Clinton’s visit to India

I’ve written in a number of previous blogs that issues over fairness and conflicts between teaching and preaching would become ever more apparent in the lead-up to Copenhagen. Last week, during US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to India, these issues came dramatically to center stage.

Clinton’s first official diplomatic visit to India was intended to shore up agreement between the countries over a global climate deal but instead illuminated the enormous rift between the two country’s positions.

Since Kyoto, the US has maintained the position that it will not commit to binding carbon emission targets unless big developing countries like China and India, who have low but quickly growing carbon emissions per capita, do the same. This is an easy sell domestically because without developing country help, stopping climate change will be impossible, and carbon-intensive industries in the US are fearful of losing competitive advantage because of costly domestic carbon legislation.

But India and China, meanwhile, have argued that such cuts would be unfair. Rich industrialized countries have built their economic status through cheap carbon-intensive industrialization, thus producing most of the carbon currently in the atmosphere. In seeking an equally wealthy and competitive economy, these countries argue that they have a right to at least the same carbon emissions per capita as the US or UK.

In last week’s visit, the incompatibility of the positions became clear. Responding to Clinton’s calls for emission targets, Jairam Ramesh, India’s carbon negotiator, said bluntly,

“There is simply no case for the pressure that we – who have among the lowest emissions per capita – face to actually reduce emissions. And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours.”

To this, Clinton somewhat awkwardly stressed her understanding of the point. She acknowledged that the US had “contributed significantly to the problem that we face with climate change” and that she hoped “that a truly great country like India will not make the same mistakes”.

At the end of the day, the two diplomats and their countries were left pondering the same questions that I raised previously. Is it fair for the US to demand developing country commitments on climate change even though they have contributed little to the problem? And is it teaching or preaching for the US to ask India to choose a different development path than they chose?