Profiles of Paris

Behind the scenes at the Copenhagen, Cancun climate talks: How India helped ease the path to Paris

Jairam Ramesh explains.

I became India’s Minister of Environment and Forests in May 2009 with instructions from Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to change both the substance and style of India’s climate diplomacy. “Don’t be obstructionist and make India a constructive part of the solution,” he told me a few minutes after I had taken over. The next 24 months were spent in executing the prime minister’s mandate. And I am pleased now to recall that the positions I had taken during 2009-’11, for which I was attacked in my own country by many politicians, NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and the media have now become part of the mainstream. As one example, I remember the opposition I ran into to get India to start thinking of a post-HFC [Hydrofluorocarbons] world and agree to an amendment to the Montreal Protocol [which aims to regulate the production and use of chemicals that contribute to the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer]. It is a matter of great satisfaction that political leaders who criticised me for my stance then were the very same ones who agreed to the amendments [on curbing hydrofluorocarbons emmissions] at Kigali [in Rwanda] in October 2016. I have described the transformation of India’s thinking on climate diplomacy and indeed of its entire approach to global warming and climate change during 2009-2011 in my book Green Signals: Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India and therefore this article will focus only on my recollections of Copenhagen and Cancun, two crucial milestones on the road to Paris.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, my focus was on creating a climate of opinion within the country that “business as usual” will simply not do for India when it came to climate negotiations. My message was simple: historically, India has certainly not been responsible for global warming but it has the maximum vulnerabilities to it across multiple dimensions perhaps like no other country in the world. Also, we cannot forever hide behind the “per capita” argument which will always be in India’s favour because of the huge denominator that is growing significantly every year. I advocated a “per capita plus” approach to demonstrate that we are very much interested in a solution because such a solution is in our national interest. I did not want India to abandon its traditional preoccupation with issues of equity but made clear that the time had come for India to be less argumentative and more pragmatic, less defensive and more proactive, less obstructionist and more constructive, less polemical and more substantive in its discussions and negotiations.

A historic meeting

Hillary Clinton’s memoir Hard Choices reveals how during the fortnight-long Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, on December 18, 2009, United States President Barack Obama and she barged into a room in which President Lula of Brazil, President Zuma of South Africa, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China and Dr Manmohan Singh were meeting along with their respective delegations and started tough negotiations.

The much-touted Copenhagen Conference was heading nowhere. Presidents and prime ministers from across the world had been unable to agree to a global agreement to combat climate change. Finally, it was the Chinese Premier [Wen Jiabao] who convened a meeting of the BASIC group comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The quartet’s ministers had been working closely together both in the run-up to and at Copenhagen itself.

The two presidents and two prime ministers started their confabulations at around 6 pm. All four had immediately agreed that the BASIC group should not be seen to have been responsible for the failure at Copenhagen. Just about 15 minutes into the meeting, President Obama, accompanied by Secretary Clinton and a large retinue of officials, walked into the room unannounced saying that he was actually looking for Premier Wen and then adding that he was lucky not only to have found him but also find him in the company of his BASIC colleagues. He then got down to business right away and said that according to his impressions, there were three contentious issues holding up a successful outcome at Copenhagen: (i) a global goal for reduction of emissions by 2050; (ii) measurement, reporting and verification of each country’s actions; and (iii) the need for a legally-binding global treaty.

After he had spoken, Premier Wen, after welcoming President Obama, turned to Dr Singh. Dr Singh, who had been greeted effusively by President Obama earlier, spoke of the complexities in the three issues raised and underscored the determination of the BASIC quartet to contribute constructively to a solution that is effective and equitable. He then asked me to elaborate.

I then proceeded to explain why the acceptance of a global goal could foreclose development options for developing countries and that for the present the global goal should rest with the formulation agreed to in the Declaration of the Leaders at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate held in L’Aquila, Italy on July 9, 2009, which said thus: “We recognise the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees Celsius.”

President Obama readily conceded our point. But he went on to then say that for the US, the issue of international transparency of domestic commitments was paramount and he wouldn’t leave Copenhagen without arriving at a settlement on it. The transparency issue then became the topic of heated discussion. Before the heads-of-state meeting, Mike Froman of the US, He Yafei of China and I had been meeting to hammer out acceptable language. I tried some formulations that were not acceptable to China and some others that were unacceptable to the US. We went in for the summit meeting without having reached any agreement. He Yafei and I had, however, agreed that India and China would not accept any formulation that did not contain the following – “…while ensuring that national sovereignty is respected”.

I briefed the meeting about the differences that still existed. President Obama then asked the sherpas to move to the corner of the room, discuss the matter further and come back. In this impromptu conclave, I suggested “international discussion” which was vetoed by the US I then tried “international consultations” which was also vetoed by the Americans who said that there must be a reference to “assessment”. I suggested “analysis” as an alternative and my Brazilian counterpart qualified it as “technical analysis”.

After some 10 minutes of haggling, we moved a few steps to report back to the bosses. I told President Obama that the best we could offer is “international consultations and technical analysis which would respect national sovereignty”. I said that “scrutiny/review/assessment” is simply unacceptable to the BASIC group.

President Obama’s immediate reaction was negative. He said that “international consultations” seems like a pointless talk shop. I then told him that there is precedent for “international consultations” in the relations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation with member-countries. President Obama immediately saw the point and instantaneously said that if there is such a precedent he would buy this formulation. That settled “international consultations”. President Obama then said that “technical analysis” was unacceptable. It should be “technical review/scrutiny/assessment” .

I then said that President Obama’s choice of words would be politically unacceptable but we could live with “technical analysis” since that is what the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation do in any case.Then, President Obama objected to the word “technical” in “technical analysis” saying that it circumscribes the scope of the analysis. I consulted with Dr Singh and Premier Wen and said that we should clinch the deal by dropping our insistence on the word “technical”. Both President Lula and President Zuma concurred. Dr Singh and Premier Wen asked me to announce it.

I then said to President Obama, “Sir, we will agree to “international consultations and analysis” but you must agree to the reference to “respect for national sovereignty”. Again, to President Obama’s eternal credit, he did not hesitate for a moment and said “done”. That was the breakthrough moment which the entire world had been waiting for.

After the measurement, reporting and verification issue was settled largely on account of President Obama overruling his own aides, we moved on to the legally binding global treaty issue. Dr Singh said that much more work needed to be done before any commitment to such a treaty could be made. President Obama responded by saying that he would go along with what Dr Singh was saying. He then ended the meeting with a flourish by saying – “Now I have to sell our agreement to my good friends the Europeans.”

Incidentally, there are two other accounts of this historic meeting that Secretary Clinton describes with the focus understandably on President Obama and herself. Strobe Talbott writes in his book Fast Forward: “Manmohan Singh engaged with Obama but let Jairam Ramesh, his energy and environment minister, do most of the arguing. Ramesh did so with relish. He was aggressive, sometimes acerbic, but not strident.” Jeffrey Bader in his Obama and China’s Rise also has more direct and detailed account of the Obama-BASIC Summit meeting and writes: “India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh argued politely but aggressively with Obama over several points.”

Undoubtedly, the Obama-BASIC meeting was a watershed. It saved Copenhagen from a complete collapse and also marked the emergence of the BASIC quartet as a major force in international climate policy diplomacy. The meeting was also tense. My Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua was absolutely livid at the compromise arrived at on the transparency issue even though it had the support of his own prime minister. In an unusual outburst, he started banging the table and launched into an angry tirade which left all of us stunned. Premier Wen quietly told the interpreter not to translate. Minister Xie continued for some time prompting President Obama to ask, “What is he saying?” Prompt came Secretary Clinton’s reply, which had the whole meeting exploding with laughter leading to a lowering of the tension, “Mr President, I think he is congratulating us!!!” Alas, her memoirs do not have a reference to this master quip.

File photo: US President Barack Obama (centre, left) speaks during a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (second, right), Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right) and other leaders at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen on December 18, 2009, on the 12th day of the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference. (Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP).
File photo: US President Barack Obama (centre, left) speaks during a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (second, right), Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right) and other leaders at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen on December 18, 2009, on the 12th day of the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference. (Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP).

‘Constructive contributions’

“All nations must take on binding commitments in an appropriate legal form.” I added this sentence at the very last minute to my prepared text after much cogitation while addressing the UN Climate Change Conference at Cancún, Mexico, on December 8, 2010. I felt that the logjam had to be broken and the time had come for India to stand up and be counted. I knew I was taking a huge risk but I believed that bold risk-taking was what leadership was all about. The Cancun conference came after the much-heralded Copenhagen meet. Bouquets from all over the world and brickbats from India followed immediately. The Mexican president and foreign minister were all praise for India’s pragmatism. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives said that for the first time he felt confident that India was serious about addressing the special concerns of countries like his, while [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly lauded India’s constructive contributions. But at home, I was pilloried by influential NGOs [non-governmental organisations], by large sections of the media, and by the present finance minister in Parliament.

On December 17, 2010, I addressed a detailed eight-page letter to all Members of Parliament explaining the immediate context in which the impromptu addition was made. A majority of developing and developed countries were pushing for a legally binding agreement. Most countries including our BASIC quartet partners Brazil and South Africa, our developing country partners in the Alliance of Small Island States, Least Developed Countries, Africa and four of our South Asian colleagues shared this view. The opposition came mainly from the US, China, India, the Philippines, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia. I felt it was important for India to demonstrate that it was not completely oblivious to the views and opinions of very large sections of the global community, especially those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In my letter, I explained to the MPs that (i) Commitments in an “appropriate legal form” are not a “legally-binding commitment” and that commitments made by the government to our own Parliament in the form of domestic legislation that contain performance targets for mitigation are also “an appropriate legal form”; and (ii) the commitments did in no way imply that India was taking on absolute emission cuts or agreeing to any peaking year for its emissions. I went on to add that this deliberate nuancing of our traditional hard line position would actually expand negotiating options for us and give us an all-round advantageous standing. The MPs appreciated the detailed explanation and I was naturally more than happy when I got a written reply on December 24, 2010, from a leading figure of the Opposition and former Finance and Foreign Minister Mr Jaswant Singh who said: “I would not bother overmuch about the ersatz generated on account of our rather feeble understanding of the difference between ‘legally binding’ and an ‘appropriate legal form’.”

Actually, I would like to think India played a positive role in rescuing and reviving the multilateral negotiating process in Cancún. But this did not get adequate appreciation at home because of the furore over the impromptu addition. To my mind, there were at least four distinctive contributions. First, it was India that, along with China, Brazil and South Africa, ensured for the first time that developed country mitigation actions will be subject to “international assessment and review”, which means that experts including those from developing countries will have the right to review whether developed countries are living up to their commitments. Second, it was India, supported by some African countries and countries like Norway and Sweden, that ensured the inclusion of the phrase “equitable access to sustainable development”. This was superior to the phrase “equitable access to carbon space”, which somehow connotes a fundamental “right to pollute”. Third, India’s detailed formulation, prepared in consultation with China, Brazil and South Africa, on “international consultation and analysis” of developing country mitigation actions in a manner that is non-intrusive, non-punitive and respectful of national sovereignty was the key intervention that broke an acrimonious deadlock and helped take Cancún forward. Fourth, India’s own formulations formed the basis of the consensus reached on technology development and sharing in both mitigation and adaptation.

In a meeting convened on the sidelines by the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, on public-private partnerships, I called for the establishment of a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research-type network of technology development and dissemination institutions in the area of climate change. I specifically mentioned how India’s high-yielding wheat varieties in the 1960s came from a CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] institution in Mexico. I recall this suggestion being endorsed enthusiastically by President Calderon and also by Professor Mario Molina, the 1995 Nobel Laureate [for Chemistry].

Just as Cancun ended, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Berlin for talks with Chancellor Merkel. It gave me immense satisfaction that after the talks, Merkel told the media that “Indian Minister Ramesh has made important contributions at the Cancun Conference”. I was also very happy that the Maldivian Minister Mohamed Aslam gave out a statement that “Minister Ramesh has been instrumental in bridging gaps. He has been reaching out to the AOSIS [Alliance of Small Island States] nations as well as the developed countries”. But sad to say, attacks at home and in Parliament continued at my stance at Cancun which was seen as a sell-out.

I want to mention two other initiatives that got taken as a result of Cancun. Todd Stern and I had a long discussion on HFC [hydrofluorocarbon] phase-down for the very first time and this led to India and the USA engaging on this vital issue that led agreements at the highest level between the two countries in September 2013 and September 2014. I also met a number of non-governmental orgabisations who alerted me to the importance of the Convention on Biodiversity which had got overshadowed by the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. At Cancun I decided that India should play a leadership role in this area as well. In October 2012 India hosted the Eleventh Conference of Parties to the CBD [Convention on Biodiversity].

Oxfam activists place a bottle with a message in the beach during a demonstration, in Cancun, Mexico, ahead of the UN climate summit in 2010. (Photo credit: AFP).
Oxfam activists place a bottle with a message in the beach during a demonstration, in Cancun, Mexico, ahead of the UN climate summit in 2010. (Photo credit: AFP).

Building blocks for Paris agreement

My formal links with climate negotiations ended in July 2011 after the Petersberg Dialogue held in Berlin where we had made significant progress in taking Copenhagen and Cancun forward in operational terms. But I continued informal links thereafter and have kept in touch with my compatriots like Todd Stern, Xie Zhenhua, Laurence Tubiana, Patricia Espinosa, Connie Hedegaard, Christiana Figueres and others. For me the two years I spent in the world of climate negotiations were very educative and rewarding, if frustrating and tense at times. I should like to think that both Copenhagen and Cancun provided the building blocks for the 2015 Paris Agreement. It was my good fortune to have been associated so very intimately with the building of the building block themselves. I was gratified that India’s pledges at Paris (the nationally determined contributions) were almost exactly the same commitments (with the solar capacity target enhanced five-fold) I had myself been advocating at Copenhagen and Cancun and for which I was criticised by the very same political party that was now making the very same pledges. Clearly, in a parliamentary democracy, where you stand depends on where you sit. I had also the good fortune of being a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability that submitted its report in January 2012. Some of my Copenhagen sparring partners like Kevin Rudd were also on the panel. This report enshrined the idea of SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] which had been first mooted at Cancun on the international agenda.

Jairam Ramesh is a Member of Parliament, India. He was previously Minister of State at the Ministry of Environment and Forests (2009 to 2011) and Minister of Rural Development (2011 to 2014).

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