More than tackling the atmosphere at the UN climate summit, it was with atmospherics that India made its mark in Paris. The Indian pavilion, with its hi-tech wizardry wowed delegates: at intervals, water whooshed down the frontage and coloured laser lights projected brief messages for participants on the falling water. The rest of the expansive, open-plan pavilion was adorned with Bastar figurines, while films on India’s environment were projected on screens above and at special touchscreens. It was a mix of 21st century technology and ancient art.
The same kind of atmospherics imbued India’s high-profile launch of the International Solar Alliance on the opening day, for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi earned his brief place in the sun. One could never have imagined that he would get top billing at a summit offered as the UN’s answer to the abortive Copenhagen meet in 2009.
There were brief documentaries showcasing India’s environment, as also of Africa and other nations. This wasn’t accidental. The Alliance is making a pitch to sub-Saharan countries, which have vast swathes of uncultivated land and sunlight throughout the year, but are too poor to exploit it. This also provides scope for an entry to Indian and foreign companies, marking an element of self-interest.
If India was hitherto being seen as a party-pooper, this time our participation in the Alliance has catapulted the country into the top players’ league right at the beginning of the summit. Modi cited how the government is providing the project Rs 400 crore worth of land and Rs 175 crore for buildings and recurring expenditure for five years. The project will be temporarily housed at the newly constructed Surya Bhavan at the National Institute of Solar Energy in Gurgaon. The government has listed no fewer than 121 countries which could join the Alliance, including the US, UK and Australia. Many of them are tropical countries, a huge source and market for solar energy.
At the launch with French President Francois Hollande, Modi referred to his “long-cherished dream” to initiate the project and cited the Rig Veda to assert how the sun was the source of all living matter. France’s climate change ambassador, Laurence Tubiana, said it was “a true game-changer”. There were religious undertones at the ceremony, with shots of holy sites in India with the obligatory sadhus. Delegates were given a CD with songs on the environment and a book of quotations, with a foreword co-authored by Modi and Hollande.
It isn’t as if the Alliance will be funded entirely out of India’s pocket. The recurring costs will be met from membership fees and contributions from multilateral and bilateral agencies which, India hopes, will eventually amount to $400 million. India is thinking big on this project. Its ultimate objective, in just 15 years, is to mobilise $1,000 billion for the “massive deployment” of affordable solar energy. This is ten times what rich countries have pledged to help developing nations cope with climate change by 2020. France and Holland have expressed their support to the Alliance, as have companies like Areva, Engie and HSBC from France and Tata Steel. Engie is a major world energy player, with 1.5 lakh employees. At the launch, it asked for the right regulation for the private sector, which demonstrates how foreign companies will be eyeing this vast, untapped market.
If the solar alliance was Modi’s moment of glory, India still has to tackle the West’s impression that it is sticking to its long-held conviction that developing countries have to get funds and technology to arrest the onset of climate change, of which they are themselves the biggest victims. Shortly before Paris, no less a figure than US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to India’s position being “a challenge”. A one-page unofficial brief leaked to the US media sought to erase the difference between developed and developing countries in the UN negotiations. Instead, it was proposed that each country is asked to submit what it thinks it can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There will then be a review mechanism to monitor such pledges.
At the opening of the summit, US President Barack Obama said, “Targets are set not for each of us, but by each of us.” This indicates the opposition by the US to any international treaty which binds rich countries to help poor ones to cope with climate change. This is precisely why the US earlier refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which compelled the former to cut emissions and pay penalties for failing to do so.
Chandra Bhushan, of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, who has followed the negotiations at earlier summits over the years, suspects that India may well be forced into backing down from its former position. While China is taking a backseat for the moment, Bhushan believes that at the fag end of the summit, it may ally with the US to corner India and like-minded countries into toeing their line.
In Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar, India lacks a negotiator of the acumen of Kamal Nath during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 or Jairam Ramesh in Copenhagen and Cancun in 2010. Back in Rio, India was the undisputed leader of the G-77 block of developing nations. Kamal Nath made no secret of India’s differentiation between industrial and other countries. The CSE, under its outspoken founder Anil Agarwal, was part of the official delegation and helped articulate some of these views. A few years later, a former senior US diplomat told this writer that the White House was incensed that India was excoriating the US at every available opportunity in Rio and sent word to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to rein him in, which he did.
It is inconceivable that India will play any such role today. Actually, the undermining process began with Copenhagen, when (literally at midnight) Obama burst uninvited into the room where the BASIC countries—the emerging economies of Brazil, South Africa, India and China—had convened and imposed an accord on them. Jairam, though articulate, as admitted by US diplomats, went along with this.
Javadekar doesn’t have the experience to deal with a confrontation and has so far been merely reiterating India’s commitment to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. The irony that a country whose capital is the most polluted in the world, according to WHO, and 13 of whose cities make it to the list of the 20 worst-polluted cities, is promoting clean energy has so far escaped attention. The NDA, meanwhile, has been systematically diluting environmental laws in the name of promoting growth. That being Modi’s raison d’etre, it’s likely that India will not want to rock the boat in Paris.
By Darryl D’Monte in Paris
(Darryl D’Monte chairs the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.)