Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 13:14 UK

Is India's climate stance weakening?

By Amit Baruah
Editor, BBC Hindi

Parched land in the Indian state of Orissa
India is looking for assistance from the developed world on climate change issues

With less than two months to go until the big-ticket UN climate change conference in Copenhagen from 7-18 December, are cracks appearing in the tough-as-nails approach that has characterised Indian officialdom?

A leading Indian newspaper reported on Monday that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, suggesting that Delhi should accept a deviation from the 1997 Kyoto protocol on climate change which puts the onus squarely on developed countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The letter, if translated into policy, would turn India's negotiating policy on its head.

The government is still to spell out whether or not it has accepted Mr Ramesh's proposal. The leaking of the letter to The Times of India suggests there are differences of opinion within the government on how to approach the negotiations.

Breach of consensus

"Even if the minister is well-intentioned, any attempt to bring the US administration on board is both retrograde and naive," Centre for Science and Environment Director Sunita Narain told the BBC.

Dust storm in Delhi
India has recently been hit by erratic weather patterns

A retired official, who follows this issue closely but prefers anonymity, said the minister's letter amounted to a breach of the national consensus in India.

"It may be a proposal, but it goes against the negotiating brief given to officials," he said.

"It [the Kyoto protocol] is one of the few international agreements that favours the developing world. And you want to give it up."

However, at the end of another round of recent official talks in Bangkok, the developing world - India, China, South Africa and Brazil - appeared to agree that the principle of differentiated responsibility cannot be diluted.

Basically, this principle requires developed countries to do more to deal with the effects of climate change because historically these nations have contributed massively to the emission of greenhouse gases.

"If we replaced the [1997] Kyoto protocol without going through the procedures mentioned in the document, what will be the sanctity of the new instrument?" Shyam Saran, the Indian prime minister's special envoy on climate change, he asked.

'Starting point'

India is also gearing up for its own conference on climate change on 22 and 23 October where sideline consultations among developing countries are widely expected to take place.

Jairam Ramesh
The only entity to which we will be accountable for any form of commitment will be our parliament and our parliament alone
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh

"We don't want the distinction between the responsibilities of the developed and developing countries to be blurred," Mr Saran said.

But Mr Ramesh argues that the "starting point" for a fair and equitable agreement was the acceptance by developed countries of the principle of per capita equity in greenhouse gas emissions.

"The perfect should not become the enemy of the good at Copenhagen," he insists, suggesting that agreements should first be reached on issues where there is a convergence of opinion - such as the use of forestry in combating climate change.

The Forum of Environmental Journalists of India Secretary Joydeep Gupta told the BBC that Delhi's negotiating strategy was focused on ensuring that developed countries stuck to their commitments under the Kyoto protocol and provided adequate finance and technology to developing countries.

So does he expect any agreement in Copenhagen?

"I think they [the developed and developing countries] will have to come up with something. I'm not sure how many details will be contained in the agreement," Mr Gupta said.

Mr Saran, for his part, insists that developing countries cannot be expected to do more without financial and technical assistance from the developed world.

So are we looking at the prospect of a deadlock in Copenhagen?

"How can I make predictions?" he responded.

climate change slogan
Many argue that developed countries should do more to tackle the problem

In his letter to Indian MPs, Mr Ramesh claimed that India had to take action on climate change not because of international pressure but because it affected the lives of Indian people.

"I am very clear that any commitments we take on must be of our own accord, on our own terms and in line with our development priorities. The only entity to which we will be accountable for any form of commitment will be our parliament and our parliament alone," he said.

Given the millions of Indians still living on less than $1 a day, Delhi is likely to use the development card to the hilt to ensure that its negotiation position is not compromised. There is little doubt that any unilateral international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases will put the Manmohan Singh government in trouble.

In less than a month, there will be five days of official negotiations in Barcelona (2-6 November) before the world finally moves on to the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

The letter written by Mr Ramesh to the prime minister appears to weaken the solid negotiating stance adopted by India acting in concert with the developing world.

Of course, the minister's views remain at proposal stage - and the government can distance itself from his position - but it seems as if times may be about to change.

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