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Will the US get 'squatters' rights' to the atmosphere?

Navroz K. Dubash

25th November, 2009

India has a substantial part to play in a climate deal, but failing to acknowledge historical responsibility is akin to giving the US 'squatters' rights' to the atmosphere

U.S. climate politics loom large on the global stage. The twists and turns of Senate deliberations have long been a favored topic for the world's 'Climaterati'.

But as India's Prime Minister makes his inaugural visit to Washington this week for his first formal meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, it is worth recalling that other countries have complex climate politics, too. India has been invoked frequently as an obstacle to U.S. climate politics, second only to China, making it vital to explore these dynamics further if we are to get constructive movement on the global stage.

It may be surprising to discover that a variety of stances on climate change exist in India, which make consensus on domestic politics a challenge. For some, the climate negotiations are seen as no more than an economic containment strategy by the West. These growth-first stonewallers argue that even if climate change is real, the objective should be to maximize growth so that India can better handle the impacts. Until then, the country should not compromise.

For others, the effort to prioritize environmental sustainability and equity is stronger. These progressive realists are growth critics and, although keen to generate action on climate change, they are deeply cynical about the global negotiations. With the belief that these discussions sideline core concerns of equity, they call on India to take aggressive climate measures, but to do so domestically, de-linking these from the global process.

Others believe that India should take on ambitious emission reduction measures and throw its weight fully behind a global climate deal. These progressive internationalists argue that doing so will help shift the global debate forward and spur matching action in other countries. Since climate impacts will disproportionately affect India's poor, they suggest that a pro-poor approach is also a pro-climate regime approach.

Getting progressive

For advocates of a global climate deal, the good news is that the influence of growth-first stonewallers has waned in India. The bad news, however, is that the center of gravity in India lies firmly with the progressive realists, who shy away from engagement in global climate politics, rather than with progressive internationalists, who seek to embrace it.

Unlocking progressive climate politics in India, and hence globally, will build confidence in a far more progressive global, and particularly U.S., climate politics. Yet we are still far from this point, and three major issues get in the way.

To begin with, industrialized countries signal bad faith by making their commitments toward climate action conditional on similar commitments by developing countries. Americans, for example, should be reducing their emissions because they are responsible for 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions released in the past 50 years.

Suggesting responsibility for past emissions carries politically unpalatable overtones of an ecological debt; however, arguing for no responsibility is effectively granting Americans squatter's rights to the atmosphere. In addition, the 1992 Earth Summit bargain required rich nations to 'take the lead' in reducing emissions, but the United States has not done so.

Now, economic competitiveness is being used as a basis to challenge the 1992 compromise itself. Doing so sends a dangerous signal that moral arguments have no role in shaping the climate regime and that national expedience will regularly trump global deals. These are both extremely dangerous signals to send, in climate as in other world affairs. To get more action from India, we need to see more unconditional action from the United States.

Room to grow

Secondly, Indians fear that there is insufficient understanding of their continued development burden at home. India is growing rapidly, yes, but starting from a very low base. Just under a third of Indians live on less than $1 a day, and 77 percent live on less than $2 a day. Most surprising, less than 1 percent of Indians (or 10 million people) are middle class by American standards-that is, they consume more than $13 a day. To be sure, within this top 1 percent there is an emergent and problematic class of oligarchic super-rich, and India has a moral obligation to spread the benefits of growth more equally. But by discounting India's continued development burden when allocating climate responsibilities, the industrialized world is hiding behind India's narrow rich class.

Thirdly, India also gets insufficient credit for what it already has done and is doing to shift to a low-carbon economy. The country uses less energy per unit of GDP than the United States and half as much as China. Electricity prices for industry and gasoline prices in India, when adjusted for purchasing power, are four times U.S. prices, creating incentives for further improvements. India has recently publicized a slew of new measures and is discussing legislation to give teeth to these efforts. Collectively, this amounts to a substantial down-payment.

Room for improvement

None of this is to suggest that India cannot and should not do more to contribute to a constructive global climate regime. Indeed, as the fourth largest aggregate emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, India must be far more creative and visionary about creating a low-carbon future. Because of the vulnerable poor in India and elsewhere, the country must better integrate its domestic actions into a strong global climate regime. Climate negotiators have to be as vigorous about championing emissions equity within India as they are about advocating equity across nations. And it would help its negotiation stance if India better managed the tensions of being simultaneously an aspiring power and a poor society.

But the three irritants described above enable stonewallers and realists to portray any further climate efforts by India as a futile strategy of appeasement. Far from leading, U.S. emissions in 2005 were 16 percent above their 1990 levels, and the United States continues to signal its intent to displace the climate burden onto societies far more disadvantaged. Progressive internationalists in India and elsewhere have gone as far as they can to move their own societies and polities in favor of progressive climate politics. To move any further, India needs a positive and adequate signal of intent from the United States.

Navroz K. Dubash is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Julie Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org

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