Better left unsaid
Appeared in Indian Express, December 7, 2009
By Jeremy Carl
Sometimes in diplomacy what is not announced is more revealing than what is. Such is certainly the case in India's recent climate and energy negotiations with the US, as both countries prepare to head to global climate talks in Copenhagen. The occasion of Manmohan Singh's state visit to the US brought the announcement of a flurry of energy and climate-related initiatives. These initiatives were a combination of substance and political theatre, with potentially important initiatives on environmental and regulatory capacity-building and technology partnerships buried under a deep layer of bureaucratic niceties.
What was more noticed was what was not announced: any agreement for India to have a binding target for CO2 emissions reductions, something US and European environmentalists have long claimed is necessary as part of a global effort to stave off severe climate change. And while the Indian government has eventually announced a targeted reduction in what is known as "emissions intensity", CO2 emissions per unit of GDP, that wasn't a big stretch, given India's current annual efficiency improvements. Furthermore, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has made it abundantly clear in Parliament that such targets would be voluntary and not part of a binding international agreement.
With more than 60 world leaders in attendance, we can be assured that Copenhagen will not end in public failure. But the better question is whether the announced success in Copenhagen will have any practical meaning other than determining that diplomats can spin a "success" out of any actual events. Some Indian commentators have seemed to hope for a "success" of that sort - fretting about India being outmanoeuvred on the public stage by China and other developing countries that may be able to strike a more cooperative posture.
While from a tactical standpoint, such concerns are understandable (there is little reason for India to not commit to doing things it would like to do anyway, such as developing more efficient power plants or cars), from the perspective of actually taking leadership in addressing the climate problem, they mean little. In some ways, India is emulating the example of the US from the previous Kyoto climate round: while the US certainly should have been more proactive and engaged, at least the Americans had the integrity not to ratify an agreement that they couldn't keep. Many other nations could not claim that; they either missed their targets entirely, or resorted to bogus accounting tricks to meet their goals.
That India is showing its seriousness by not making climate commitments it won't live by should actually be seen as a mature and responsible decision, not an intransigent one. Does anyone think that China won't walk away from its promise if they have trouble meeting their emissions reduction goals?
As an alternative to the hot air that is likely to come out of Copenhagen, it is instructive to look at the potentially useful energy and climate agreements the US and India did sign during the PM's recent visit. The fact that clean energy was the second item listed behind security issues in the joint communiqué announced by Singh and Obama is clear evidence that both India and the US place a high importance on this aspect of their relationship.
India and the US announced numerous programmes, from the joint deployment of solar electricity in Indian cities to the strengthening of India's environmental regulatory and monitoring capacity - which is sure to be a critical step if India is to make serious and verifiable long-term commitments to emissions reductions. Perhaps most important, at least symbolically, was the announcement of joint scientific R&D work for renewable energy technologies. The Indo-US Clean Energy Research and Deployment Initiative, which promises joint development of new energy technologies and the development of a joint research centre with a public-private funding model, is one such initiative.
Ultimately, despite the bluster of diplomats in Delhi, Washington or Copenhagen, the solutions to the climate change problem must come through a technological revolution in the world's energy infrastructure. And it is here that India, with its burgeoning corps of bright young engineers, could make the biggest impact on climate change mitigation. Circumstances may not permit
India to lead the deal-making in Denmark, but if the Indian government gets serious about turning more of India's brightest young minds towards solving the clean energy problem, then India's contribution to solving the climate change conundrum may be significant indeed.