Author : Vivan Sharan

Originally Published 2012-06-21 10:23:15 Published on Jun 21, 2012
With clearly increasing patterns of inequity, social strife and marginalisation, India's policymakers must understand that they cannot continue to articulate its pro poor agenda shamelessly at the global high table, without first enabling visible socio-economic transformation at home.
Preparing for Rio+20: Emerging Dilemmas
At the first Rio Summit in 1992, global leaders met over the course of ten days to discuss ways to save the planet. At the upcoming Rio+20 summit in June, two decades after the initialisation of a comprehensive multilateral process to respond to climate change risks, global leaders will meet over a shortened period of three days to try to save the world from completely falling off a sustainable trajectory.

The draft-zero of the declaration of the Rio+20 Summit mentions the phrase "green economy" twenty two times without ever defining it. It is also no surprise then that one of the architects of the Kyoto Protocol, Ambassador Raul Estrada of Argentina publicly expressed "serious concern" about the reversal of the Kyoto process back to "square one" at the recent Bonn negotiations which were a follow up to last year’s COP summit.

At the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio, the world agreed to the idea of "Common but Differentiated Responsibilities" to build a viable framework to mitigate the imminent risks posed by the gradual changes in the environment. This principle was the key takeaway from Rio and was received well by the developing world at large as it flowed out of the equitable and fair notion of "polluter pays".

Even if the principle in itself has not lead to the optimal desired outcome, the very idea of developing countries being entitled to grow and to receive financial and technological support by the advanced developed economies has been a central pillar of the responsibility discourse. The role that this messaging of ’differentiated responsibilities’ has played has been decisive in how developing counties have traditionally positioned their arguments at multilateral fora.

Antonio Gramsci the famous Italian philosopher wrote that "history has left us an infinity of traces" and that the task before all of us is to "compile an inventory of the traces that history has left us". Multiple rounds of meetings and negotiations have followed after the first Earth Summit and the diffusion of the core principle of differentiated responsibility has been a consistently visible trend.

At the multilateral level, there is a fairly clear push towards disposing off with differentiation altogether (led by the EU and its cohorts) and as the Rio+20 conference draws nearer, developing counties including India continue to struggle to articulate themselves coherently or envision an alternative long term agenda for action. Besides keeping equity at the forefront, India needs a strategic vision. The pattern of negotiations has been that developed countries give ’incremental concessions’ to developing nations (for the lack of a better term) to pre-empt dissent.

There is definite scientific consensus that the Earth’s atmosphere is changing. The multilateral discourse on climate change also indicates that there is broad political agreement about imminent threats posed by climate risk. The Kyoto Protocol was perhaps the most honest attempt by the global collective of nation states to recognise two fundamental facts - that climate risks are real and imminent, and that developed countries have a greater historical responsibility to act and facilitate mitigation and adaptation actions of developing counties.

With the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol coming to an end, and with no foreseeable consensus on the future course of action, developing countries have everything to lose and nothing to gain from new frameworks or catchphrases that may evolve in the near future. In this context, it is surprising that even countries, with significant economic weight and bargaining power such as India, have refrained from becoming proactive champions of a progressive discourse rather than continuing on as reactionary rule takers.

The blame should not of course be limited to bad policymaking. We are regularly bombarded by apocalyptic climate change scenarios as well as overwhelming narratives of poverty and probably are functioning within a collective denial of the information that confronts us - whether on the lack of intentions in the alleviation discourse or the actual systematic degradation of the planet. The human tendency to herd into binaries of affirmation and negation leads to formation of ideological coalitions without suitable contexts. Some of this obduracy and short sightedness of individual thought no doubt translates into decision making at the highest political levels.

Interestingly it can be argued that in 1992, it was the developing world that wanted to use multilateral agreements such as those on climate change, as possible access points into the consumer spending driven markets of the developed economies. With the ongoing financial crisis continuing unresolved, and no end in sight for a faltering European economy, Western countries are now looking for greater access into emerging markets and are actively trying to peddle a new kind of reverse protectionism by obfuscating the discourse. The world has changed considerably over the past 2 decades and yet such characteristics of global governance remain inherently hegemonic.

India has relentlessly argued that stark levels of energy poverty and basic sustenance are more immediate and relevant concerns. Images of the Environment Minister at Durban, waving her arms around, defending India’s right to emit greenhouse gasses no doubt made for provocative news coverage, perhaps even inciting patriotic fervour in some of us. However the sad truth is that as a country we have seldom been able to act with strategic foresight on issues of long term significance. With clearly increasing patterns of inequity, social strife and marginalisation based on identity divisions, India’s policymakers must understand that they cannot continue to articulate its pro poor agenda shamelessly at the global high table, without first enabling visible socio-economic transformation at home.

(Vivan Sharan is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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Vivan Sharan

Vivan Sharan

Vivan was a visiting fellow at ORF, where he supports programmes on the ‘new economy’. Previously, as the CEO of ORF’s Global Governance Initiative, he ...

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