developing countries. 

China, however, has little in common with India. With its carbon-intensive, manufacturing-based economy, China’s per-capita carbon emissions are four times higher than India’s. India, with its white-collar, services-driven economy, has the lowest per-capita emissions among all important developing countries. Although both countries seem to have similar competitive advantages, China’s rise has been on the back of an increasing export surge that has made it the world’s back factory for cheap goods, while India’s imports-dependent economy is carbon light, reflected in the fact that its per-capita emissions are just 26 per cent of the world average.

Yet, in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, India signed a five-year understanding with China to present a united front in international climate-change negotiations, with the Indian minister of state for environment, in a hallucinatory loop of delusion, going to the extent of saying that there “is no difference between the Indian and Chinese negotiating positions.” What is the commonality between the two countries when China openly rejects India’s approach that per-capita emission levels and historic contributions to the build-up of greenhouse gases should form the objective criteria for carbon mitigation? China, as the world’s back factory, wants a different formula that marks down carbon intensity linked to exports.

Had the situation been the opposite — with India’s per-capita emissions four times higher than China’s, and with India in the line of international fire — would Beijing helped provide New Delhi diplomatic cover? India gained little by aligning itself with China at Copenhagen. Indeed, it ended up undercutting its interest by getting bracketed with the world’s largest net polluter and being made to accept mitigation action under international monitoring under undefined international monitoring. In the process, it has helped formulate, even if unintentionally, the broad terms for revising what admirably suits Indian interests — the existing climate-change regime.

The price for providing political cover to China at Copenhagen is that carbon-thin India got roped in to commit itself to mitigation when hundreds of millions of Indians have no access to most-basic rights: Electricity and safe water. Instead of a deal being struck between the world’s two largest polluters, the U.S. and China, the U.S. was forced to cut a deal with the BASIC bloc comprising Brazil, India, South Africa and China, because China expediently hid behind that banner. In fact, India has little in common even with South Africa and Brazil either in carbon or industrial-development level. While India’s per-capita emission was 1.2 tons in 2007, it was 9.4 in South Africa, 2.1 in Brazil and 4.8 in China, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

India not only aligned itself with the wrong group, but also it presented itself inadvertently as a major global polluter by making common cause with China, whose developmental path threatens to unleash a carbon tsunami on the world. As China and India gain economic heft, it has become fashionable to internationally pair them. But these two demographic titans are a study in contrast on carbon intensity, with China now responsible for 24 per cent of global carbon emissions with 19.8 percent of the world population, but India’s current contribution not matching even half its population size. India indeed has more in common with the poor countries that cried foul over the U.S.-BASIC deal.

India would have done better at Copenhagen had it not associated itself so closely with China. It should have gone into the negotiations by consciously seeking to de-hyphenate itself from China, including by pointing out that China has more in common with the U.S. than with India. After all, the U.S. (currently responsible for 22 per cent of global emissions) and China, as the top polluters, have emerged as the key “problem states” in combating climate change.

But instead of de-hyphenating itself, India went into the negotiations as if it were joined at the hip with China, first by agreeing to put up a united stance and then by following in Beijing’s footsteps to unveil a plan to slash its carbon intensity by 2020. Not only was the target of 20 to 25 per cent reductions disproportionate to the level of Indian emissions, but it also made India ripe in Copenhagen for acceptance of mitigation action. In any case, it was poor negotiating strategy to announce such a major voluntary concession beforehand.

Past experience should have taught India that whenever it has joined hands with China on environmental issues, it has been let down by the Chinese proclivity to jettison principles and play power politics to serve its narrow interests. Take the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. In the negotiations, it teamed up India, only to reverse its stance and leave India in the lurch. It agreed to abide by the protocol if it were compensated for the compliance costs. That forced India eventually to take that very position, lest it stood out as a loner. Under the Kyoto Protocol, China — through international manoeuvring — has captured the bulk of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding.

How much it suits China to be seen in the same class as India on carbon issues than with its real polluting peer, the U.S., was made clear by the post-Copenhagen telephone call the Chinese foreign minister made to his Indian counterpart to emphasize continuing Sino-Indian collaboration. But when it comes to global or Asian geopolitics, China insists India is in a junior league.

New Delhi can be sure that when criteria for mitigation action is defined in future negotiations, China will work to unduly burden India by insisting that weight be given to elements other than per-capita emission levels and historic contributions. Having unwittingly aided the Chinese game-plan in Copenhagen, India is set to come out a loser. Isn’t that precisely what India did on UN Security Council permanent membership? When the U.S. and Soviet Union offered India a permanent seat in 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru demurred, according to his own collected works, saying the seat rightfully belonged to China. Now, China is the main obstacle to India’s UNSC aspirations.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, is the author of “On the Frontline of Climate Change: International Security Implications”.

(c) The Economic Times, January 7, 2009.

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