Copenhagen End Game: India’s Negotiating Position

I am often asked how the Indian government and Indian citizens perceive the climate change threat and their participation, along with 179 other nations, at the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP-15) set to take place in Copenhagen in December.

Here’s the short answer: India’s position is a combination of “It’s not my problem” plus “Don’t change the rules mid-game.” While the prospect of a “cooler” India with temperatures about 2 degrees lower excites me, the likelihood is that I will have to find my own shade while traveling.

While Indian leaders acknowledge scientific research on the future of global emissions and admit that something needs to be done, their worldview is shaped by the notion that developed countries are in a position to push for new environmental controls, such as cap-and-trade, because they are in an entirely different position: they are developed. For instance, the U.S. Congress wants to pledge some level of reductions, but the U.S. only wants to do this if they can guarantee that China and India—the major source of the world’s future emissions—make concessions.

In China, even though they have committed publicly to more reductions than the U.S., the main argument to be advanced at the COP-15 is to suggest that any new controls punish consumers of products, not the producers. In lay terms, this means that U.S. citizens who purchase cheap Chinese imports should pay the carbon tariff, not the producers: tax demand, not production.

In India, the argument is that its per-capita emissions are very small, even though their country’s emissions will grow and even though their state-run energy sector is wildly inefficient. (Aside: While China’s argument is clever, India’s does not hold water; a counterargument would be to encourage both countries to address their population growth issues, which statistically enables India to make this claim.) India also fears that carbon tariffs will hurt their export figures, which have already withstood a massive hit in 2009. Even if India resists these measures, it could be forced to bear of burden of more a protectionist global economy as developed countries could creatively shelter their industries from the costs associated with their own emissions targets. Furthermore, because India is a poor country (the average Indian earns the equivalent of US$1,000 per year), the government argues that its growth cannot be curbed because they have a moral obligation to continue to lift sections of the citizenry out of poverty, which to their credit, they have been able to do.

Let’s give India credit for being straight-forward and constructive. Instead of these conventional levers, Indian climate officials are asking developed countries to finance schemes that would create incentives for the import of currently expense technologies that could have material effects on India’s carbon footprint. This would save India money, accelerate their development in the green sector, and most importantly, bring enough positive change and money to India where it’s politically feasible.

Ultimately, India, like the majority of other nations preparing for COP-15, privately knows that a “global deal” won’t be hammered out. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, and India doesn’t want to take a demotion to wash dishes. Instead, regional alliances around climate change mitigation are more likely to form over the next five years, where countries at similar development arcs who share common waters, borders, and atmospheres begin to develop regionally-specific protocols for addressing climate change in their backyard.