India must negotiate for a fair and equitable climate deal

On October 2, India submitted its climate targets through INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) to the United Nations. There has been a surprising shift in framing the policy in terms of climate justice - an old concept but new for Indian policy formulation. It was first articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his speech at the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) in September this year.

'When we speak only of climate change, there is a perception of our desire to secure the comforts of our lifestyle. When we speak of climate justice, we demonstrate our sensitivity and resolve to secure the future of the poor from the perils of natural disasters,' he argued. Subsequently, the same idea has been emphasized in India's INDC. 'Working towards climate justice' is the intent of the contribution, which aims to 'establish an effective, cooperative and equitable global architecture based on climate justice and the principles of Equity and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, under the UNFCCC'.

This new policy formulation raises many questions: Why the change? How does it help India's cause? For this, it is useful to analyze the idea of 'climate justice'. Patrick Bond traces its roots to various anti-racist environmental movements across the world in the 1990s leading to the idea of environmental justice. Civil society groups started using the concept to highlight injustices to poor and marginal groups due to the changing climate. Since then, it has emerged as a disparate set of ideas championed by different civil society groups based on the set of issues they address. It may involve issues related to gender, social equity, indigenous rights, community ownership, human rights, and historic responsibility. The idea, which has mainly been used by civil society groups, hasn't yet been coherently formulated and has not yet found space in the negotiation text.

India has been a strong advocate of the ideas of 'equity', 'historic responsibility' and 'common but differentiated responsibility' (CBDR) since the early days of climate discussions. It was successful, with other developing countries, in getting these ideas reflected in the text of UNFCCC in 1992. Ever since, India has consistently advocated these principles.

Developed countries like the US, Canada and Australia have been fighting to dilute or simply do away with these principles and have been successful to a large extent. The first draft agreement prepared by the co-chairs of the Convention minimizes differences in the roles and responsibilities of developed and developing countries and dilutes the financial and technology transfer commitments of the developed countries by delinking it with the actions of developing countries.

In this context, when India's long standing principles of 'equity', 'CBDR' and 'historic responsibility' are in real danger of being left out or diluted, it is unwise to set a new self goal of climate justice. The idea of climate justice is as abstract as sustainable development and can hardly be useful in articulating India's position at this juncture. First, India will have to define and detail the concept and then convince the world about it. Time is too short for such an enterprise as negotiations on the text are ongoing. India will be better served if, along with the developing country groups, it tries hard to negotiate for a fair and equitable climate deal rather than aiming for the lofty ideal of climate justice.