Tuesday, December 22, 2009

MNV Nair Memorial Lecture 2009


I am grateful to the Trivandrum Public Affairs Forum for doing me the
honour of inviting me to deliver the MNV Nair Memorial Lecture 2009. I
must have delivered half a dozen lectures in different parts of the
country this year in memory of various distinguished men and women who
had made distinct contributions to different institutions and
communities. But I knew none of them in person and I had to go by the
various accounts of their accomplishments. But today we are honouring
someone, who was a living presence amidst us till 2006 and inspired
many of us to contribute to the intellectual and public life of
Trivandrum. When I returned to this city after nearly 40 years abroad
with fancy ideas about my retired life, it was Sri. MNV Nair, who gave
me a sense of realism about the possibilities and limitations of
Kerala. His guidance and support were crucial in the setting up of the
Kerala International Centre, which has now become an important venue
for promotion of foreign policy awareness and analysis. In paying
homage to Sri. MNV Nair, I would like to acknowledge my own personal
indebtedness to him.

My involvement in environmental negotiations, particularly climate
change, is rather ancient, beginning with the Rio summit in 1992 and
ending with the Berlin Conference of Parties (COP) of 1995, where I
was the Vice Chairman of the Conference and spokesperson of the G-77.
It was the Berlin Mandate, which was formulated under the Chairmanship
of the present Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, that later became
the Kyoto Protocol. But I volunteered to speak on climate change today
because the basic issues relating to the subject have remained
unchanged, though we have reached the 15th session of the COP and the
dramatis personae have changed several times. In fact, the battle that
Indira Gandhi waged against environmental colonialism in Stockholm in
1972 still continues. The essential features of the Indian position
and the position of the developing countries are the same today as
they were at the time of Stockholm.

I do not intend to deal with either the science or the economics of
climate change; I shall only touch upon its political and diplomatic
dimensions. As far as the science is concerned, the International
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nobel Prize winning body of
scientists, headed by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, has established beyond
any reasonable doubt that human activity of various kinds do
contribute to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
leading to global warming. There are still some “deniers” even among
scientists, who believe that either there is no global warming at all
or nature will find its own way of restoring the equilibrium in the
atmosphere. The so-called “climategate” in Copenhagen, the leakage of
some emails purporting to suggest that some scientists in the IPCC
deliberately suppressed some scientific evidence to the effect that
anthropogenic emissions had nothing to do with global warming, did
muddy the atmosphere. Well, there are people who still believe that
the earth is flat and that Darwin’s theory of evolution is sheer
fiction. There is no doubt that it is time that human beings who have,
by their careless and extravagant consumption of the resources of the
earth, caused damage to mother earth, must take corrective action to
reverse the trend in climate change.

As stated earlier, Indira Gandhi had the vision and wisdom to go to
Stockholm in 1972, the only Prime Minister to do so, and to influence
the agenda that the western world was setting to mitigate
environmental problems. The theory being floated in Stockholm was that
the developing countries should desist from using the energy resources
of the earth for their economic development as the developed world
did, but conserve them and preserve the forests and lakes, which have
the capacity to sink greenhouse gases. The developing countries should
also adopt environmentally friendly technologies in their development
efforts. In Stockholm, Indira Gandhi called “poverty the biggest
polluter”, by which she meant that the environmental problems of the
developing countries are simply a reflection of their poverty. The
Stockholm conference finally resulted in an acknowledgement by the
international community of the link between environment and
development and also of the greater responsibility of the
industrialized countries regarding the contamination of the planet.
The “polluters must pay”, said Indira Gandhi, to clean up the mess
that they had created.

The historic Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 refined these concepts
further and formulated several programmes of action to deal with
environment and development in an integrated manner. The UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change (FCC) was one of the two international
conventions, which opened for signature in Rio. This landmark
Convention expressed concern that human activities have been
substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse
gases and that this will result in an additional warming of the
earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural
ecosystems and humankind. But the basic premise in the Convention was
that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of
greenhouse gases has originated in developed counties, that per capita
emissions in developing counties are still relatively low and that the
share of global emissions originating in developing countries will
grow to meet their social and development needs.” In other words, the
“luxury emissions” of developed countries should be reduced
substantially, while the “survival emissions” of developing countries
should be allowed to grow in a controlled manner. The principles of
the Convention were particularly significant as the protection of the
climate should be “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their
common, but differentiated responsibilities and respective
capabilities.” Specific commitments for reduction of greenhouse gas
emissions by designated developed countries and for provision of new
and additional resources was included in the Convention and the
developing countries had no such commitments, in view of their need
for economic growth. The vision of international cooperation contained
in the Convention based on the balance between development needs and
environment protection made the Convention universally acceptable. A
new compact between the developed and developing countries raised new
hopes for mankind.

The journey from Rio to Copenhagen through Berlin, Kyoto, Bali and
other cities, however, turned out to be a great disappointment. The
Rio commitments remained unimplemented both in terms of emission cuts,
financing and technology transfer and each COP diluted the basic
principles farther and farther till the Copenhagen COP moved away from
those principles by excluding the whole concept of legally binding
commitments altogether. The Copenhagen COP ended in a discordant note
when it merely “took note” of an Accord produced by the so-called
major economies, the United States, India, China, Brazil and South
Africa. Most developing countries condemned the Accord and even
several developed countries expressed anguish that Copenhagen had
moved away from the Rio and Kyoto commitments. Of course, the words of
the Rio principles are scattered all over the Copenhagen document and
the commitment of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol is reiterated to
satisfy public opinion, but it contains only a pious wish to “to hold
the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take
action to meet this objective.” As for commitment of new and
additional resources, developed countries will provide an amount
“approaching USD 30 billion for the period 2010-2012”. They also
committed to the goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion a year by
2020 as part of the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, subject to
“meaningful mitigation actions and transparency of implementation.”
The Copenhagen Accord is open for acceptance by the member states, but
judging from the intensity of protests from the developing world—some
called it Floppenhagen, some compared it to the holocaust and some
even accused those developing countries which accepted it as having
betrayed humanity for thirty pieces of silver—there will be few
takers. The only hope is that the negotiations will continue for a
year and a more precise agreement with legally binding commitments
will emerge.

India undoubtedly disappointed the developing world by breaking away
from its ranks to bail out the United States and China, the highest
emitters of greenhouse gases. India went to Copenhagen with a negative
mandate—no legally binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, no
monitoring and no burying of Kyoto Protocol. When it came under
pressure to accept new obligations, it found common cause with the
worst polluters in the world, the US and China, who were also under
similar pressure and let down the other developing countries and left
the conference declaring victory, not only for itself, but also for
the so-called BASIC countries. But the victor in the exercise was the
United States which changed the course of the climate change debate to
a new direction. Unlike in Rio and Kyoto, the United States was not
left alone to defy the world. President Obama accomplished his three
objectives of “mitigation, transparency and financing” the way he
wanted. India, China, Brazil and South Africa let the US off the hook.
Perhaps, this is the first time in the history of the UN that India is
part of a consensus in a small group, which is being disowned by a
majority of the developing countries. It is no great consolation that
we are in the company of three other major developing countries. A new
alliance between the “emerging economies” and the US has been forged
at Copenhagen, but its future remains in question as they begin to
grapple with legally binding commitments, which will be absolutely
essential in any action plan for climate. India and China will also
come under pressure at that time as the concept of per capita
emissions seems to have disappeared from the formulations in

President Obama’s insistence on transparency in actions by all states
figures in the Accord in the form of emerging economies reporting
every two years to the United Nations, which will be subject to
“international consultation and analysis”, a euphemism for
international monitoring. A US spokesman has already claimed that
China and India have set goals for mitigation and that they will be
challenged if they do not reach those goals. The “common but
differentiated responsibilities” of the individual countries, one of
the principles of Rio, has been forgotten as now all the major
economies have the same common responsibilities. In his speech to the
conference, President Obama, with his characteristic mastery of
juggling with words, changed the much negotiated principle into
“common but differentiated responses”. India would have been far
better off without this accord. Waiting out for another year with all
the options open would have been preferable to closing several doors
in an attempt to declare victory at Copenhagen. Minister Jairam Ramesh
did not carry conviction when he declared that the Copenhagen Accord
was good for India and the world. His approach looked more like the
way he himself described the typical Indian attitude towards the
United States: “Yankees go home, but take me along with you!”
The Indian position outlined by the Prime Minister at his plenary
speech was principled, firm and forward looking. He opposed any
dilution of the Convention signed in Rio, particularly the principle
of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and
respective capabilities. “To settle for something that would be seen
as diminished expectations and diminished implementation would be the
wrong message to emerge from this conference”, he said. He went on to
say, “those worst affected by climate change are the least responsible
for it. Whatever emerges from our negotiations must address this
glaring injustice, injustice to countries of Africa, injustice to the
Least Developed Countries, and injustice to the Small Developing
States, whose survival as viable states is in jeopardy.”
Unfortunately, the very countries that the Prime Minister mentioned
felt betrayed by the Copenhagen accord. The transparent and inclusive
process that India had promised also did not materialize in

The Copenhagen Accord can be defended only on the ground that it
prevented a complete breakdown of the negotiations and pointed a
realistic way in which the worst emitters could be brought into
certain broad commitments even if they are not legally binding or
verifiable. Instead of being a “deal breaker”, as India was rumoured
to be before the conference, it has become a “deal maker”. The
commitment to limit the rise in temperature to 2 degrees, with the
possibility of even considering bringing it down to 1.5 degrees holds
out some hope for mankind. The Accord retains much of the language of
the past to show that the way forward is not a complete break from the
past. The concept of a Fund to finance mitigation of and adaptation to
climate change has taken some concrete shape. The United States is now
a partner rather than a target in the global effort to safeguard the
environment. Cooperation rather than confrontation is the way to go
and these are the days of multiple alliances rather than nonalignment.
These accomplishments must, however, be weighed against the price
India will have to pay for breaking away from the mainstream movement
of developing countries, the charge that the US and other developed
countries have been let off without binding commitments and the
concession India has made by accepting some form of international
monitoring of its voluntary commitments. India has taken a calculated
risk by accepting what was essentially a US-China deal, which was
worked out between them over a year and presented by President Obama
as a way to save the Copenhagen conference from total failure. Only
time will tell whether Copenhagen will lead to a meaningful and
legally binding agreement to halt and reverse climate change.
The Copenhagen conference was remarkable for the demonstration of the
grave anxiety of the world about the deterioration of the environment.
The people are far ahead of their Governments on this issue and even
the most powerful and dictatorial Governments cannot stop the tide of
public opinion and I would like to conclude on that optimistic note.

No comments: