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Climate pacts should be flexible

G. Srinivasan
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Mr Jairam Ramesh
Mr Jairam Ramesh

The real challenge is to internationalise domestic accountability. 

As major polluting countries such as the United States remain reluctant to a new mandatory deal on limiting global warming, the run-up to the forthcoming 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) on climate change in Durban (South Africa) later this year appears to be jinxed.

The developed world has been insisting on the emerging economies such as China and India now growing at a relatively rapid clip to decarbonise their growth strategy to help preserve the planet as a habitable place.

Having led from the front for India in the last two global conclaves on climate talks while heading the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh is one of the distinguished members of the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability constituted by the United Nations Secretary General last year.

Late last month, Mr Ramesh was in New York to discuss the draft report of the panel. Excerpts from an interview Business Line had with him on the forthcoming report of the Global Sustainability Panel:

Can you tell us about the work of the UN Secretary-General's panel, of which you are a member?

The Report of the UN Secretary General High Level Panel on Global Sustainability is co-headed by the Presidents of Finland and South Africa. It has 15 members from different parts of the world. We are submitting our final report to the Secretary General on January 12, 2012.

We have had four meetings and have almost finalised the report. It will go through one more iteration in December. This is an input into Rio plus 20 which will be held in Rio (Brazil) to celebrate the 20{+t}{+h} anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit.

The report talks of different vulnerabilities, not just arising out of climate change but from a variety of other phenomena. As this is a key concept, the panel should consider plumping for an IPCC-like body with legitimate remit for working on this.

We have prepared three very important background papers.

What is your contribution to the discussion?

A couple of points I have been repeatedly saying in this panel is that if lifestyles are not sustainable, then livelihoods cannot be assured. If we are talking of livelihood security, we must ensure lifestyle sustainability.

When I say lifestyle sustainability I don't mean just across nations. I mean this within nations as well. Consumption norms of America are far in excess of India but within India also there are huge disparities in consumption standards.

I think there is a blind aping of the US consumption model by countries such as India, China and Brazil and the rest of the world.

The fact that America's consumption and development model is being followed and replicated by other emerging economies that is leading to a global crisis. So we must decouple energy consumption and economic growth and pollution from prosperity.

People's aspirations are bound to increase and we want people's aspirations to be fulfilled.

We cannot preach austerity to others while practising profligacy of our own. Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘be the change that you want to see' but how many of us are prepared to be the change that we want to see?

That is the real challenge both across nations and within nations.

The second fundamental point I have been stating is that we must have domestic accountability.

Governments must hold themselves accountable domestically for their actions regarding sustainable or low-carbon development But in many of these areas you require collective actions particularly climate change.

One country alone will not solve the problem of climate change.

Even if India is the most responsible country in carbon consumption, it is not going to solve the problem because global carbon containment is a collective action.

How do we come to grips with green growth?How could developing countries bear the transition cost to decarbonised development?

The real challenge is to how to internationalise domestic accountability. I think there is a multiplicity of approaches. We should not go by only one approach.

To say that Kyoto Protocol is the only way to do things is to my mind a type of monoculture in intellectual life which is politically not realistic.

For instance countries like India would prefer to be held accountable for international commitments it has made to its own Parliament. We pass a law.

We hold ourselves accountable; we have the media, the CAG and civil society. We have strong domestic mechanisms for ensuring accountability.

We find it more comfortable to take out commitments which are domestically enshrined in legislations.

I think the European fixation on a legally binding international agreements is not politically saleable in the US, China or India.

We need more flexibility, more bottom-up approach and a multiplicity of approaches.

The World Trade Organisation is a great example, where countries do much more than they commit globally.

As developing countries in particular will face high short-term transition costs to green growth, creating global funding mechanisms is crucial to enabling the transition.

A broader view of the environment pillar that is not just carbon-centric is needed as local pollutants have adverse and long-term health effects.

Innovative market-based mechanisms can be leveraged to promote polluter-pays principles that would help counter the effect of such pollution.

India has imposed a tax on coal at the rate of one dollar per tonne, applied to both domestically produced and imported coal.

The proceeds estimated at $700-900 million go into a National Clean Energy Fund which is a pioneering model of environmental taxation.

(This article was published on October 10, 2011)
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