It may be hard to believe looking around you, but India, sitting right at the bottom of the Environmental Protection Index, has played a critical role in the shaping of international environmental treaties.
It began 50 years ago, at the first-ever United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm, where most of today’s international instruments for environmental protection were born. The 122 participating countries — 70 of them developing and poor — adopted the Stockholm Declaration.
The Stockholm conference was a landmark event, mainstreaming multilateral governance of planetary concerns. Twenty years later, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, countries got together to agree on the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification(UNCCD), and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The summit also led to the creation of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), and what is now known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
In her historic speech at Stockholm, Indira Gandhi, the only head of government to speak at that conference, famously asked, “On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty — on the other, they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?’’
This idea, which prioritised economic development to eradicate poverty, while calling upon principles of equity, the historical responsibility of the North, and per capita rights to the global carbon budget, was quickly adopted as the bedrock of India’s position in all climate and environment negotiations.
The principles of equity reflected in the UNFCCC at Rio in the phrases Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) and Respective Capacities (RC) were, therefore, important victories for developing nations and Indian negotiators.
In spite of India’s reputation as a party pooper and a country that “never says yes," this position has helped include provisions in treaties that better reflected the realities of developing nations. This in turn helped the treaties gain wider participation from and acceptability in developing and under-developed countries.
Last year, the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 President Alok Sharma was driven to tears on the final day at Glasgow, as a late amendment on coal was added to the draft text by India citing its carbon space justifications.
Earlier this year, commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal kept everyone awake in an over-stretched WTO meeting on fisheries subsidies to ensure that Special but Differential Treatment was well and truly entrenched in the agreement.
India has continued to play an active role in global climate negotiations. Its efforts were seen as crucial to securing the Berlin mandate in 1995, that eventually resulted in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. This required developed countries to commit themselves to “quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives,” while developing nations such as India were exempt from binding commitments.
It was at COP 13 in Bali in 2007, that India surprisingly changed its long-held position and accepted that developing countries should participate in the global mitigation effort, at least on a voluntary basis in line with their capabilities.
Soon after, ahead of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, India signalled its intention to change the "narrative of India in climate change negotiations," arguing that it wanted to achieve a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen "even if it meant compromising on some aspects of its traditional position.’’ The Copenhagen summit failed but India emerged as an unlikely hero from the negotiations.
It is important to note that India is also a signatory to key international treaties such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), and the Ramsar Convention to Protect Wetlands, among others.
Rhetoric and grandstanding in international forums apart, over the last 50 years, India has put in place laws, regulations and standards, and established policies, institutions and programmes to deliver on its international environmental commitments. However, its achievements are best reflected in its abysmal rankings in the Environmental Performance Index and the World Inequality Report of 2022.
Clearly, the Indian government cannot continue to hide behind its poor and reduce its environmental standards for ease of doing business in the name of development.
India must ensure that it implements the very principles of environmental justice that it espouses in international arenas, at home first.
Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.