India: be the party pooper

US President George Bush played host to a party of the top polluters of the world called to discuss climate change. He exhorted his guests that the world needed to act and called for a “new approach” to reduce emissions. But if you think that he has changed his mind about the science which has established the reality and urgency of climate change, think again. Or if you think he has changed his position that his country will not take on commitments to cut emissions because the American lifestyle is not open to negotiation, think yet again and again.

The Bush meeting was strategic: first, it was an attempt (and a successful one) to club the rich countries, who have been old and big polluters, with the emerging countries—China and India. The meeting was to remove the difference between the two categories—those who need to make deep cuts in their emissions and those who need the space to grow. If the Indians (and the Chinese) were looking for a place at this high table of polluters, they certainly got their wish.

There is nothing new about Bush’s position on climate change. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is nothing different about his position from that of the previous Democratic government led by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

This is nothing more than recent history repeating itself. It is predictable and it is dangerous for the climate and for our common future.

What Bush did should not surprise us. The us has been steadfast: it will take action (whatever that means) only when it includes all big polluters, including China and India.

I remember clearly the events in Kyoto in 1997, when the emissions treaty was being finalised to set legally binding targets on industrialized countries. That week all the stops were pulled out. The phones buzzed between the White House and the prime minister’s office.

The us made it clear that it wanted “meaningful participation” from India and China. Its intransigence meant that all other governments (those of the European Union to Japan) had to work hard to play matchmaker to get the Chinese and Indians to bend so the us could sign up to the treaty.

But what the Indian government did by accepting the Bush party invite now should surprise us. I do accept that its position also remained steadfast at the recent meeting. It did inform its host that the world needed to act on the basis of historical contributions to the stock of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. And that India’s per capita emissions are negligible compared to those of the flatulent us or the developed European countries. But believe me when I say this is nothing other than posturing: rhetoric without any substance.

The fact is that we have agreed tacitly to join the membership of the polluters-only club. In this way we have blurred (if not altogether removed) the distinction—followed in all global agreements—between countries which need to take action first and those who need the ecological space to grow. But this is just one part of a much bigger problem.

We have also asserted our right to development without insisting that the us should take on deep and obligatory emission targets, for all our sake. We have agreed to this ultimate marriage of convenience—not to ask the us to commit so that we can get off the hook. We will all take on “aspirational” targets, Bush said at the meeting. Let us understand this.

This is the ultimate and deadly bribe to seduce India and China: we will not allow the Europeans and others to push us into legally binding targets. This way is better: voluntary commitments and no targets.

Just think. This is a way in which we will all go to hell together. The fact is that the world needs to act. It needs to act decisively and urgently. We can already see the repercussions of a mere 0.7° c increase in global temperatures in terms of melting glaciers and extreme weather and rain events. Just think what it will be like when the world sees, on average, an increase of 1.5°c, which is now inevitable because of the stock of emissions already in the atmosphere, or 2°c, which is the best we can get if we are responsible. The Bush way is disastrous. It must not be acceptable.

But we are hypocrites. We laid the foundation stone for this Bush conclave when we agreed to join the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which was launched by the us administration just under two years ago. This partnership had just one aim: to break the multilateral processes built around legally binding commitments by proving that voluntary action agreed by the major polluting nations would be effective. Many meetings down the line, the partnership has led to nothing concrete on the ground. But then who cares?

But we have to care. Climate is too serious a business to be made a joke out of, as is done by the us president and his administration. We need to explain to the rich world why it needs to act decisively and cut its emissions and how it needs to change its lifestyle. We need to show how we can participate meaningfully in a strategy to avoid future emissions.

We also need to say how this can be done through providing emission rights for all; effective technology transfer and hard funds to pay for transition into low-carbon growth options.

We must make it clear that we are not unwilling and reluctant partners in this climate endgame. We are players and we are serious. Bush’s party is not ours to enjoy.

— Sunita Narain