India’s stance at and approach towards the international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have evolved through several phases. Officially, India proclaims that it has staunchly guarded its national interests, warded off incessant efforts by developed countries to impose emissions control obligations and other onerous burdens on India, and acted unswervingly in favour of developing countries.

This claim has been broadly accepted, even if grudgingly, by sections of academics, the media, and even by activists or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in India, especially in the face of intransigent behaviour by the United States (US) and other developed countries. However, such a portrayal betrays a confirmation bias towards a hypothesis often proffered by key official interlocutors themselves, and also misses some discernible shifts in the negotiating framework and possible explanations for them.

A more critical appraisal of India’s stance and floor tactics would reveal a rather less praiseworthy and more inconsistent position, often not matching official rhetoric and self-perception.

Starting from a proactive and creative early phase, notably during the formulation of the UNFCCC, India’s perspective and tactics shifted to a relatively quiescent posture. As the Kyoto Protocol (KP) gradually took shape and came into force, India further moved to somewhat peculiar interventions looking to game the negotiations process, but in effect contributing, along with other countries, to considerable damage to the integrity and effectiveness of the Protocol.

As negotiations moved to defining and shaping the architecture of the second phase of the KP, India floundered between striving to stave off US and other developed country pressures to take on emissions reduction commitments and seeking to advance a strategic alliance with the US. In the lead up to, and at, the Copenhagen and Cancun summits, where the foundations of a new, post-Kyoto emissions control architecture were laid, India made a paradigm shift by committing to a voluntary emissions reduction pledge, but failed to leverage this momentous change to elicit emission cuts by developed countries.

India, thus, ended up at Paris meekly accepting a US-engineered architecture with deleterious consequences for the earlier hard-won equity between developed and developing nations, for adherence to the requirements of science for controlling climate change, and for its own national interests with regard to domestic climate vulnerabilities and impacts.

In particular, India did not build its own capacities in understanding climate science or formulate its negotiating positions based on that understanding. India approached the climate negotiations as primarily a problem of foreign relations, rather than as a forum to deal with and help tackle its serious vulnerabilities to climate impacts.

In later periods, India mistakenly forged an alliance with developed countries, especially the US, at the cost of traditional allies in developing countries, especially Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs), and was slow to realise the import of its own economic development at the turn of the millennium, especially how this was perceived by other developing countries, and make suitable adjustments to its negotiating position. Through all these phases, India adopted a defensive and reactive posture – fending off pressures from developed countries – rather than a proactive one projecting its own core concerns regarding climate change and pressing for enhanced actions by developed countries.

Consequently, serious questions arise as to whether, or to what extent, India’s negotiating position truly promoted outcomes enabling the country to better deal with the serious challenges it faces due to climate change, and advance its own vital developmental interests along with those of other developing countries.

India has paid insufficient attention over the years to its own vulnerabilities to climate change. The serious impacts these may have on India, and South Asia in general, have been made clear in successive assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), especially in the Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports. India’s own Second National Communication (otherwise known as NATCOM 2) to the UNFCCC in 2012 and a series of studies commissioned by India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) under the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA 2010) contain the hitherto most authoritative estimates of climate impacts in India over the near to medium term, and some projections for the longer term till the end of the century.

As a brief snapshot, India has close to 18 per cent of the world’s population and, despite the much hyped rapid economic growth in recent years, carries a huge burden of poverty and underdevelopment, with human development index rankings similar to LDCs in most indicators. Agricultural production in India is expected to be badly affected in both quantity and quality by changes in climatic patterns, variations in rainfall, and shift in onset and withdrawal of monsoons (MoEF 2012).

About 65 per cent of its people live in rural areas, are mostly poor and dependent on agriculture, with over 60 per cent of the cropped area being rain-fed and highly climate sensitive. India’s long coastline has many heavily populated towns and cities along it, all facing threats from sea-level rise and coastal erosion. The already most marginalised sections of its people are also the most vulnerable to climate impacts.

Whereas India may not be among the “canaries of climate change” facing an existential threat like small island states, it is, along with other South Asian nations, among the most severely affected regions of the world. Like the island states and LDCs, India too therefore has a vital interest in working assiduously towards minimising temperature rise and related climate impacts.

Unfortunately, India’s climate vulnerabilities were never major drivers of its climate policy, nor were they allowed to significantly shape India’s negotiating position. If India’s stance had indeed been based on the science, that is, on limiting global temperature rise and on emission cuts required to achieve those goals, and had been domestically rather than externally driven, it may well have evolved very differently, possibly even leading to a different outcome of the negotiations.

India in a Warming World

Excerpted with permission from “India in International Climate Negotiations: Chequered Trajectory”, by D Raghunandan, from India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development, Edited by Navroz K Dubash, Oxford University Press.