Why the Rest of the World Is Mad at India

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Nov. 27 2013 12:44 PM

The India Problem

Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement?

(Continued from Page 1)

But when international representatives gathered for meetings in Bangkok to actually make the amendments, they were surprised and angered to find the negotiations blocked by India. The country’s environment officials told Indian media that they were worried about the costs associated with switching over to new coolants. What may have worried them even more was the fear of being accused of opening the door for foreign air conditioning and fridge companies to take over domestic markets.

If there’s one thing that no Indian government up for re-election in the current political climate would want, it’s to be seen giving an inch to America on trade.

Then came Warsaw. Extensive negotiations around agriculture had been scheduled for the first of the two weeks of meetings. Farming causes about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, due in part to land clearing, energy use, and the methane that bubbles up from rice paddies and is belched out by cattle.

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But that’s not what drew farming representatives to Warsaw. Farmers are the hardest hit by changes in the weather—which should help them secure a chunk of the hundreds of billions of dollars in climate aid that a new climate treaty is expected to deliver for poor countries. But India, which is home to farms that are struggling to cope with changing rainfall patterns, spearheaded a maneuver that blocked agricultural negotiations from moving forward. Its negotiators feared that negotiations over farmer adaptation efforts would lead to requests that those farmers also reduce their carbon footprints.

“India has been very clear that agriculture is the mainstay of our population, and we don’t want any mitigation targets there,” said Indrajit Bose, a climate change program manager at the influential Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, who attended the Warsaw meetings. “It’s a red line for India, and I think we agree with that.”

During the second week of Warsaw talks, India again blocked progress on HFC reductions, and it worked with China to water down the meeting’s most important agreement on the final day of talks.

Despite instances of Chinese obstructionism at Warsaw, China and the United States have been making headlines during the past week for their blossoming mutual commitment to tackling climate change. Now India appears to be supplanting China as the developing world’s chief climate agitator, even as it takes real steps to boost renewable energy production at home and meet voluntary goals to reduce the “emission intensity” of its economy. (Meanwhile, Japan, Australia, and Canada are taking America’s mantle as the developed world’s chief climate antagonists.)

The India problem isn’t limited to climate talks. Early this year India helped dilute an international agreement that had been crafted to reduce mercury pollution—a major problem with coal-fired power plants.

Before the country’s environment minister was replaced during a mid-2011 Cabinet reshuffle, India had been hailed as a constructive leader during international climate talks. Now it’s being accused of foot-dragging, obstructionism, and flip-flopping.

Recent Indian shenanigans on the global climate stage are partly a reflection of the fact that a federal election will be held in the spring. Such elections are held every five years, and frantic campaigning by long lists of parties occupies many of the months that precede them. In India, despite the country’s acute vulnerability to climate change, the climate is simply not an election issue. BBC polling suggests that 39 percent of Indians have never heard about “climate change.” Indian voters are calling for more affordable energy—not for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

And India, like other developing countries, has been angered by what appears to be reluctance by developed countries to lend a meaningful financial hand as the climate goes awry. A cruel irony of climate change is that the poor countries that did the least to warm the planet are often the hardest hit, vulnerable to rising tides, crop-wilting droughts, and powerful storms. During the talks in Warsaw, Western countries were suddenly balking at previously promised climate aid that would have been worth $100 billion a year by 2020. And developed countries have fobbed off developing countries’ appeals for additional compensation, so-called loss-and-damage payments, when climate change has harmed their people and economies.

It’s not just the electioneering in India that’s causing problems for global climate talks. Another problem seems to be how little press attention the country receives on foreign shores. “There’s not a lot of focus on India anywhere,” said Manish Ram, a renewable-energy analyst for Greenpeace India who attended the Warsaw meetings. “That’s one of the reasons India gets away with doing what it’s been doing.”

John Upton is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, India. He blogs about ecology at wonkonthewildlife.com and can be reached at johnupton@gmail.com.