With Cabinet Reshuffle, is India Taking a New Approach to Climate Policy?

by Tripp Brockway

There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the major transition taking place on the international climate negotiation scene – but it has major implications for the future of the world’s second-biggest country, India.

In a reshuffling of his cabinet earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh named Jayanthi Natarajan (pictured right) as his new Environment Minister. Experts are scrutinizing Singh’s choice, wondering how it may chance the country’s approach to climate negotiations.

Natarajan will replace Jairam Ramesh, who is one of the most influential climate change negotiators the world has ever seen. Ramesh was a major player in both the Copenhagen and Cancun UNFCCC negotiations. In Cancun, he brokered a deal by bringing developed and developing nations together on green technology and emissions monitoring.

Ramesh was highly lauded for his work in international climate change negotiations. He showed a willingness to break with the obstructionist policies of the past, upending the division between developing and developed countries that has hindered progress on a binding global treaty to reduce emissions. Ramesh moved India forward on domestic climate change policy as well, committing his country to reaching 20% renewable energy by 2020, the same goal held by the European Union.

Ramesh was not afraid of controversy during his tenure as Environment Minister. He is known for challenging the growth-over-all paradigm in India by putting multi-billion dollar industrial projects on hold to ensure environmental protection. As a result, some speculate that Prime Minister Singh strategically promoted Ramesh out of his position, to the cabinet-level position of Minister of Rural Development, in a nod to industry amidst concerns of a sluggish economy and decreased foreign direct investment.

There is little hard evidence to make such speculations. There is equally little evidence to predict whether or not Jayanthi Natarajan will continue the policies of her predecessor. Natarajan’s resume, which includes Member of Parliament, leadership positions in several committees, and Spokeswoman for her party, does not indicate a particular expertise in environmental policy. Reports in the Indian media demonstrate the uncertainty as to what Natarajan will do with her new position.

One article cites Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, who says of Natarajan: “I think she would give a fair representation to the country’s environment needs like her predecessor.”

Another story quotes an Indian political analyst, who claims that the cabinet change was a “positive sign for business leaders who thought [Ramesh] was becoming a major impediment to their projects.”

Only time will tell how Natarajan will balance India’s need to protect the environment, along with the people that depend on it, with industry’s desire for unregulated access to natural resources.

Natarajan has made two recent speeches (here and here) that indicate how her stance on climate policy may differ from that of Ramesh. Her rhetoric reveals that she may not take the same kind of conciliatory approach. She emphasizes the theory of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and blames developed countries for historic emissions rather than articulating a need for action by all. According to Natarajan:

“In other words, those who were responsible for creating the problem in the first place, those rich and developed countries that ruined the environment for all these years — will in all equity have to contribute more significantly than less developed countries who never really polluted the atmosphere, and whose growth and development have lagged behind… it would become incumbent upon known polluters, historical polluters and developed nations to agree to as much as 40 per cent cuts in their CO2 emissions. Even with those cuts, they would be emitting far more and using up far more energy per capita than a developing country like India.”

“There is something fundamentally unfair about countries that have used up all the natural resources and reserves on our planet, turning around and preaching to us about reducing our carbon footprint when with our billion-plus population, we are not even a blip on the radar of carbon emission. Western countries who preach the most have absolutely no intention of cutting their own carbon emission or to rethink about their wasteful economies…”

Jairam Ramesh has left a legacy in India. He brought environmental concerns into mainstream Indian politics by defending the environment in the face of intense pressure from industry. He stepped up as a leader in the effort to reach a global binding deal to combat climate change. He showed a willingness to find compromise and take initiative to reduce emissions domestically, despite the overwhelming prevalence of finger pointing in international climate negotiations.

Natarajan has big shoes to fill. Will she continue the legacy of Ramesh by leading internationally on climate change? Or will she abandon the policies of her predecessor and revert to a position of obstructionism in multilateral climate negotiations, as her rhetoric suggests? The answer to this question may determine if the international community will be able to commit to the kind of action necessary to avoid the catastrophic results of unabated greenhouse gas emissions.

— Tripp Brockway, international climate intern at American Progress

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