Climate change activists in India have expressed criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision not to attend the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week.
The summit, organised by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to raise the political and public profile of the climate change crisis, was attended by more than 120 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama.
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Experts in India said that Modi’s presence at the summit would have helped change India’s image as an obstructionist in climate change negotiations.
“The prime minister should have prioritised the largest environmental gathering,” said Sanjay Vashist, director of the Climate Action Network South Asia. “It was an opportunity for India to sound proactive as well as call on the developed countries to be more ambitious in reducing carbon emissions.”
Observers are hoping that the next UN climate conference – which will be held in Peruvian capital Lima in December – will produce a negotiating text for a global agreement to be signed in Paris in 2015.
Experts in India pointed out that New Delhi’s concerns – the low level of carbon emission reductions by developed countries, the delay in providing climate finance, and the pressure on emerging economies to reduce carbon emissions, which dilutes the principle of equity – are justified.
But these experts said that India has failed to communicate its concerns to the world without sounding like it was blocking the talks.
“India is seen in a negative light. India’s engagement and communication is poor,” said Lavanya Rajamani, an expert on climate change from the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. “It is important for India to be constructive because the stakes are very high.”
Unlike the slow-moving negotiations on the global pact, which are carried out by government officials, the climate summit was a forum for world leaders to express their political commitment to raise $100bn a year for the Green Climate Fund by 2020. The fund was agreed upon at the Copenhagen summit to help poor countries adapt to climate change.
Around 2,500 climate change events and marches were held around the world in the days ahead of the summit in what has been described as “the largest climate mobilisation in history“.
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“Climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity, and opportunity for billions of people,” Ban said at the summit that was skipped by leaders of Russia, Australia, Germany, China, and Canada.
“Today we must set the world on a new course. Climate change is the defining issue of our age.”
The official reason given for Modi’s absence was a scheduling conflict. India was instead represented by its environment minister Prakash Javadekar, who said: “India remains committed to pursuing a path of sustainable development through eradication of poverty, both of income as well as energy.”
Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a veteran climate change negotiator for India, described such climate summits as a forum for making speeches by rich countries, which had shied away from ambitious reductions on carbon emissions.
“If you leave aside the rhetoric, the lack of action by the developed world is really quite pathetic,” he said.
Last week, scientists said that carbon dioxide emissions are set to reach a record high of 40 billion tonnes in 2014. The largest emitters are China at 29 percent, US at 15 percent, EU at 10 percent and India at 7.1 percent.
Scientists found that carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 grew by 5.1 percent in India, 4.2 percent in China and 2.9 percent in the US. The US still has the highest per person emissions of 16.4 tonnes followed by China at 7.2 tonnes and EU at 6.8 tonnes. India produces 1.9 tonnes emissions per person.
Modi’s absence from the summit also drew attention because of his recent remarks on climate change. At a televised interaction with school children on September 5, he said: “Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed. Our habits have got spoiled. Due to that, we have destroyed our entire environment.”
Speaking to college students, he said: “Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is this that in our family, some people are old… They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.”
Modi’s recent remarks are at odds with his 2011 e-book, in which he talks about generating 6,978 million KWH of wind energy in eight years and implementing a policy to generate 200,000 million KWH of solar power every year. Modi was chief minister of Western Gujarat state from 2001 until earlier this year.
Reflecting on the scepticism generated by Modi’s recent remarks, Dasgupta said: “He has done a great deal to improve the adaptive capacity of Gujarat state. To say that he is not serious about climate change, nothing could be more off the mark.”
Some observers suggested that he was being cautious since his remarks are now viewed as setting the policy on climate change.
“He is probably not ready for India to take on the burden. He doesn’t want empty slogans,” said Jyoti Parikh, director of the Integrated Research and Action for Development, who has served as a member of the prime minister’s council on climate change.
Some observers said that Modi government should be judged on its action rather than his remarks. These steps include changing the name of the ministry of environment and forests to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, establishing a $16m National Adaptation Fund, increasing the clean energy cess from $8m a tonne levied on coal to $16m a tonne, and allocation of a solar power budget of $163m.
“These are all positive signs but eventually the devil is in the detail. How soon will they get the adaptation programmes and more solar projects off the ground?” asked Srinivas Krishnaswamy, who heads the Vasudha Foundation, a Bangalore-based non-government organisation for sustainable development.
In Lima, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government will be taking the reins of the climate change negotiations from the Congress Party after 10 years. Experts said that the BJP is not likely to alter the existing strain of India’s negotiations, but some are expecting an even bigger push for clean technologies.
Climate change experts said that the Modi government’s main challenge in the next two years of negotiations would be better engagement with the other countries to ensure that India’s concerns were addressed in the global agreement.
“What India is asking for is justified. But the way it asks for it doesn’t work,” Vashist told Al Jazeera.