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Clinton, Indian Minister Clash Over Emissions Reduction Pact

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

GURGAON, India, July 19 The stage was set for a demonstration of how India and the United States could work together to reduce the impact of climate change: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touring an environmentally friendly "green" office building on the outskirts of the sprawling capital of New Delhi.

But the clash between developed and developing countries over climate change intruded on the high-profile photo opportunity midway through Clinton's three-day tour of India. Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh complained about U.S. pressure to cut a worldwide deal, and Clinton countered that the Obama administration's push for a binding agreement would not sacrifice India's economic growth.

As dozens of cameras recorded the scene, Ramesh declared that India would not commit to a deal that would require it to meet targets to reduce emissions. "It is not true that India is running away from mitigation," he said. But "India's position, let me be clear, is that we are simply not in the position to take legally binding emissions targets."

"No one wants to in any way stall or undermine the economic growth that is necessary to lift millions more out of poverty," Clinton responded. "We also believe that there is a way to eradicate poverty and develop sustainability that will lower significantly the carbon footprint."

Both sides appeared to be playing to the Indian audience, with Ramesh taking the opportunity to reinforce India's bottom line.

Before the visit, U.S. officials were acutely aware that the Indian government has faced criticism at home for making what they considered relatively modest concessions on reducing greenhouse emissions at a meeting of major economies this month. A leaked e-mail from former Indian negotiator Surya Sethi to other negotiators -- in which he asserted the decision would make India poorer -- generated a firestorm here.

Clinton was prepared to argue that countering climate change could actually lift India's economy, not undermine it. U.S. officials also believe, as one put it, that "developing countries are willing to do more than they are willing to agree to."

Todd D. Stern, the administration's special envoy for climate change, has accompanied Clinton on her tour of India. Though U.S. officials said that Stern's visit had been coordinated with Indian officials, the Indian establishment's nervousness was reflected in one newspaper's headline on Saturday: "Climate Man's Visit Shocks India."

The visit to the "green" building -- the brick-and-sandstone headquarters of the hotel division of Indian tobacco giant ITC Ltd. -- began amicably. The building appears undistinguished from the outside, but Alwyn Noronha, an ITC executive vice president, explained to Clinton that the building has a 30 percent smaller carbon footprint than a similar-size building, cutting energy use in half through innovations such as an L-shaped design that allows a maximum use of natural light.

Clinton likened the squat, plain-looking building -- which was constructed with U.S. assistance -- to a new version of the Taj Mahal, grandly declaring it was "a monument to the future."

After the tour was over, the American and Indian delegations settled into a conference room for a closed-door chat. Ramesh opened with a blunt statement that took four minutes to read.

"There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions," Ramesh told Clinton. He asserted that "detailed modeling" showed "unambiguous" results -- that developing country emissions would remain well below the averages of developed countries even with high growth rates.

At the meeting, Clinton responded that she "completely" understood India's argument about per capita emissions, according to the notes of a U.S. reporter permitted to observe the discussion. "On one level, it's a fair argument," she said, but she argued that the per capita argument "loses force" as developing countries rapidly become the biggest emitters.

Ramesh replied that India's position on per capita emissions is "not a debating strategy" because it is enshrined in international agreements. "We look upon you suspiciously because you have not fulfilled what [developed countries] pledged to fulfill," he jabbed, calling it a "crisis of credibility."

The tone of the nearly one-hour meeting appeared to become less strained as Clinton acknowledged some of Ramesh's points and repeatedly stressed the United States was not trying to limit India's growth.

'We want an international agreement," Ramesh said, but whether one can be reached at a major climate summit scheduled for December in Copenhagen will depend on being creative, leveraging international technology and especially "international capital is going to be key."

Clinton emerged from the session to declare that the discussion was "very fruitful" and that she saw the potential for narrowing differences between the two countries on the contentious issue. "We have many more areas of agreement than perhaps had been appreciated," she told reporters.

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