India warns on trade approach to climate

United Nations-led negotiations on climate change are making the same mistakes as global trade talks that ran aground at the World Trade Organisation last year, a senior adviser to India’s prime minister has warned.

Nitin Desai, a member of Manmohan Singh’s council on climate change and a former top UN official, said a hard-nosed concession-based negotiation to reach a global consensus on how to combat global warming would likely founder. He urged political leaders to focus on common ground in the run up to UN climate change talks in Copenhagen next month rather than haggle bitterly over reciprocal concessions.

“We are still stuck in an environment of global negotiations where we accept dire forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and everyone else but we have not yet discovered a way of negotiating that goes beyond reciprocal concessions. [It’s a case of:] ‘I’ll you do this, if you do that’. This is the classical model of tariff concessions.”

“Both [sides] are going to sink if we don’t do something in a more co-ordinated way to address this problem.”

The prospect of the climate talks going the same way as the stalled Doha round of trade talks is alarming. Asia’s third largest economy, in defence of its impoverished farmers, was embroiled in a stand-off at the WTO that led to the talks breaking down. The global economic downturn has damped their quick revival.

Mr Desai said nations may fall short of full agreement at Copenhagen. Instead, they were likely to agree to more specific action on technology, forests and assistance to least developed countries and small island countries.

India, one of the world’s fastest growing large economies, is a key voice in the climate change talks. India has so far resisted signing up to binding cuts or caps on its carbon emissions, which are expected to grow as the country industrialises. Mr Singh has emphasised the west’s responsibility for global warming and promoted technology transfer and its finance from wealthy nations to poorer ones.

Mr Desai’s comments come as India’s climate change negotiators increasingly sound a pessimistic note about progress in the lead up to the Copenhagen summit. Shyam Saran, Mr Singh’s special envoy on climate change, said last month’s Bangkok meeting to iron out differences had taken steps backward.

India, meanwhile, has put climate change at the heart of bilateral trade and investment discussions with Europe and the US. Strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change are on the agenda at an EU-India summit on Friday. The United States is also seeking a trade and investment treaty with India that could help US companies to invest in climate change technologies in India, alongside other sectors like pharmaceuticals, IT and education.

“The official line from negotiators and even heads of states is not bilateral treaties, although every country is planning to take that route as one of many in the climate mitigation process,” said a spokesman for Greenpeace, the environmental lobby group, in Delhi.

“All will depend on US position over the next 10 days. The EU is willing to do a deal – maybe not at the levels that are needed but willing all the same. The US has not budged.”

Mr Desai, an economist who served as the undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs at the UN, recommended other avenues in addition to the UN process to combat climate change.

“The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is not the only game in town. The carbon constraint is going to bite us regardless of what goes on in the UN process,” he said. “It will bite us through prices, it will bite us through consumer resistance and in many other ways.”

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