India-China Climate Cooperation Thrives with the “Spirit of Copenhagen”

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh described the “Copenhagen Spirit” as substantially improving ties between China and India and leading to improved cooperation in related environmental areas, including hydrographic data, glaciological research and forestry. He expressed hope that an MOU signed last fall on energy technologies would yield some concrete projects, but admitted those opportunities had yet to be explored.

Ramesh’s wide-ranging conversation covered the truly “Rashoman” aspects of the Copenhagen negotiations (a reference first made by the Atlantic’s James Fallows), where each party sees a different narrative, from the perspective of the BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil and South Africa). He also touched on the future of the negotiations and details of the Chinese-Indian relationship. The press conference was covered extensively in India and to some extent internationally with a focus mainly on Ramesh’s doubts about the prospects for a full-blown treaty by Cancun. He said that he held out some prospects for progress on details and perhaps a political statement, but beyond that it is very difficult to see a path forward with the world’s two largest emitters both outside any agreement. He was particularly concerned that without legislation forthcoming in the United States, the U.S. “moral and political authority” would be “completely eroded.”

Ramesh opened his remarks by stating that “irrespective of the outcome at Copenhagen, the cooperation of India and China was one of the remarkable features.” He then frankly went on to assess the atmosphere at Copenhagen as one of attempted “ambush” toward China and said he felt the Chinese appreciated the fact that India stood with China and ensured that China could not be isolated. This was a major advance for India and China, said Ramesh, since he felt in 2008-09 there had been a growing “trust deficit” between the two countries.

Trust was built through the two countries’ coordinated approach to the Copenhagen negotiations, which Ramesh described as culminating in the 70 minute meeting between the BASIC countries and President Obama. It was this meeting he said that brought about the Copenhagen Accord after “the negotiations had broken down.” He described the anger from Europe, including earlier pieces in the Guardian and the interpretation given to events at the conference in the recent Der Spiegel article as due to “frustration by Europeans.” Europe, he said, “has not yet got used to the fact that it got completely bypassed.” While Ramesh focused on the meeting between BASIC and Obama, these previous articles had focused on an earlier meeting of 27 countries. It is this previous meeting where much press coverage has focused on the non-attendance of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Ramesh pointed out that India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had not attended either, and yet there had been no discussion of his absence (Ramesh attended).

In the end, moving beyond the difficult atmospherics, Ramesh analyzed the major issues on the table that he says were resolved in the BASIC meeting with Obama as follows:

  1. Setting a global goal. The issue here was whether to set the goal at 50% or at 2 degrees without stating the cut (The Copenhagen Accord took the latter approach). Ramesh explained the concern on the part of China and India was that if there is a global number with no concrete commitments by developed countries as to their level of emissions cuts, developing countries are concerned about being squeezed. He said that BASIC had managed to “introduce the concept of equity,” and that they felt they’d had understanding of their concern from President Obama.

  2. Transparency. Ramesh described this, as have many in China, as an area of real compromise between the two sides. He said the Americans wanted a reporting system, but the BASIC countries were concerned that it not be instrusive and that it be established in such a way that it not become a vehicle for non-climate related areas of contention. In the end the compromise was that the system of “consultation and analysis” be established “while respecting national sovereignty.” Ramesh said he thought that there are models in both the IMF and the WTO for the kinds of consultation and analysis that might be used in the climate context.

  3. Legally binding. Ramesh said he thought that in terms of the Copenhagen Accord, this issue was actually of greater importance to the Europeans than to the Americans, since the Accord was not binding on any party. The difficulty on this point was that Obama had to explain the lack of bindingness to the Europeans.

In concrete terms the advance in the lead up to Copenhagen was what he desribed as a “paradigm shift in India” (and one that followed earlier change in China), that “we have to do these things on our own.” He said both countries have now “delinked emissions control actions from the international negotiations,” by establishing their own domestic policies regardless of the actions of others – both in the form of carbon intensity commitments. Ramesh suggested that these unilateral approaches to emissions were perhaps the best way to influence the U.S. in a positive way.

While clean energy is essential to each country’s climate policy, their bilateral cooperation is mainly in other areas:

  1. Forestry – this is one area of emissions reductions and both countries think they have lessons to share and are cooperating in this area.

  2. Hydrological data – China is being more forthcoming with hydrographic information on the two Indian rivers that originate in Tibet – the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) – a source of long-standing concern for India. Ramesh said the major concern is if China builds any storage dams or diversion projects on the Brahmaputra. It has acknowledged that it is in the process of building a 540 MW run-of-the-river project at Zangmu, which Ramesh said is not a concern, since the water is not diverted. While he had no guarantees from China on future projects, he suggested that this new openness creates the opportunity to discuss India’s concerns.

  3. Glaciology – the state of the Himalayan glaciers is vitally important for all the countries in South and Southeast Asia, as well as China, that depend on them for many of their major rivers. The rate of melt has also been a controversial issue in India in recent months. Ramesh said that overall India still feels the glaciers are receding, although there are a few examples (including the Siachen glacier), where he said the opposite is occurring, and in any case he said the glaciers are in deteriorating health. He said it is helpful to share information with the Chinese, who are of the view that the glaciers are definitely receding. Nevertheless, he said, there is a huge need for more Himalaya-specific scientific research to better understand exactly what is happening. India has only recently set up a glacier research institute in Dehra Dun, and it is now establishing research relationships in China. He noted that the Himalayas are often called “the third pole” and said that a problem is that much of the information about the Himalayas is actually extrapolation from Arctic Research. He hoped that India and China could work together to improve their understanding of the region.

  4. India and China are already working cooperatively with Nepal through the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) on a conservation project on Mt. Kailash, a religiously important mountain for Indians and Nepalis. This is the first joint project in Tibet, and again augurs well for the China-India relationship.

Overall, Ramesh said there is criticism of India’s greater closeness to China both within India and from developed countries. In India the question raised is why a country emitting 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gases wants to align with a country emitting 23%. Ramesh implied that view is short-sighted, given India’s development needs – he said 80% of the infrastructure India will need by 2030 has not yet been built – but stressed that he saw the benefits of greater closeness with Asia’s dominant economy as far outweighing the costs.

Developed countries, said Ramesh, imply India should side more with other democracies, rather than a non-democracy. But in fact, Ramesh did not seem to imply there is a need for a real choice – he described India’s relationship with the U.S. as excellent. He described the Bush administration as a real high water mark, but said that “Obama’s instincts with India are good.”

While Ramesh acknowledged that India needs China more than China needs India, he firstly described the Chinese as quite appreciative of the cooperation at Copenhagen, and secondly outlined real economic opportunities for China in India’s rapidly growing economy. For example, he said 20% of the power equipment India is purchasing under its current Five Year Plan (2007-2012) comes from China, and a growing portion of foreign direct investment in India comes from China. Overall, he expressed great enthusiasm for “the spirit of Copenhagen” and the opportunities for India and China to work together.

Photo by Philou.cn courtesy of a Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.