Breaking the deadlock?

India has made a major move towards a global treaty under which its own attempts to tackle climate change may become a “binding commitment under appropriate legal form”.

India has made a major move towards a global treaty under which its own attempts to tackle climate change may become a “binding commitment under appropriate legal form”. The country’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, made the offer in an attempt to break the deadlock at the UN climate summit here in Mexico and, as he put it, “to improve India’s image around the world as an honest broker”.

Speaking at the high level segment of the annual UN-led climate summit, Ramesh said on Wednesday evening that “all countries must take binding commitments under appropriate legal form” to control their emissions of greenhouse gases.

This is a major departure from India’s position throughout the 17-year climate talks as the country has thus far led developing countries in the stance that global warming was a problem caused by rich countries, and it was up to rich countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions.

The large developing countries have stoutly resisted pressure from the United States – which has been insisting it will not enter into any legally binding agreement to reduce its emissions unless China and India do the same – and this has stalled many climate summits, including the ongoing talks in Cancún.

But since last year, Ramesh has been gradually shifting India’s position: the country has now pledged under the voluntary Copenhagen Accord that it will reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions by 20% to 25% by 2020 compared to 2005 and, on Wednesday, he made another big move towards a possible global deal.

Ramesh admitted the move came in response to pressure from industrialised countries, applied through the poorest of the developing countries and those most vulnerable to climate-change effects. Officially, he was reacting to a proposal made by Grenada on behalf of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) that asked all countries to sign up to a legally binding treaty to control their greenhouse-gas emissions.

India’s move came with three riders, however. Ramesh told the media that “there must be clarity on the content (of the agreement), on penalties for non-compliance and on a system of monitoring and enforcement, or we won’t even discuss it.”

Ramesh’s speech created a huge buzz among the thousands of delegates gathered here, who had mostly gone quiet in the face of failure of yet another climate summit. A senior delegate from host country Mexico said: “Now there is hope that we can salvage something from this summit.”

Asked to explain his position after his speech, Ramesh told journalists: “India is not against [the agreement having a] legal form. It is against a legally binding agreement. That is the red line.” At the same time, he wondered why so many countries were “discussing the form [of the agreement] without knowing the content. It is putting the cart before the horse.”

Ramesh said he was “sensitive to what AOSIS and African countries are saying, though we have many questions. We want to keep the discussion going on legal form instead of a legally binding agreement. We are willing to engage in discussions…We should not pre-judge the nature of the legal form.”

Ramesh said there was “clearly a move to put pressure on India and China to agree to a legally binding agreement. This was coming from the rich countries, through AOSIS, Africa and the LDCs (least developed countries).”

He admitted that the BASIC group of countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – was divided over the issue: “South Africa and Brazil are supportive of a legally binding agreement.” But he wanted the media to notice that the United States, China, Philippines and Bolivia were among the countries that had spoken against it during the high-level segment. “There is pressure for one single legal agreement. But at this stage, we and China and the US are not agreeable at all.”

Who had specifically asked him to commit to a legally binding agreement? Ramesh named four South Asian countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Nepal – plus the two BASIC countries, Africa, AOSIS and the LDCs.

All these are members of the Group of 77 that negotiates as a bloc in the climate talks. Did this show a crack on the bloc’s unity? “It shows there are divergent views within G77,” Ramesh replied. “At this stage, India’s strategy is to keep the door open. The door was being closed on us.”