Posted by: Mehul Srivastava on July 20, 2009
Talk about a rough start. On a three-day visit to India, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jostled with India’s environment minister for her suggestion that India consider curbs on its carbon emissions.
Speaking on a tour of a so-called “green building” in Gurgaon, the boom-town-gone-silent on the outskirts of the Indian capital, Clinton offered a thought on India’s role in the efforts against global warming. After admiring the double-glassed windows that kept the building cool in the summers, she admitted that the U.S. had made mistakes in terms of climate change policy. “There is no question that developed countries like mine must lead on this issue and for our part, under President Obama, we are not only acknowledging our contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, we are taking steps to reverse its ill effects,” Clinton said.
Then, she added this, as a reminder to what she felt were India’s responsibilities. “It is essential for major developing countries like India to also lead because over 80 percent of the growth in future emissions will be from developing countries,” she said.
Innocuous enough, right? But it raised the hackles of Jairam Ramesh, the Indian minister for forests and environment. “There is simply no case for the pressure” that the U.S. was exerting for legal caps on emissions for developing countries, he said. “As if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.”
And to make sure his point across, he added later on that India looks “suspiciously” upon the commitment and motivation of western countries that have failed to live up to previous climate treaties. (Remember the Kyoto Protocol? Anybody? Anybody?)
An over-reaction, you say? But then, there’s always the back-story to consider. First of all, both India and China have been adamant about one fact – if the U.S. and Europe faced no limitations on their ability to industrialize, then it would be hypocrisy to impose the same limitations on developing nations.
More recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that imposes tariffs on goods imported from countries that don’t pledge to a reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020.
And to, so to say, heat up the affair even more, both India and China are expected to find themselves in a corner later this year, when 180 nations meet later this year in Copenhagen to discuss global warming under the U.N.’s auspices.
So take these comments – this ceremonial sword-rattling – as just another stage in the global realpolitik. India’s argument, unconvincing to environmentalists, is its per capita emissions are amongst the lowest in the world, so to a large extent, its responsibilities should be low too. True, but then, the country has over a billion people, and is amongst the fastest growing in the world, which Clinton tried to point out in her defense. “But what is happening now,” she said, is that those rates of emissions “are going up, and dramatically.”
And also, as in all diplomatic encounters, the setting and the company makes all the difference. She was flanked by Todd Stern, Mrs Clinton envoy on Climate Change, whose presence on her team raised eyebrows, with oversensitive Indian newspapers registering surprise on his inclusion. And she went out of her way to visit, and then compare the “green building”, constructed by none other than a tobacco manufacturer, as the next Taj Mahal.
To fully understand the impassioned Indian reactions, remember that India and China are being slowly wooed to join the WTO as full partners, a process that all parties have found rancorous. India let the Doha round of talks last year collapse when the U.S. insisted on the removals of support prices for farmers, the largest constituent for India’s ruling Congress party.
But as part of the wooing process, the West has often indicated that it wants more than changes in subsidies and taxes – it wants cooperation on climate change, which Indian and Chinese officials point out, was a creation of western excess.
As a peace offering, India agreed to an “aspirational” limit on global emissions earlier this year, but has made clear that if the western world wants India to roll back emissions, it has to share in the economic cost that that decision brings.
Clinton made nice too, saying that “of course,” nobody wants to “no one wants to, in any way, stall or undermine the economic growth that is necessary to lift millions of more people out of poverty,” according to a transcript of the press conference.
So, as usually happens at these sort of things, nothing was settled, everybody bared their teeth and drew a line in the constantly shifting sand about their intentions, and retreated back to their corners. India still has no interest in agreeing to legal caps on emissions, and the U.S. registered how earnestly it wanted to that to change.
Monday, though, for those keeping track of the visit – and the accompanying fireworks – will likely be a day of carrots and happy handshakes. Clinton finishes off meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and is expected to announce a few agreements that might make U.S.-India trade more robust. One includes a much awaited end-use-monitoring agreement that might make it easier for American defense contractors to pursues the tens billions of dollars the Indian military is spending, and the other is expected to be an announcement of U.S.-private-sector-built nuclear power plants in India.