Jairam Ramesh Interview: India Is Failing To Tell Its Climate Change Story To The World

27/11/2015 7:55 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA JANUARY 25: Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh during an interview at his office, on January 25, 2014 in New Delhi, India. (Photograph by Pradeep Gaur/Mint Via Getty Images)

In three days, the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP 21) will kick off in Paris.

Six years after they failed to "seal the deal" at the talks in Copenhagen, negotiators and world leaders are expected to deliver an agreement to stop global temperatures from rising beyond the point of no return.

Speaking to HuffPost India on Thursday, Jairam Ramesh, India's former environment minister under the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government, said that India has failed to communicate its story on climate change to the rest of the world.

"India has a good story to tell. The substance of what India has to say cannot be faulted very much, but the style has been very confrontational, very argumentative," he said.

While he was steering India at the talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun 2010, Ramesh famously took positions contrary to his own government's stand on climate change.

India's traditional position has been that developed countries should counter climate change since they have pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for over a century. But Ramesh believes that India had to do more. Although, we have not contributed historically to the problem of global warming, we are most vulnerable to global warming," he said.

READ: Prakash Javadekar Interview - Developed World Should Vacate The Carbon Space For Our Development

At Copenhagen and Cancun, the first steps were taken towards the new order in which all countries, rich and poor, have to do their bit to combat the global crisis. But the talks in Copenhagen were wrecked after the majority of developing nations were excluded from critical parts of the negotiations, which were carried out behind-the-scenes between top powers and major economies including India. The trust deficit created in COP 15 plagued the negotiations for several years.

While he was often at loggerheads with his own negotiators, Ramesh was regarded by someone as the Western countries could speak with. And since the differentiation between developed and developing nations is gradually dissolving, and the deal in Paris will require all nations to combat climate change, Ramesh feels vindicated.

In 2011, Ramesh took charge of the Ministry of Rural Development. He is also a lawmaker in the Rajya Sabha.

In his conversation with HuffPost India, Jairam talked about COP 21, and how it was to lead India at the climate change talks while being at odds with the position of his government and country.

Why is it India versus rest of the world at the climate change talks?

India is certainly under the international gaze because of its coal consumption is expected to go up three times at a very minimum over the next 15 years, and this has understandably caused a lot of concern. Even China has announced that its coal consumption is going to peak by 2030. Coal consumption will increase in South Africa, coal consumption will certainly increase in Poland, but the scale with which it is going to increase, going from half-a-billion tons to at least about two billion tons by 2030, I think that is what has caused a lot of concern. It is understandable and we have to address it.

Coal is one issue, but India always has a hard time at the talks...the Durban standoff. Why?

Unfortunately, India's style...India has a good story to tell. The substance of what India has to say cannot be faulted very much, but the style has been very confrontational, very argumentative. It is a Krishna Menon style, it is a moralistic style. I think the world does not like that. As far as Africa and the Small Island States are concerned, we are part of the problem. So India must be less moralistic, less argumentative, less confrontational and more in an engagement mode. " So India must be less moralistic, less argumentative, less confrontational and more in an engagement mode."

That is what I tried to do in Copenhagen and in Cancun. There was a furore in India when I said at Cancun that all countries must take responsibility. But now, I'm glad that five years later, everyone recognises that we must also been seen as proactive in what we are doing internationally.

READ: How To Talk To A Climate Change Denier

Is this stand because India feels cornered...like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that India will be a "challenge" at COP21

Whether it is international trade, whether it is nuclear proliferation, whether it is climate change, India's negotiating style has always been confrontational, argumentative, it is the Krishna Menon shadow, moralistic as well. This is not how you conduct yourself. Sometimes, the substance of what we say gets drowned out by how we say it. In international negotiations, what you say is important, but how you say it is equally important. And India's great failure has been in the how and not necessarily in the what. "In international negotiations, what you say is important, but how you say it is equally important. And India's great failure has been in the how and not necessarily in the what."

What did you make of John Kerry's remark on India being a "challenge" at COP 21?

Well, India is a challenge. But we have legitimate concerns. We have concerns about economic growth, and I found myself at odds with the Indian position in the past. I have written and spoken extensively that even with the most aggressive of solar plans, even with the most aggressive of wind energy plans, even the most aggressive nuclear and hydro plans, India will end up doubling coal consumption at a very minimum if not tripling over the next 15 years.

But at the same time, India must start doing its homework if not about the concept of peaking, at least the concept of plateauing. We must start looking at options. The Chinese announcement, which they did in the bilateral agreement with the U.S. in Nov. 2014, was preceded by a lot of domestic debate on peaking. We should learn a lesson from that. If not peaking, at least in terms of plateauing our coal consumption, which will ultimately have an impact on our emission levels as well.

How did you lead the India in the negotiations when you were at odds with your own government's position?

Well, I gave the political leadership. The negotiators negotiate from a political brief. The negotiators are not autonomous of the political leadership. Unfortunately, some of our negotiators think they are Gods and that they are over and above the political leadership. And at Cancun, when I said that all countries must take on responsibilities commensurate with their plans of economic development, of course, it was a political decision.

In Copenhagen, when President Obama had this agreement with the Quartet (India, Brazil, China and South Africa) that was a political decision. The fact that India will make commitments and hold itself internationally accountable that has to come from a political leadership.

One good thing in Paris, unlike in Copenhagen, the Heads of State, are meeting in the beginning on the 30th of November. Unfortunately, I'm told that there will be no declaration or statement at the end of that. There will only be speeches. I was hoping that there would be a short declaration that would set the political direction to the negotiations. The negotiators have been negotiating for over a decade. And all we've got our footnotes, square brackets and round brackets and curly brackets. It is the political establishment that has to provide the breakthrough not the negotiators. "And all we've got our footnotes, square brackets and round brackets and curly brackets. It is the political establishment that has to provide the breakthrough not the negotiators."

How were you providing political leadership if you were not comfortable with India's position?

I was nuancing India's position. India's position was a moralistic position. India's position was a per capita position. The per capita argument is an arithmetic argument, it is not a political argument. Anything in India, the per capita is low because the denominator is so very big, and it is a denominator that is increasing by 10 million, every year. So it is a per capita plus argument.

My argument was that we must be seen to be driving a solution. We must be seen to be proactive. We must be seen not defensive. I said that because although we have not contributed historically to the problem of global warming, we are most vulnerable to global warming. The maximum vulnerability to climate change is in India...monsoon, glaciers, forests, seal levels... no country has this multiple dimensions of vulnerability which was not recognised in this country, till now. What I tried to bring was a sense of pragmatism, a sense of engagement. In Copenhagen and Cancun, India was seen to be a constructive player. In Durban and subsequently, and prior to Copenhagen, India was seen to be a stick-in-the-mud. "The maximum vulnerability to climate change is in India...monsoon, glaciers, forests, seal levels... no country has this multiple dimensions of vulnerability."

Do you seen any differences in the UPA and NDA governments approach to climate change?

No, I think there is a broad consensus on climate change. We need to sustain at least an eight percent rate of growth over the next 15 to 20 years. In order to create jobs for at least the 10 million Indians who enter the labour force, every year. So there is a consensus that economic growth must take overriding priority.

However, I think where the UPA and NDA governments differ, I think there is a schizophrenic attitude in the NDA government of dismantling the edifice of environmental regulation domestically, and trying to claim international leadership in climate change. I find this incompatible. I think that you have to be responsible domestically. You can't dismantle environmental laws and regulations domestically and tell the world that you're going to serious about climate change. I think that is the fundamental difference.

What do you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership on climate change?

Well, one thing Mr. Modi has done is increase the level of ambition on solar energy. The UPA government had announced a target of 20,000 megawatts by the year 2022, he has increased that to 100,000 megawatts. So he has increased the solar target five times. I welcome that. There is no politics there. Solar costs are declining. It is becoming very competitive and there is no reason why India cannot be the world leader in solar energy. "Mr. Modi has brought a very aggressive sort of ambition to our solar target and I welcome that."

Germany has twelve times the solar capacity as India has. It should be the other way around. Germany has about 37,000 megawatts now, and we only have about 3,000 megawatts. Mr. Modi has brought a very aggressive sort of ambition to our solar target and I welcome that. In the last five years, solar costs have dramatically fallen, which has made Mr. Modi's announcement all the more welcome.

READ: Prakash Javadekar Finally Explains Modi's Bizarre Remarks On Climate Change

What are you expecting from COP21?

What I would like is an agreement among all the countries that they would review this generation of INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) five years from now, and have a second generation of INDC. I think that should be available.

There should also be an agreement on a international system, a credible system, a non-punitive system, a non-intrusive system, of monitoring, reporting and verification of the INDCs which have already been announced. I would like every country to indicate that they would unveil low carbon growth plans with milestones for the next 20 to 25 years. And I would hope for a substantive increase in the level of financing for climate adaptation particularly in countries like Africa and the Small Island States. For me, these are the four constructive outcomes from Paris.

What should be the nature of the agreement?

The United States will never agree to a European-style legally binding treaty. That will not be acceptable to Chinese, to the Indians as well. But that is what the Africans will want, that is what the Small Island States will want. So ultimately, we may end up with a politically binding agreement. "A climate agreement needs to have three components: it has to be politically acceptable, it has to be economically worthwhile, and it has to be environmentally desirable."

A climate agreement needs to have three components: it has to be politically acceptable, it has to be economically worthwhile, and it has to be environmentally desirable. All three objectives have to be met. And it is quite difficult to meet all three objectives.

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