August 23, 2010

India's Climate Change Diplomacy

India’s Climate Change Diplomacy
by Chandrashekhar Dasgupta*
Banglore University 23 Aug 2010

I am delighted to have an opportunity to address alumni of the Bangalore University on the subject of climate change and Indian diplomacy. Twenty years ago, most people thought of climate change as an esoteric subject reserved for meteorologists and atmospheric scientists. When I first became deeply involved with climate change issues in 1990, it raised many eyebrows and I was frequently asked why a Foreign Service officer should spend his time on climate change. Indian diplomats today do not have to field such questions. Climate change is recognized as one of the most important global issues confronting humankind. It figures prominently on the agenda of virtually every major international summit.

Nature of the climate change problem

Why is this so? What is the nature of the climate change problem?

Our planet has experienced several cyclical climatic changes over the ages because of the operation of the forces of nature. The current phenomenon of global warming is, however, unprecedented. Its unique feature is that it is not caused by nature but by human activities. Its primary cause is the ever-increasing consumption of hydrocarbon fuels – coal, petroleum and natural gas - since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Combustion of increasing quantities of hydrocarbon fuels has generated a corresponding increase in emissions of carbon dioxide- the main greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere. The build-up, or concentration, of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is causing the phenomenon of climate change or, in popular terminology, global warming. Unlike the cyclical climatic changes of past eras, the phenomenon we are confronting today has been caused by human beings.

The increased carbon dioxide emissions have originated mainly in the industrialized or developed countries. They are associated not only with high levels of industrial and agricultural production but also with affluent lifestyles involving heavy fuel consumption for private transportation, heating and other domestic uses. Each human being in the affluent, developed countries consumes much greater quantities of hydrocarbon fuels – and thus generates much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions – than their fellow human beings in developing countries. For example, India’s per capita emissions are around 1.2 tonnes per annum, while the figure for the United States is over 19 tonnes.

If all countries had the same per capita emissions as India, the climate change problem would not have arisen. The problem has arisen because of excessively high levels of past and present per capita emissions in the affluent, developed countries. These countries are primarily responsible for precipitating climate change.

However, though the affluent, industrialized countries are responsible for causing the problem, the most severe impacts of climate change will be experienced by the developing countries. The poorer countries are more vulnerable because they lack the financial, technical and human resources needed to cope with and adapt to climate change.

Their flimsy dwellings and the basic infrastructure of their towns and villages will be unable to withstand the extreme weather events resulting from climate change. They cannot afford the costs of building more durable homes or infrastructure capable of withstanding the impacts of climate change. Traditional farmers are highly vulnerable to variations in temperature and rainfall patterns. They lack the financial resources and sometimes also the skills required to adapt to climate change through such measures as switching to drought resistant plant varieties, drip irrigation and other water conservation measures, etc. Adaptation to climate change will require a wide range of responses, including construction of new physical infrastructure, watershed management, water conservation measures, protection of coastlines, improved disaster management capacities, etc. Poorer countries will be unable to implement these measures on an adequate scale - unless they are able to generate the required resources through rapid development.

India’s response to climate change
In the final analysis, an effective climate change strategy for a developing country like India must be based on rapid economic and social development and poverty eradication. This is essential for generating the financial, technological and human resources needed to adapt to climate change. If we fail to achieve rapid and inclusive development, our future generations will lack a significant capacity to cope with the devastating impacts of climate change. Inclusive development and adaptation capacity go hand in hand and are mutually supportive.
Our carbon dioxide emissions will inevitably grow with development and the associated increase in energy consumption. Today almost half of our households have no electricity or gas connection. This is totally unacceptable. As living standards rise, energy consumption and emission levels will also increase.

This does not mean that we can do nothing to moderate the increasing emissions. We should contribute to a global effort to mitigate climate change by moderating the inevitable increase in our greenhouse gas emissions wherever this is possible without diverting resources from the overriding priorities of inclusive economic and social development. Such possibilities exist in many areas. Specifically,

* We should accord priority to implementing cost-effective energy saving and energy efficiency programmes. These simultaneously promote our development and climate change mitigation goals. Wasteful energy consumption slows down development and needlessly increases emission levels.

* We should explore every opportunity to enhance our energy security by switching over from imported hydrocarbon fuels to economically viable renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, solar and wind power as well as nuclear power. We are almost certain to witness a gradual transition from hydrocarbon to renewable energy over the next several decades. We should position ourselves to take full advantage of this transition to promote our development and mitigation goals.

* Finally, we can simultaneously promote many of our health-related local environmental goals with climate change mitigation. For example, the switchover from diesel to CNG in Delhi’s public transportation system was aimed at addressing a local, health-related environmental concern but, as a co-benefit, it also reduced carbon emissions. Similarly, proper disposal of urban solid wastes can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a co-benefit.

India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change launched in June 2008 sets out a comprehensive response to climate change in the overall context of development, covering both adaptation and mitigation measures, in addition to scientific research. Its eight missions relate to solar energy; energy efficiency; sustainable habitat; water; the Himalayan ecosystem; “Green India”; agriculture; and sustainable knowledge for climate change.

The National Action Plan seeks to systematically identify “measures that promote our development objectives while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effectively”. It points out that developing countries lack the necessary financial and technological resources needed for adaptation and thus have very low coping capacity to meet the threat of climate change. Only rapid and sustained development can generate the required financial, technological and human resources needed to build up coping capacity. It, therefore, emphasizes the “overriding priority” of economic and social development and poverty eradication. The overall approach of the National Action Plan is to seek synergies between development and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Climate change and diplomacy

I now turn to India’s climate change diplomacy. A country’s foreign policy, or diplomacy, should reflect its national interests as well as broader considerations of international equity or justice. For this reason, I began my talk by outlining the equity-related aspects of the climate change problem, as well as India’s domestic climate change policies. This provides the necessary background to our diplomatic initiatives in international forums.

International negotiations on climate change commenced in 1990. They led to the conclusion of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. Under the umbrella of this convention, the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997.

Right at the beginning of the negotiations in 1990, India presented a text for a climate change agreement. This was based on the equity principle that every human being has an equal right to the atmospheric resource. The developed countries, with their excessively high per capita historical and current emission levels, have exceeded their fair share of the atmospheric resource and are thus responsible for causing climate change. These countries also possess the financial and technological resources needed to address the problem. Our draft agreement contained the following proposals.

• The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should be stabilized at an appropriate level “on the basis of an equitable formula requiring, inter alia, that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide from States should converge at a common per capita level, and which would take into account net carbon dioxide emissions during this century”.

• Developed countries would be required to stabilize their emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000 at the latest and, thereafter, progressively reduce their emissions to agreed levels in a time-bound manner.

• Developed countries would also be required to provide financial resources to developing countries as well as access to technology on “preferential and non-commercial’ terms.
• Developing countries would have no such binding commitments. However, they may “consider feasible measures with regard to climate change provided that the full incremental costs involved are met by the provision of new and additional financial resources from the developed countries.”

In short, on the basis of the principle of equity, we called on the affluent developed countries to cut down their emissions in an adequate and timely manner, as well to bear the incremental costs of mitigation and adaptation actions implemented by the developing countries.

The negotiations that followed were extremely difficult and complicated. Most developed countries agreed to a stabilization target but were not prepare to discuss further time-bound reduction targets. The United States was totally opposed to any reduction target, or even a time-bound stabilization target. These countries also insisted that developing countries should take on binding mitigation commitments. They stoutly opposed proposals for technology transfer on anything other than commercial terms.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change that finally emerged after tortuous negotiations makes a clear differentiation between the responsibilities of the developed and developing countries, respectively. It notes that the “largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs”.

The Convention contains a general requirement for all countries to implement measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For developing countries, this general commitment is conditional upon receipt of financial and technological support from developed countries.

Developed countries have specific commitments regarding stabilization and reduction of their greenhouse gas emissions even though these are artfully couched in ambiguous and imprecise language in order to accommodate the United States. Developed countries are also required to provide ‘such financial resources, including for the transfer of technology, needed by the developing country parties to meet the agreed full incremental costs of implementing [agreed] measures.”

The conditional and contractual nature of the obligations of the developing countries is made explicit by inclusion of a paragraph drafted by India. This paragraph, which was accepted by the developed countries only after very difficult negotiations, reads as follows:

“The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country parties”.

The Framework Convention on Climate Change is an equity-based agreement with a clear differentiation between the responsibilities and commitments of the developed and developing countries, respectively. It validates our position that developing countries have no obligation to bear the costs of mitigating climate change since they are not responsible for causing the problem. Developed countries, on the other hand, have obligations to reduce their emissions and to provide financial and technological resources to developing countries to support mitigation and adaptation actions.

The Convention, however, left some unfinished business. It did not specify the time-bound emission reduction commitments of the developed countries. This lacuna was filled by the Kyoto Protocol in December 1997. A change in the US administration made it possible to conclude this agreement. The Clinton administration which took over in 1993 adopted a proactive stand on climate change, mainly because of the efforts of the Vice-President, Al Gore. Gore played a leadership role in ensuring the success of the negotiations in Kyoto. Under the Kyoto Protocol each developed country was allotted an emission reduction target to be achieved by 2012. The Protocol further requires developed countries to negotiate new and deeper cuts for the periods following 2012. Unfortunately, the US soon distanced itself from the new agreement partly because of another change in the administration and partly because of Congressional opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

The challenge ahead: defending climate justice and development rights

We have seen that India has played a vigorous and proactive role in the climate change negotiations. In cooperation with like-minded developing countries, we have successfully negotiated an equity-based climate regime comprising the Framework Convention and its Kyoto Protocol.

Regrettably, however, the developed countries have fallen short in complying with their obligations under these agreements. Instead of the expected reduction, their greenhouse gas emissions have actually registered an increase in the last decade. Moreover, these countries are now trying to shift a major share of their obligations to the shoulders of the so-called “emerging economies” like India, China, Brazil and South Africa. They are pressing us to assume new, legally-binding emission commitments and even share the responsibility of the affluent countries to provide financial support to others.

Even though India’s per capita emissions are only one-eighth of the average of the developed countries, we are under pressure to cap and reduce our emission levels soon after 2020. This would mean that our per capita emissions – and per capita consumption of hydrocarbon fuels – must remain at a level that is a small fraction of that of the advanced and affluent countries. In theory, it will of course open to us to switch massively to renewable energy but this will entail a huge increase in energy prices with available technological options. In effect, we are being pressed to sign a new agreement under which we would pledge to remain poorer than others in order to mitigate climate change!

We are also being pressed to convert the mitigation measures envisaged in our National Action Plan on Climate Change into binding international commitments and subject these to international reviews and consultations. This is the first step towards demanding that our targets should be negotiated, rather than nationally determined, as at present.

India and other developing countries have pointed out that these proposals are totally inconsistent with the universally accepted UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. These protests are simply being brushed aside by the developed countries. Most developed countries have taken the position that they will not agree to further emission reduction commitments after 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol, unless the accord is totally revised.

In a nutshell, the position in current negotiations is that India and other like-minded developing countries are calling for enhanced implementation of existing agreements, while the developed countries are seeking a fundamental revision of these agreements, setting aside questions of equity and climate justice. Threats of punitive trade-related measures have been held out against developing countries if they refuse to fall the line. There can be little doubt that the proposals being advanced by the affluent countries of the North are related less to climate change than the defence of their current privileged global status against the challenges posed by “emerging economies”.


Let me conclude with the observation that India has no real option but to defend the equity-based climate change regime comprising the UN Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol and to insist that all countries – developed or developing – should enhance implementation of their existing commitments. For our part, we should spare no effort, on a voluntary basis, to implement our National Action Plan, regardless of the shortfalls of the developed countries. We have neither the means nor the intention of compelling powerful, affluent countries to act in conformity with their treaty obligations but we must not absolve them of their responsibilities by negotiating a new agreement in conflict with the existing regime. We must continue to defend environmental justice and our development rights.

Thank you.

*Chandrashekhar Dasgupta

Chandrashekhar Dasgupta (b. 1940) was an Indian Foreign Service officer from 1962 to his retirement in 2000. He served as Ambassador to the European Union and Belgium (1996 – 2000), Ambassador to China (1993 – 1996), DPR & Ambassador at the United Nations (1986 – 1999), High Commissioner in Tanzania (1984 – 86), High Commissioner in Singapore (1981 – 83), etc.

Dasgupta led the Indian delegation in the preparatory negotiations for the Rio Summit on Environment and Development (1992) as well as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He was Vice-Chair of both the UN preparatory committee for the Rio Summit as well as the International Negotiating Committee for the Framework Convention.

Dasgupta is presently a Member of PM’s Council on Climate Change; Member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and Distinguished Fellow at TERI. He is the author of War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, 1947-48, and numerous essays and articles on international affairs and global environmental issues.

Dasgupta was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India.


  1. A recent study conducted by the WWF said that 100 companies control 50% of the worlds trade which equates to about 40% of industrial emissions. Don't you think by implementing policies that ensure that renewable fuel sources are used to supply the energy that industries need, we would see a drastic reduction in carbon emissions? With new advances in solar and fuel cells, the energy they supply is industrially feasible.

    Furthermore, the issue of climate change is very closely linked to energy. Looking at our population growth rate, we will need twice the output within the next 25 years. I think it should a national priority for the government to ensure that industries adopt a sustainable approach only then would it reflect on the average citizen.

  2. Many bloggers of scientific community of USA explain the apathy of US in climate change by religious beliefs. Apparently many hardcore religious believers refuse to believe in Climate Change because then they, indirectly, have to agree that Earth is roughly 4 billion years old which can't be accepted by creationists who believe that 'God created Universe some 6000 years ago'.

    Given that many people in US still try to challenge theory of evolution with biblical ideas of creationism, don't you think this angle should be analyzed in trying to understand apparent apathy of USA in climate change diplomacy? or has it been done already?