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March 19, 2013

Commitment Issues on Climate Change and Other Indian Perspectives
Posted by David Shorr

REN_Alliance_press_conference_at_COP18,_3_December_2012Back in late-2011 I published a post here on the UN climate talks, particularly the view of some experts that pushing for a legally binding Kyoto follow-on treaty could do more harm than good. As negotiators weigh proposals to make countries' greenhouse gas reduction commitments as strong as possible, key governments work harder to keep from being on the hook than on steps to reduce emissions.

This problem was readily apparent last week when Stanley Foundation colleague Rei Tang and I were in Delhi for a round of meetings with Indian experts, and it is worth pondering and perhaps factoring into the international response to climate change. 

Just to retrace my steps, below is Michael Levi's explanation of the perverse incentives from a Financial Times piece in which he looks back at the major steps achieved at the 2009 and 2010 UN climate conferences:

Countries enter binding international agreements with an eye to ensuring that they will be able to comply with their commitments. The legally binding nature of an international deal can thus deter national ambition in the first place. It is near-certain, for example, that China would not have pledged in Copenhagen to cut its emissions intensity to well below current levels had it been required to embed that in a treaty. The same is true for the absolute emissions’ cuts pledged by the US. It is similarly unlikely that India, China and others would have accepted formal international scrutiny of their emissions cutting efforts had that been made part of a system for enforcing legal obligations. 

That last point is important because it highlights a trade-off between the strength of the reduction commitments and the process of tracking the levels of greenhouse gases being emitted. In one of our Delhi meetings, an expert stressed that measures to monitor and report on emissions in India should only apply to the plants and technologies that industrialized nations had supplied or underwritten. 

That's not to say India won't be cutting its emissions. In order to meet the energy needs associated with continued economic development, it certainly will cut GHGs through growing use of renewables and efficiency gains. But at the international level, Indians are sensitive and resistant to obligations imposed from the outside. Indian analysts and officials described this as the difference between "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches. 

To my mind, this choice between approaches seems like a matter of which route will help build the most momentum for GHG reductions: a traditional "black letter" international convention or a more dynamic form of mutual accountability and knowledge sharing? To some degree there must be a top-down dimension -- with senior levels of national governments remaining engaged rather than stepping back and seeing what happens. 

International accords should not be ends unto themselves, but means to address real-world problems. We face an important question of whether some of the fights within the UNFCCC may come at a cost to the ultimate aim of reduced emissions.

Of course climate change was not the only topic we discussed with our Indian colleagues. Without attempting a full report, I want to pass along some points -- particularly from a session with our Observer Research Foundation hosts -- that sounded like direct messages to the US. Several Indian experts emphasized India's cooperation with the energy sanctions against Iran, which entailed some cost. We also heard that Indian naval patrols of certain sea lanes alleviates some of the burden off of the US Navy. These are perfect examples of what Nina Hachigian and I meant by our "Responsibility Doctrine," and I was very glad to hear about them. The third message was in the area of energy security: India's eagerness to import liquid natural gas. 

Overall, we greatly appreciated the openness and hospitality of our Indian counterparts, and I'm looking forward to continuing the dialogue. 

Image: International Hydropower Association

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