Southasian front

A common regional platform is necessary, but India might not be the ideal leader.

In the run-up to the December Copenhagen conference, the question of whether a unified Southasian vision on climate change can help the region's countries be part of the effort to stabilise greenhouse gases and adapt to changing climate is a critical one. A unified front would offer a number of clear advantages. First, the weak bargaining position of most of the Southasian countries is well known. Climate negotiations are complex and unwieldy, with the consensus rule of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requiring serious diplomatic prowess to reach any acceptable resolution. As such, with resources pooled under a single platform, the Southasian states would almost certainly be able to get a better climate deal at Copenhagen than otherwise.

All the same, will the negotiated Southasian stance be something that will actually advance the interests of all the countries of the region? Such a mutually beneficial platform would require either that India make major concessions by accepting emission cuts, or that other countries agree with New Delhi and refuse to make binding emission cuts. In this sense, a common Southasian front does not seem a necessity if the sole goal of the individual countries is to obtain a better deal in Copenhagen. Indeed, there are other ways in which the objectives of the individual countries can be met. Most Southasian countries are either members of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) group or of the G7 plus China, two forums that have proven far more effective than SAARC in achieving tangible outcomes at international negotiations. LDCs – though at the cost of stalling the Doha Round, have been effective in pushing their agenda on agricultural goods at the World Trade Organisation. SAARC, on the other hand, has been held hostage to regional tensions, with little progress made on the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) and other fronts where cooperation has been agreed upon.

In this context, letting India take the lead in climate negotiations – which would be a given if a common platform were developed – might not be the best option for all of Southasia. In fact, it could well be a step in the wrong direction. Other Southasian countries simply cannot take a wait-and-see approach, allowing India to 'develop' for a few decades before emissions start coming down. Furthermore, the paranoia with which other countries in the region look at New Delhi's leadership is something that cannot be dismissed. At the moment, India simply does not have the credibility or goodwill of many of the other countries of the region.

Yet even if a Southasian front is not likely to be fruitful during negotiations, the very imminent problems caused by climate change will definitely require a regional response. Livelihoods hinge on natural systems and their predictability. The shockwaves that went across the Subcontinent when the monsoons did not arrive on time this year is a potent example of how Southasia hangs on the precarious balance of nature for its well being. Climate change itself is going to act as a major stressor, and pose an additional, massive hurdle to development. The existence of such problems clearly provides ground for cooperation, though also for increased competition. After all, it remains a matter of merely when and at what scale these problems will begin to emerge. Unless there is recognition of the fact that these countries are tied together, the already-existing tensions will only be aggravated, and an amicable solution will remain a distant thing.

Different development
If Southasians are able to formulate any shared vision (perhaps along the lines of the UN-overseen Bali Action Plan, adopted in 2007 by over 180 countries), it will require a substantial commitment from India to reduce its emissions. Furthermore, by challenging the worry voiced by developed countries that economic growth would be negatively impacted, we in this region would be forced to think carefully about exactly what segments of society would suffer due to emission cuts, and whether the current growth trajectories have been inclusive enough. Likewise, is it necessary for countries to follow the same societal transformation, from agrarian to manufacturing to services, to develop? It can be argued that India itself has shown that making the jump from an agriculture-based economy to one driven by information-technology services is entirely possible, without passing through a heavy industrialisation period. Perhaps the region can go straight from the status quo to adopting clean-energy technologies.

Keeping in mind all of these issues, 80 youths of the region organised a South Asian Youth Summit on Climate Change in early September. Apart from discussing strategies leading up to Copenhagen, the participants came up with a declaration in the hopes of creating common ground by which to unite country-level campaigns to guide future activities. The declaration calls for a categorisation of countries such as India and China as 'advanced developing countries', and demands that they accept mandatory emission targets. Furthermore, expressing dissatisfaction with the ways in which funding is currently handled through the World Bank, the participants advocated for the UN to administer funds related to climate change. Developing countries have long expressed dissatisfaction over the over-representation of the United States and EU in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Furthermore, the funding that comes through these institutions is made conditional on a large set of parameters, such as the structural-adjustment programmes that the World Bank advocated heavily during the 1990s. Therefore, to make the funds that are allocated much more accessible, the participants suggested that the UN should be considered more appropriate.

The participants also agreed on the importance of follow-up activities after the summit, including the creation of a network to continue to advocate for issues on a regional basis. Yet the youth summit also highlighted some of the inherent problems with coming up with any regional framework. India, for instance, did not send a government representative to the 'Kathmandu-to-Copenhagen' talks that the World Bank and Nepal's Ministry of Environment organised in early September. Not only was this far from encouraging, but it perhaps highlighted the way in which New Delhi sees climate negotiations today: if it is not leading the discussion, the discussion is unimportant. While the energy resultant from the youth summit was thus inspiring, this could be a vivid illustration of how the interests of vulnerable countries collide head on with India's unrelenting stance on mitigation.

~ Rishikesh R Bhandary is a student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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Himal Southasian