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India's stance on climate change is coming full circle. The new environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, is steering India's position back to a less 'flexible' mould than the one her predecessor Jairam Ramesh had fashioned in his two years starting 2009.
Ramesh's image as a one-man army from India had won him accolades abroad but stirred controversy at home, including a few storms inside and out of Parliament that he survived with êlan. Natarajan, in her first few engagements with the subject, has shown that she is made of different stuff. Not only is she more confident of India's position, she doesn't hesitate to call a spade a spade at the international forum and prefers to work collectively within the government apparatus.
Natarajan's first encounter with climate games came early in her tenure at a bilateral meeting with Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change. Even as the US official reminded her of Jairam's role in the negotiations, the lawyer-turned-politician sternly but diplomatically explained that she was her own person - and would be driven by political consensus in the country. "It was all cordial but the signal was sent with clarity, " says an official in her ministry.
Her first public statements, at the justconcluded, two-day meeting of ministers in Pretoria, South Africa, have left little doubt that she is in no mood to be flexible for the sake of it. When the developed countries began pushing for a legally binding treaty at Durban, Natarajan tore into their double speak, reminding them that the rich countries were yet to either put money on the table or list their emission-reduction targets for the second phase of Kyoto Protocol. Unlike Ramesh, she wasn't ready to debunk historical and scientific facts - that existing emissions from rich countries need to be reduced substantially to stabilise temperatures and that equity and right to develop is at the heart of the talks.
While Ramesh had indicated that he was ready to turn even voluntary actions into a domestic binding law and then move towards an international regime in the coming years, Jayanthi noted that the giant leaps India was making on its own were costing its economy a large sum and India was doing so despite the rich countries deserting their responsibility domestically and internationally.
While Ramesh had told the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary at a private meeting that he was willing to turn the Cancun agreements into a legally binding deal, Jayanthi has stood firm. "At this stage, we do not have to discuss the nature of a legally binding agreement, " she said.
Unfortunately for Natarajan, the challenge to shift gears and bring India back as a leading voice of developing countries is a tougher game than ever before. In the past two years, negotiations have inched towards a new global climate regime and India's role has morphed into a mass of undulating confusion. Some of the responsibility for this goes to her predecessor. Ramesh had advocated distancing India from the smaller countries in the G77 stable and moving to the high table, even though many experts warned that India was being served only crumbs even as it got a more embellished chair to sit on. Ramesh claimed he always had the support of the PM and his cabinet on every move he made, while others argued that he clinched it very often post-facto and by careful wordplay infused with bluster. Consensus-building was certainly not his style. Some loved him for his 'leadership'. Others thought he had ripped the fabric of southern unity in the international forums apart and got India precious little in exchange. Natarajan has not shown any inclination so far of going down the same road.
The developed countries have already begun to pitch the emerging economies as impediments to them in helping the poorer countries. Barack Obama did it rather candidly at Copenhagen and the Europeans are now warning that unless emerging economies start talking of legally binding commitments, they shall let Kyoto fall apart and the talks fail. It's pitting the lot of poorest, least developed countries, the small island states and African nations against the big developing economies.
Natarajan now has to craft back a place for India in this game as a bridge builder which also is ready to carry the voice of South. For the past two years, it has earned little support from the developing countries as it shifted its stance. India is part of the BASIC where the three other emerging economies - Brazil, South Africa and China - have some common concerns but also substantially different priorities. South Africa has to play a successful host, Brazil has its economic priorities and China has a smaller time-frame before it reaches the emission levels of the West.
While the smaller and poorer countries are perennially being blamed for becoming pawns in this game for the rich and the emerging, they have their legitimate concerns - very little resources but plenty to lose if climate change is real. They don't have industrial economies to save but their already poor and vulnerable people need protection - that means money and technology to adapt. How can India save its own space for development and yet help these countries get their due and advocate their concerns?
So far, Natarajan has worked more closely with her negotiators and other ministries than Ramesh liked to. Consensus building on international issues that would have large import on energy prices and industry in coming years is as tough a deal as decoding the jargon in one of these climate jamborees.
Unfortunately for her, she has little time in the run-up to Durban to fashion a more coherent domestic and international climate policy even if she wants to. And, the real test of her metal will be the Durban talks. The talks run nearly 24x7 for 14 days with parallel meetings in dozens of rooms, backdoor negotiations and reading between the lines, simultaneous engagement with dozens of countries on a bilateral level and the ability to play diplomatic hard ball. Her best armour would be a clear mandate from the cabinet before she gets into the ring.
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