No, India Was Not The Villain Of The Paris Summit, Western Business Lobbies Were

by Ruchir Ferrero Sharma - Dec 16, 2015 12:52 PM
No, India Was Not The Villain Of The Paris Summit, Western Business Lobbies Were

India was playing hardball at Paris to finance the transition to renewable energy. Portraying such simple negotiation tactics as stubborn obstructionism shows western media’s gross insensitivity matched only by its gross inaccuracy of facts.

Over the last few weeks, editorials across the Western media have abounded with articles about how India was holding the world hostage at the Paris Summit. These included headlines such as “Narendra Modi Could Make or Break Obama’s Climate Legacy” in the New York Times and “China Won’t Block Global Climate Deal In Paris, But India Might” in Forbes. The latter in particular being outstanding for having no basis at all in fact, amazingly not even including the word “India” once in the actual article, but using the title to take a cheap shot at the country.

This has been further compounded by questionable attempts at humour, reviving Orientalist and neo-colonialist stereotypes, exemplified by this cartoon in the New York Times.

No, India Was Not The Villain Of The Paris Summit, Western Business Lobbies Were

Cartoon by New York Times

Time Magazine was a rare breath of fresh air, challenging this narrative in Navroz K. Dubash and Radhika Khosla’s article “Why India Has a Point at the Paris Climate Talks“, saying,

The idea that the past is irrelevant to a future climate regime is a long-standing hope of a small group of industrialized countries … That India accounts for 3% of global greenhouse-gas emissions since the industrial revolution, compared with 27% for the U.S., is irrelevant by this logic.

Thus, the historical responsibility of the West was not on the table. Neither was a method of national carbon accounting that looks at how the emissions a country has consumed rather than what it is producing now. This allows about 80% of historical carbon emissions attributed to developed countries to be almost forgotten.

India was the country that took the lead in pushing this as a key point of the negotiation position of the developing world. This was done in order to get the developed countries to contribute to the $100-Billion Green Energy Fund proposed at previous summits. And it is this position which attracted the ire of the West.

Even leaving aside the fact that the current climate change crisis is primarily on account of centuries of carbon-intensive industrialisation in the West, the per capita emissions of the US are over 10 times those of India’s even today (and for Australia, even higher), leading to the below response from the Times of India:

No, India Was Not The Villain Of The Paris Summit, Western Business Lobbies Were

Cartoon by Times Of India

Now, I am all for a carbon-free and renewable energy revolution worldwide, particularly in the developing world. However, reading the editorials these days vilifying such countries, one would think that India and its ilk are stuck in the 1800s and have some sort of manic love for coal or ideological devotion to a narrative of “you polluted to get rich, why can’t we?”

All this when it’s clear to any neutral observer that this is merely negotiation posturing and these countries would quite happily switch to cheaper renewable energy if given a fair opportunity to do so.

Contrary to the misleading portrayal of simple negotiation tactics for stubborn obstructionism, far from blocking the summit out of an adoration of coal-fired thermal plants or an anti-Western foreign policy, India was playing hardball on the demand for the Green Energy Fund, to finance the transition to renewable energy in the developing world, which it has actually taken the lead on through a 120-country global solar alliance.

The story behind the scenes is that the Indian government, on its own accord, launched its own ambitious green energy target in 2013, which was then upgraded 5-fold by the new Modi government in 2015. For this India was dragged to the WTO by the US, who claimed that solar energy subsidies hurt US business interests, winning a crushing victory just a couple of months ago this year.

This, despite the fact that the US has deployed similar subsidies for its own renewable energy sector, averaging $39 billion a year over the last 5 years and placed tariffs upon imported energy technology from India and China. Yet, as Charles Pierson has pointed out,

Why hasn’t India dragged the US before the WTO? The answer, unsurprisingly, is money. Modi’s goal of expanding India’s reliance on renewables is achievable, but it won’t come cheap. It will take at least $100 billion in new investment. More than half of that $100 billion is going to have to come from overseas, specifically the United States. India won’t see a dime of that if it takes the US to the WTO.

Despite all these efforts to create a fair playing field for a transition to clean energy, even today, after the successful agreement at the Paris Summit, we see an even more egregious example of crass propaganda in Rupert Murdoch’s mouthpiece, The Australian.

No, India Was Not The Villain Of The Paris Summit, Western Business Lobbies Were

Cartoon by The Australian

A part of the News Corp media empire has consistently supported the backward-looking Australian government and coal lobby in pushing coal as the only solution for desperate poverty. It is no surprise that with a tasteless piece such as this, they can hit three of their favourite right-wing bullseyes at once – discrediting solar power, disparaging international development aid, and mocking the poor for their poverty.

One feels the need to point out that it is not as if the Indian poor can eat Australian coal, as much as the benevolent coal industry representatives would have us believe, in order to push through their planned destruction of the Great Barrier Reef for the sake of the poor starving masses.

In fact, the gross insensitivity of this cartoon is matched only by its gross inaccuracy, since coal-fired thermal plants actually have an abysmal record in providing reliable last-mile connectivity for rural electrification due to high transmission and distribution losses through the state and national electric grids.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, 10 to 18-hour power cuts per day are normal even in cities of over a million, let alone forgotten hinterland hamlets. If anything, the last mile connectivity of Indian villages can only be achieved efficiently by micro-grids based on solar panels, providing them with a cheap, reliable, and local source with which to light up their streets to keep villages safe, or their homes to let children study, and create new business opportunities through improved access to, for example, sewing machines and computers.

Economic empowerment, both literally and metaphorically, cannot be spelled without power, and in the case of impoverished villages, solar power.

Simplistic journalism like the above helps hide the fact that the Western governments and lobbies are not willing to make sacrifices in their business practices and wasteful lifestyles. They further attempt to shift the blame onto the developing world where governments are attempting to provide the bare essentials to hundreds of millions in desperate poverty.

Ruchir Sharma is an international public policy professional in the fields of police reform, counter-terrorism, and climate change. 

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