What Is India Negotiating for in International Climate Politics?


Authored by: Jitendra Bisht and Arushi Raj


The 1989 Noordwijk Climate Conference was the first major international political conference to discuss climate change and environmental pollution issues. India was one of the 68 countries that attended. India’s representative argued against developing countries sharing the burden of emissions reduction and added that the cost of cutting emissions in developing countries should be borne by the developed ones. 

Since then, the Indian position at international climate negotiations has been primarily about the principle of differentiated responsibilities and provision of technology transfer from developed to developing countries for emissions reductions. 

India is also a member of the G77 countries. The G77 countries look at emission reduction as the primary moral imperative of the developed world. This responsibility is based on the Global North’s larger share in historically accumulated carbon emissions.

However, over the last three decades, India has emerged as one of the key brokers bringing diverse groupings of countries together at international forums, notwithstanding its own membership within such groupings, particularly the G77. According to some scholars, the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as part of the UNFCCC was based on an Indian proposal that sought to bring common ground to the conflicting positions of countries in the global north and the global south, regarding emissions reduction responsibilities.

At COP1, held in Berlin in 1995, India successfully managed to break the deadlock over emission reduction targets for the year 2000. The OPEC countries within the G77 were against the proposal of the small island states to have stricter emissions reductions targets for industrialised countries. India brought 100 G77 countries together in a few days to isolate the OPEC countries and secured a target of 20% emission reduction on industrialised countries till 2000 compared to 1990 levels. This is commonly known as the Berlin Mandate.

At the subsequent COPs, wherein emissions trade and carbon markets became prominent issues of debate, India took a more defensive position. It went as far as delaying negotiations necessary to bring the Kyoto Protocol to life. This was a principled position against the commodification of the atmosphere, shared by the G77 countries. However, after COP8, in New Delhi in 2002, India changed its position on clean development mechanism (CDM) as enshrined under the Kyoto Protocol, eventually establishing the National CDM Authority in 2003. This is said to be mainly a result of lobbying by Indian corporate bodies as they saw new opportunities in the carbon credit market.

The Bali Action Plan, born out of COP13, outlined the key principle of “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” which also reflected India’s evolving position on climate negotiations. While it still emphasised common but differentiated responsibilities, India was willing to adhere to a self-imposed target of not letting its per capita emissions exceed those of the developed countries in the long-run. This was a more accommodative approach to emissions targets, unlike the traditionally defensive position India had taken in past decades. The launch of the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008 embodied this new position of nationally determined targets.

Since then, India has maintained what some observers have called a mixed strategy at international climate negotiations. This approach is grounded in the country’s traditional support for differentiated responsibilities but outlined by a more flexible outlook of emissions reduction. India, throughout the last 30 years of climate negotiations, has emerged as a deal-maker in crucial times. This is an extension of its imperative of balancing national-level human development goals with urgent actions required to fulfill climate change commitments.