Copenhagen Climate Summit of December 2009: The Role of India’s Rulers

February 26, 2010

February 25, 2010. Editorial from Aspects of India’s Economy, Research Unit for Political Economy (R.U.P.E).

The Copenhagen Climate Summit of December 2009 has brought out starkly the price to the Indian people of the Indian rulers’ aspirations to ‘global power’ status, and the real character of that status. To see how this is so, we need to look at the sequence of events leading up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

The Kyoto Protocol of 1992, though very deficient in many ways, had stipulated binding commitments by the industrialised countries to make specified major cuts in carbon emissions, while keeping the underdeveloped (‘developing’) countries out of the frame of such commitments. The imperialist countries, led by the US, have always been dissatisfied with even the modest requirements laid down by Kyoto (to which the US refused to become a party). They wish to efface the basic distinction between the industrialised countries, who are responsible for the overwhelming bulk of cumulative emissions over the past two centuries, and the ‘developing’ (i.e. Third World) countries, whose per capita cumulative emissions are a tiny fraction of the former’s, and who in most cases have not yet met even the basic needs of the bulk of their population. The imperialist countries have thus been harping on differences in the relative level of development – or even differences in sheer size – among the ‘developing’ countries, to make out that ‘large’ or ‘fast-developing’ countries are equal culprits in global warming. By such obfuscation, the US and its partners aim to shift the burden of cutting global emissions from themselves to the Third World.

Over the last few years, the US has been working on various countries so as to set up a counter-process to replace Kyoto and dispose of both of the principles laid down (by viz., binding cuts for the developed, clear demarcation from the underdeveloped). In this counter-process India, as a major ‘developing’ country, and one which is being portrayed as an ‘emerging power’, assumed political importance for the US.

The Indian rulers did as the US required. Of course, for domestic political consumption, they had to present the shift in India’s negotiating stance as an Indian initiative. Less than two months before the Summit, a letter from Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to the Prime Minister was leaked to the Times of India. In this letter, he called for India to dump the Kyoto Protocol and embrace the US-backed Australian proposals; make major unilateral emission control commitments; allow international monitoring of even such measures as India would take at its own cost; and “not stick with the G-77 [the group of underdeveloped nations] but be embedded with the G-20 [the group of major economies]”. India’s present stance, he warned, was “disfavoured by the developed countries” and would harm “India’s aspirations for permanent membership of the [UN] Security Council.”

Two weeks before the Summit, the Indian Prime Minister was accorded the honour of being the first state guest of the new US President Barack Obama. In his joint press conference with Manmohan Singh, Obama took care to state that India was a “rising and responsible global power” which would “play a pivotal role in meeting global challenges” (emphases added). Obama declared that “Prime Minister Singh and I made important progress today” toward a global climate agreement. “We resolved to take significant national mitigation actions that will strengthen the world’s ability to combat climate change.” In this fashion, Obama deftly managed to place on the same footing culprit and victim.

It should be noted that the current annual carbon emissions of the US are 20 tonnes per capita, compared with India’s 1.2 tonnes; and its per capita contribution to the cumulative stock of emissions is 40-50 times those of India. Yet Singh chimed in: “President Obama and I have agreed on the need for a substantive and comprehensive outcome, which would cover mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology. We reaffirmed our intention to work to this end bilaterally and with all other countries…. Our partnership will contribute to global efforts to combat climate change and achieve energy security.” Shortly thereafter, Jairam Ramesh announced that India would be making ‘voluntary’ cuts in carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for every unit of GDP) of 20-25 per cent by the year 2020 compared with India’s 2005 levels.

The so-called ‘Copenhagen Accord’ of December 18, 2009, was drafted behind closed doors, and behind the backs of the vast majority of participants in the Summit, by the US and the ‘BASIC’ countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China). It serves the interests of the US and other imperialist countries in two ways: first, it ropes both imperialist and underdeveloped countries in the same agreement, and in effect places the latter’s ‘voluntary’ targets under international monitoring; secondly, it allows the imperialist countries to offer, in place of binding commitments, mere pledges to make cuts according to their voluntary, derisory targets.

The implications of this are two-fold. First, even as the US and other imperialist countries are allowed to colonise a larger share of the remaining ‘carbon space’ (i.e., the additional emissions that can be made worldwide without crossing the official danger mark), India and other underdeveloped countries will have to make major adjustments to their economies; crucially, these adjustments will be monitored by the imperialist countries (through international institutions). In other words, assuming the average increase in temperature is kept within the danger mark, the burden of adjustment is being transferred from the shoulders of the countries principally responsible for global warming, to those who are neither responsible for it nor can bear the burden [1]. Indeed, a draft UN document leaked during the Copenhagen Summit revealed that the pledges already made by the ‘Non-Annex I’ countries (i.e., the Third World) were larger than those made by the Annex-I countries (the industrialised countries).

The second implication is even graver: that the world appears to be on its way to an average increase of even more than 2 degrees Celsius – the point beyond which, it is generally agreed, catastrophic consequences would occur. The leaked UN document predicts that, at the present level of voluntary pledges by various countries, the world is on a path eventually leading to a rise of 3 degrees Celsius.

India’s national interest is in accordance with the interests of the Third World, and of the Earth itself. For India is projected to be one of the principal victims of climate change. It is predicted that, as a result of climate change, India will suffer floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events of greater intensity than at present; large-scale displacement of people will take place in coastal areas, creating climate refugees from within and outside the country’s borders; biodiversity will be greatly harmed; and crop yields will fall. According to one calculation (W.R. Cline, Global Warming and Agriculture, 2007) the prospective loss of agricultural capacity in India will be “massive”, perhaps the worst in the world.

Thus India’s vital national interest in climate negotiations requires that it unite firmly with the rest of the Third World (particularly the most backward and vulnerable) to demand that the imperialist countries bring down their emissions immediately and steeply, and that they make substantial reparations to the Third World countries for having used up the ‘carbon space’. The only scope, limited though it be, for restraining the imperialist countries from wantonly imposing their destructive terms on the rest of the world is through forging and vigorously championing such unity. Any counterposing of India’s alleged ‘national interest’ with the interests of the Third World at large would help the imperialist countries in their efforts to set one group of Third World countries against the other.

At Copenhagen, however, India joined the club of countries which struck a separate deal with the US, a deal which, notwithstanding a few decorative phrases, scuttled Kyoto. It thus succeeded in achieving a key aim of the imperialist countries, namely, to drive a deep wedge among the Third World countries themselves, the better to rule them. It is thanks to the vigorous protests and initiative by certain Third World countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Sudan that the Copenhagen Accord could not be definitively imposed on the world, and was merely “taken note of”.

The argument laid out above makes clear that the Accord is inimical to India’s national interest. There is no material benefit, either short- or long-term, to the people of India as a result of such a deal – quite the contrary. Rather, the ‘gain’ the Indian rulers see in such a deal is that they would win further US patronage for their claim to be treated as a ‘great’ or ‘global’ power, the proud possessor of a UN Security Council seat. India’s ruling classes see this as a political gain in relation to the Indian people. Armed with great power status, they hope to somehow retrieve their fast-eroding political capital with the people of the country and thus tackle their deep-seated domestic political crisis. (We have discussed this question in Aspects no. 41, ‘Global Power’, Client State.)

The climate deal is in line with the nuclear deal and strategic-military deal struck with the US in 2005, as well as a US-backed deal that appears to be in the works in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations. (There, much like Jairam Ramesh, the new Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has said that India will be a “dealmaker”, and out of the blue has promised a “breakthrough”.) The combined effect of these deals will be profoundly ruinous for the economic life, peace and security of the Indian people, and will serve imperialist interests. The fact is, while the US’s actual global power status allows it to brutally impose its perceived ‘national interest’ on other countries, India’s American baptism as ‘responsible global power’ requires that it allow the US to violate India’s national interest. Far from marking India’s transition to a new status, it denotes its greater subordination to imperialism.