top of page

Cancun Climate Talks: Mexico finds its mojo and India emerges a winner

by Malini Mehra

The UN climate conference’s surprise outcome was not pre-determined. Just two weeks ago, most scribes had written off the prospects of an agreement - in keeping with a whole year of downplaying expectations. Copenhagen had handed Cancun a poisoned chalice and the bitter taste lingered.

No-one wanted a repeat of the stratospheric expectations, incoherent political process, murky last-minute deals and crushing results. Both trust and nerves had been shredded.

The Latins lead

The Mexican hosts listened – they promised an inclusive and transparent process, and delivered. The sustained applause, the multiple standing ovations that followed COP 16 President, Patricia Espinosa, as she gavelled through the agreement at 3:30am on 11 December were there for a reason. They were borne out of pure wonder, longing, pleasure and relief that the moment had arrived – the battered climate process had rescued itself. Did having women in charge make a difference? You bet it did. Mexico’s foreign secretary, Patricia Espinosa, and Costa Rica’s Christina Figueres, the new Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, were a powerful double act. They knew just how much was riding on a successful conclusion to the talks and hit the right personal note at every step.

This is the human and emotional context in which India’s shifting position on climate must be seen. Negotiations are not just about red lines, rationality and hardball positions, they are about psychology, atmosphere and relationships. This is the backdrop against which a break with the past was made.

India develops nuance

The truth is that India’s position has been evolving ever since environment minister, Jairam Ramesh took,office in May 2008. This is a good thing. From the acceptance of the 2 degree Celsius limit at L’Aquila in 2008, to Ramesh’s imaginative proposals on technology, international consultation and analysis this year, to his consensus-building language on the legal form of the agreement in the last days of Cancun, we have seen a steady evolution of the Indian position on climate change.

Ramesh has combined style with substance to bring new standing to India in the climate negotiations. He quickly understood the sticky issues around finance, monitoring and verification and worked hard to find solutions to release the pressure valves. In doing so he demonstrated that he had skin in the game and was willing to be a problem-solver and consensus builder.

A refreshing change from the traditional role of India as ideological blocker – long on pompous rhetoric and short on constructive action.

Climate and national interests

The UN climate negotiations are probably the most complex, technically demanding and politically charged. They are far-reaching in scope and the stakes could not be higher. But they have become ossified with negotiators unable to see the wood for the trees, or craft an effective collective response to growing warnings of climate calamity.

At root this is because governments do not fully understood what their national interests are in terms of climate change. If they did, there would be less talk of national sovereignty and more of collective effort. India is a case in point.

India’s failed approach

For more than a decade our policymakers acted as if climate change was somebody else’s problem. The west was to blame and we were victims. In a neatly-ordered world all we had to do was make strenuous demands for per capita equity as a populous third world nation, and we would deservedly get our fair share of global environmental space. The world owed us. In the real world, the dialogue of the deaf in the UN climate negotiations continued and the poles began to melt faster. We kept doing the same thing and kept getting the same results. During this lost decade, we did not address the critical issue of our own domestic climate risks, impacts or lack of resilience. We failed to give our industry a head start to prepare for a low-carbon competitive future, and we failed to address the adaptation needs of our poorest and most vulnerable.

Not because we couldn’t have. But we chose not to. India has no shortage of wealth or entrepreneurialism. We have no dearth of intellectual, scientific or technological talent. What we have is a dearth of vision and belief in ourselves.

The Jairam effect

Enter Jairam Ramesh. In one year he has been a one-man motor of change with a lorryload of ideas and the energy to put them in motion. We now have a pro-active climate policy that seeks to understand and address India’s risks while playing a constructive leadership role internationally.

For the first time we have our scientific assets systematically deployed to study climate impacts on India. We have an environment ministry that seeks to enforce its own laws and stand-up to vested interests. Under Ramesh, transparency is fast becoming the norm and the ministry’s website has set new standards for content, disclosure and design. No other minister in the entire Indian government addresses citizens so directly using his web platform.

Such open government is not for everyone and Ramesh has done little to strategically mobilise a domestic support base. He has his share of detractors and India’s climate politics are still dominated by the cold warriors. But his reforms have thumping resonance.

A recent Sanctuary Asia poll on his decision to commit India to a leadership role in Cancun resulted in a 94% approval rating. Young people and entrepreneurs, in particular, are keen on his focus on solutions and the business opportunities inherent in such an approach.

New role for India At Cancun, Ramesh’s effectiveness lay in his skill in reading the political tea leaves. He realised moral authority now lay with the newly-assertive small island states and poorer nations. As the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases India had a responsibility to curb its own emissions.  New alliances such as the Cartagena Dialogue had emerged bringing together rich and poor nations on a shared progressive agenda challenging the old order. The significance of these new alignments has been little remarked in the Indian media. As a result, political discussion is ill-informed and out of date. To appreciate Ramesh’s stance one has to understand the changed negotiating environment and expectations of India as a rising power. The Cancun Agreements will not arrest climate change. As UNEP’s recent report shows, we still have a mountain to climb to close the gap between current and projected emissions to remain below 2 degrees C of warming. Cancun’s significance lies in its restorative function. The multilateral system was re-booted and nations did the rare thing of embracing in the political equivalent of a group hug and vowing to work together. Licence for leadership India emerged as a star at Cancun because of Ramesh. Effective diplomacy requires risk-taking and he helped make things work. If we are to build on this, we will need better informed parliamentary and public discussion so that politicians can gain a mandate for leadership. This has been Ramesh’s Achilles heel but it says less about him and more about the state of the climate debate in India. What is clear is that we need a debate not just about our domestic duties, but our international obligations as an emerging power in an interdependent world threatened by climate change. The good news is that under Ramesh we have finally made a start. Malini Mehra is founder and chief executive of the Centre for Social Markets For more like this, please visit Malini’s blog ‘Honest Opinion’ on the India Climate Portal:

Recent Posts

See All

A Thought Hamper from Tomorrow's Company

To celebrate the season, please enjoy our Tomorrow’s Company Thought Hamper, a selection of the most interesting, exciting or thought provoking things we’ve been devouring this year. We hope you find


bottom of page