Meeting Shyam Saran

Shyam SaranInternational negotiations on a successor climate change agreement to the Kyoto Protocol are intensifying and will culminate in critical talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. Worldwatch Fellow Anna da Costa recently caught up with Shyam Saran, India's Climate Change Special Envoy, to get the latest on India's position in the ongoing discussions.

You recently returned from the interim United Nations talks in Bonn, where you issued a statement that you were disappointed with the progress so far, yet optimistic about a positive conclusion. How do you feel things were left? What are the biggest sticking points that remain?

One has to remain optimistic that we will come to an outcome that not only satisfies us as negotiators, but much more importantly meets the concerns of the citizens of the globe.... Negotiators are beginning to realize the enormity of the challenge we face and will hopefully receive the kind of political direction required to help us really look for common ground.... I hope that this will happen in the next few months...[as] things start accelerating...

As far as sticking points...they are the same as they have been for the last couple of years. Firstly, we still do not have any clarity around...the emission reduction targets that the developed, industrialized world is ready to sign on to.... Hopefully in the next few months...we will.... Secondly are of course resources. Although developing countries are on the whole very committed to following a path of sustainable development, we too need to scale  up our efforts if there is to be a very significant deviation from "business as usual." However, unless these efforts are supported by adequate resources, both in terms of technology as well as funding, it is difficult to see how we can bear that burden.

There is still a lack of clarity in terms of the package that will emerge at Copenhagen in this respect, despite a considerable amount of deliberation at Bonn. It is not that we did not make progress at Bonn, it just needs to be much faster.

India was the first country in the world to appoint a Special Envoy on Climate Change, back in April of 2008. What led Prime Minister [Manmohan] Singh to make this decision?

The Prime Minister felt climate change needed very high priority in terms of government policy, and in support of this [he] set up the Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change, together with elaborating a National Action Plan on Climate Change. He appointed a Special Envoy firstly to lead the multilateral negotiations in which India is involved, bringing the effort together as a coherent strategy..., and secondly to coordinate the National Action Plan missions domestically to make sure that the different plans we came up with were harmonized.

When are the detailed mission strategy documents due to be released?

We were hoping to finish the exercise by the end of last year, but as we started brainstorming - not only within government but in collaboration with business and industry, NGOs, and academics - the need to spend more time on the planning became clear, to come up with a document that is both ambitious and realistic. Ambitious because the nature of the challenge we face is enormous and therefore demands  an ambitious response.

Even though it is taking us more time than predicted, I think it is time well spent, as it is enabling us to come up with plans that are much more realistic and which have drawn upon the expertise of a very large number of stakeholders. We hope to complete the exercise in the next few months, but...with upcoming national elections... the process might be delayed somewhat. However we are very much on track.

If another party does come into power, post-elections, what would happen to the National Action Plan?

If you look at the major party manifestos, you will see that all of them recognize climate change as an issue that needs to be dealt with. Much of the work that has been done for the Action Plan has been done with a lot of professional expertise, and I have no reason to believe that even if a different party comes into power there will be any less emphasis put on climate change and much of the work that has been done under this government will, I am confident  be carried forward.

You met with top U.S. climate officials on your recent visit to Washington. What are your impressions following this visit? What did you make of your new U.S. counterpart, Todd Stern, and would you say his views are reflected across the U.S. government?

Firstly, we welcome the fact that climate change is now really at the top of the U.S. policy agenda.... We are very happy to see that the United States approach to climate change issues is quite convergent with ours. Climate change and energy security really are two sides of the same coin, and unless you can make a strategic shift from a reliance on fossil fuels to an economic pattern that is essentially based on renewable sources of energy, neither will you have energy security nor will you be able to deal with the issue of climate change. It is a twin challenge.... President Obama's renewable energy initiative shows this convergence strongly, and there was a very enthusiastic response to our willingness to set up some sort of renewable energy partnership. 

....The conversations I had with Todd Stern also indicated [the U.S.] intention for the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] to be the key negotiating forum to which they would like to bring U.S. commitments. They further highlighted a belief in the need for a certain political push to these negotiations, from the highest level, and in that context the U.S. propose[s] carrying forward the Major Economies Meeting, but in a somewhat different form-as the Energy and Climate Forum, to meet on the sidelines of the G8 Summit in July in Italy. The aim would be both to see if we can develop a political consensus...among the major economies on some of the key negotiation issues, and to see whether there are areas of collaboration which could be encouraged. These could include, for example, clean coal initiatives, solar energy,  R&D, and... some kind of a technology collaboration package.

But this is something that is still in very initial stages in terms of deliberations between India and the U.S., and of course the larger grouping. There will be a number of preparatory meetings for this, ...so maybe we will get some clarity on this there. I must emphasize, however, that...this process, whilst providing a very important function, cannot replace or run in parallel to the multilateral negotiations as the place where decisions are taken. We have conveyed this to the United States, and I think they understand that.

U.S. officials and experts say that unless India and China make additional commitments to slowing the growth in their emissions, it will be impossible to get the U.S. Congress to adopt climate legislation or to ratify a Copenhagen agreement.  How did you react to these arguments when you were in Washington?

There was a very clear understanding of the fact that, firstly, India's total emissions are still very small compared to the USA or even China, and, secondly, India's per capita emissions are even lower in comparison with the rest of the world, including many developing countries. As such, even if India has to take on commitments, this is not something that needs to happen now. As far as India, China and other developing countries are concerned, however, there is certainly an expectation that they should sign on to some mitigation of their emissions path.... In this respect, India is already following a path of sustainable development, made evident by the decoupling of its carbon emissions from its economic growth - showing a 4 percent increase in emissions with an 8 to 9 percent growth in economy over the last ten years.

However, we can do better. This is what the National Action Plan is all about. I took advantage of my visit to Washington to brief people in government, on Capitol Hill, and in many think-tanks about what India is doing in its National Action Plan - and how we are deploying our own resources, without waiting for any kind of global support, not only to deal with the rather significant burden of adaptation to climate change which has already taken place and is continuing to take place, but also to put in place projects that will allow us to further improve energy efficiency and decrease the rate of emission increase.... I think this has been appreciated.

We have, of course,...taken the view that our ability to further mitigate our emission growth will very much be dependent on the kind of package that emerges from Copenhagen. If there is a supportive global regime, our ability to further enhance the sustainability of our development will be much more. We would also be very happy to explore any collaborative projects to facilitate this shift.

Studies have identified a very strong potential for renewables in India and globally - indicating, for example, the potential for India to capture 69 percent of its electricity-generation needs and 70 percent of its heating and cooling needs from renewables, in a timeframe as short as 2030. Do you think India's national strategy will aim to capture this opportunity in full? If not, what would be the key enablers for this?

It is very difficult for us to make a prediction as to how much renewable energy we will be able to use by 2030. What I can say is that we have recognized that both for energy security as well as for climate change, we have to make an accelerated shift to renewables. So the strategy is there. The question is how to implement it and at what scale.

Taking the national mission on solar energy as an example, we are already looking at a very major scale-up of solar energy use and technological innovation in this field. Due to the intensity of sunlight present in India, solar has the potential for scale-up that very few countries can capture. We also have the scientific and technical resources...in terms of R&D effort, for example, around storage technologies and improving the efficiency of existing applications. Now if these efforts are successful, then obviously in a 2030 timeframe we will be able to expand much more significantly than may be conceivable at this time.

If we can achieve cost parity with coal-based electricity generation, then the sky is the limit in terms of the capacity that you can create. We are certainly trying to move towards that kind of level, but whether we will be able to achieve it by that time is...an open question. ...[W]hatever we can do to collaborate with other countries, such as the United States or some countries in Europe - like Germany, for example - we would welcome.

In the meantime, we will try to expand solar energy use as much as we can through a regulatory and incentive framework which enables us to scale up as quickly as possible.... That policy is in place: the government has said our strategy is to bring about that shift from reliance on fossil fuels to a greater use of non-conventional and renewable sources of energy. In that context...nuclear energy will also be a very important component.

China's chief economist recently proposed an interesting mechanism of defining countries not as "developed" or "developing," but rather on the basis of their Human Development Index within the UNFCCC. What do you make of this proposal?

We have seen this proposal, although it does not seem to reflect the official Chinese negotiating position. There are a number of ideas floating around with respect to what is the basis on which we construct a mitigation regime. We will look at them, but again emphasise the fact that we already have a consensus document in the UNFCCC. We also have more or less a consensus document in the Kyoto Protocol, even if the USA had not ratified it.

And therefore for us...it makes sense to continue to work on the basis of something that the international community has already signed on to, rather than put this aside and look for new solutions on which...you will have to develop some kind of international consensus. Do we really have the time to develop that kind of new construct? I'm afraid if I look at the way the negotiations are going today, under the UNFCC, we are not anywhere near constructing a new consensus.

If you could see three things at the Copenhagen meeting that you feel would truly help to make it a success, what would they be?

A very important part of the package will be how significant are the mitigation commitments that the developed, industrialized countries are willing to take on.... If in the developed, industrialized world, the rhetoric is "we are facing an elemental challenge, and we need to have an urgent and scaled-up response," then this will be the litmus test. Are you ready to take on the kind of emission reduction targets which are necessary in order to deal with it?

This does not mean that developing countries like India do not have a responsibility.... Not only do we have a responsibility, we have a very major stake in the success of Copenhagen, because we are the ones who are going to be most impacted by climate change. Our margin of safety is very narrow. The perception that somehow developing countries like India are not interested in climate change is a complete distortion. We are perhaps much more interested than others are. Therefore, we are of course ready to do what is required of us, in terms of making sure that the development path which we follow is a sustainable path. And the strategy that...India has adopted is a demonstration of the position in this country that we have to make this change. There is no escape from it.

But equally important...will be the two other elements that must emerge from Copenhagen, which relate to resources. First, what is the world ready to do in terms of technological collaboration? ... Is the world ready to put together a technological package that will deliver the kind of...innovations and breakthroughs that are required to deal with climate change? Second, if we want to make such a shift, that adjustment will require resources.... Who pays is a very important issue in the negotiations. We are already paying - and we are prepared to pay more - but in terms of the challenge that we are facing, obviously those who have a certain historical responsibility for what we are facing today, and those who have the capability in terms of available resources, have to make a more significant contribution than they are ready to do. If we have these three elements in the package, I think we are doing well.