The heat is on: India is clueless at climate change talks

The heat is bound to be on Jayanthi Natarajan as she returns from the Durban climate change conference having signed India onto what is being billed as a historic global agreement on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases. Critics at home, however, are bound to see the agreement as a capitulation to the demands of developed countries that emerging economies like India and China no longer be given a free pass to pollute their way to development.

After thunderous speeches in the dead of the night in Durban, at which Natarajan kept the Indian flag flying, and was valiantly backed by the Chinese climate change negotiator, India and China were cornered by the European Union delegates into agreeing to an agreement that would commit themselves to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions from 2020.

This is the first time India and China are committing themselves to a legally binding, verifiable framework on emission cuts, although the precise wording of the agreement was diluted slightly to give both the Indian and Chinese delegations something to sell back home.

From all accounts, Natarajan and her delegation were metaphorically dragged kicking and screaming into the agreement. "India will never be intimidated by threats," Natarajan had thundered barely hours earlier. "Why should I give a blank check and give a legally binding agreement to sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people?"

The developed economies, she said, were shifting the blame to countries that were not primarily responsibly for climate change. "I am told India will be blamed," Natarajan said. "Please don't hold us hostage."

After thunderous speeches in the dead of the night in Durban, India and China were cornered by EU into agreeing to an agreement. AFP Photo

All that blustery talk ended in a whimper after late-night haggling that altered two words in the text: the agreement initially called for "a protocol, another legal instrument or a legal outcome" to be drawn up by 2015 and enforceable by 2020. At India's insistence, it was changed to "a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force".

Those two words will now be hard-sold as having gone far enough to protect India's interests. Go figure!

Yet, such splitting of legal hairs merely hides India's failure over the years to articulate a cohesive negotiating strategy on climate change. In particular, in recent years, India's publicly stated negotiating strategy at these climate change conferences shows up its policy flip-flops and pirouttes – and a readiness to cower behind China's broad and muscular shoulders at these talks.

For instance, two years ago, just ahead of the Copenhagen climate change conference, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh went public with his stand that India should, in its own interest, agree to emission reduction targets. That in itself represented a 180-degree turnaround in India's negotiating position until then, which was that only developed countries needed to cut back emissions, and poor developing economies like India could carry on polluting their way to development. Jairam Ramesh made no effort to explain the underlying rationale for such policy about-turn – merely claiming that it was in India's interest.

That announcement shocked China, which as the world's leading polluter would have been forced to comply if India too fell in line – and had the most to lose from a legally binding, verifiable agreement on emission cuts.

Strikingly, at about the same time that Jairam Ramesh dropped his bombshell, China was in the middle of harassing India over the Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, China paused its hectoring long enough to send its minister to New Delhi to convince Jairam Ramesh on the need for 'Asian solidarity' at the Copenhagen climate change conference. Within a month, China even cobbled together an alliance called BASIC (comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China) ostensibly to represent the interests of developing economies.

At Copenhagen, amidst high drama, India and China teamed up to beat back an extraordinarily hands-on effort by Barack Obama to get emerging economies to agree to legally verifiable emission cuts. At one point, Obama burst in uninvited into a meeting of the BASIC alliance and injected himself into the bareknuckle negotiations. For his interventionist efforts, he was subjected to a finger-wagging talkdown by the Chinese climate change negotiator. The air was thick with rancour, so no meaningful deal emerged from that event.

In other words, within a few days, India's negotiating strategy had swung from one extreme to the other, and back again. And each time, it was explained away as being in India's interests.

With remarkable agility of policy positions, Jairam Ramesh claimed months later, on a visit to Beijing, that India's negotiating position at Copenhagen – which was a 180-degree turnaround from the position he had publicly announced only days earlier – had "bailed out China" and had in fact fortified the two countries' strategic relationship. On such fanciful notions is India's climate change strategy built.

Yet, pretty soon after that, the thin ice on which rested Jairam Ramesh's exaggerated claims to having strengthened strategic relations with China, melted away in the heat of China's needling of India – from Arunachal Pradesh to Kashmir.

India's failure to articulate a clear negotiating strategy ill-serves its interests, but it allows its leaders to claim victory, irrespective of whether they walk away from verifiable mechanisms, as in Copenhagen, or sign on, as at Durban. It allows them to roar at international conferences about their unwillingness to "sign away the rights of 1.2 billion people", and yet within minutes sign on to a "historic" agreement. Of course, in our own interest.