When climate change negotiations ended on Saturday in Tianjin, China, it was on yet another bleak note. The gathering was the final meeting before the U.N. Climate Change Conference gets underway in Cancun in November, and the first time that such a high-level meeting has been convened in China. The U.S. and China continued to lock horns on an emissions target, with the U.S. deputy special envoy for climate change hinting that the U.S. might go outside the ambit of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to forge a new deal with other key economies. India's environment minister and chief climate change negotiator Jairam Ramesh spoke to TIME about India's stand in such an eventuality, and the challenges he faces to chart out a green path for India.
TIME: If the U.S. tries to seal a climate deal outside the UNFCCC, what will be India's stand?
Jairam Ramesh: There is a lot of frustration with the UNFCCC; I can understand. But it is the only game in town. It is the only multilateral agreement. It is also a legally binding agreement of sorts. We will have to resist attempts to balkanize the UNFCCC, but there are other areas where we can certainly have an [outside] agreement, such as on forestry, which is ripe for an international agreement.
India recently announced a new climate plan that identifies renewable energy as a key element. How plausible is a low-carbon economy for India, given the nation's dependence on coal-based energy and the high costs involved in switching over?
We have made a commitment that we will reduce our emissions intensity to GDP by 20-25% by 2020 on 2005 reference levels. I am 100% sure that we will improve on this target. But we can't take on absolute emission cuts like the Europeans firstly because we didn't cause the problem of global warming, and secondly because we have a huge developmental backlog. For example, we have 300-400 million people to whom we have to extend electricity.
India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases at the moment. Does it worry you that India might overtake the U.S. and China to become the world's biggest carbon emitter?
There is no danger of India overtaking China on emissions. China is number one in the world, with 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. is at 20-21%. India is only at about 5%. We are not in that league.
Is India looking toward developing better regional cooperation in combating climate change?
I look upon cooperation in environment as a strategic tool for building regional ties with our neighbors. We are looking at regional programs in glaciology with China, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. India has given $1 million to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Coastal Zone Management Center in the Maldives, and $1 million to the SAARC Forestry Center in Thimpu. We also have [signed] the SAARC convention on environment in April this year, and we have a joint Sundarbans Eco-System Forum between India and Bangladesh.
How do you balance out major development, like India is undertaking, with protecting the environment?
Economic growth is our overriding priority; there is no doubt that we have to grow at 8 to 9% a year. But as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had asserted many years back, economic growth but not at the cost of environment, not at the cost of nature, not at the cost of our forests, mountains, rivers and land. So we have to find that balance between environment and development. So far we have focused on the fiscal aspect of economic growth. Now we have to think about the environmental aspects of our growth.
If that's the case, then how is it that India is still reeling under its e-waste problem? According to a new report from the United Nations, there will be a 500% growth over the next 10 years in computer waste in India alone.
We have promulgated some new e-waste rules. Our e-waste regulations are very tight at present and are comparable to the best of the world. I agree that our infrastructure for dealing with e-waste or hazardous waste in general is inadequate. We have signed a $90 million project with the World Bank not only for e-waste, but chemical waste in general. We have over 140 legacy sites that need to be decontaminated and remedied. We will be beginning with 10 sites in the beginning but we need to expand this. For e-waste specifically we have set up a couple of new integrated facilities. But I do I agree that these are issues that have not engaged our attention in the past.
There has also been a long-standing debate about India's river interlinking project. [The project planned to link around 14 Himalayan rivers in North India and 16 peninsular rivers in South India in order to ensure an equal distribution of water in drought and flood-prone areas.] When you assumed office in 2009, you nixed the project, calling it an ecological disaster.
I have very serious concerns about large-scale river linking projects that tamper with nature. They have immense ecological consequences and human costs. As I have become older I have tended to become more suspicious of techno-fixes. These are basically human and social issues. The whole river linking thing was an engineering fantasy which did not take into account the human and social factors.
From halting work at POSCO's steel plant to canceling Vedanta's clearance for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri Hills, over the last few months your ministry has been reigning in errant companies.
We cannot have blind economic growth. We must have economic growth that is sensitive to the concerns of people. There are lots of issues on land acquisition, environment. Environment today in India is becoming a serious public health issue and is not anymore a middle class elitist pastime. So we have to listen to the people. There has been no bigger champion of the Indian private sector than me. Long before economic reforms and liberalization became fashionable in India, from the early 80s, I have been advocating that we must privatize, bring in the private sector, redefine the role of the government and so on and so forth. Many of these people against whom I am supposed to be taking tough actions are my friends. But there is no such thing as friendship over here. I have a job to do, I have to enforce the law. So, no matter however close someone is to me if he is breaking the law he is breaking the law and action has to be taken against him.
Some critics have said that securing the rights of India's indigenous groups has been lopsided and slow.
An expert committee is looking at the whole issue of implementation. I expect the report in December. With regards to individual forest rights, around 900,000 cases have been implemented till date. However, community forest rights implementation has been very small. Not recognizing community rights all over the country is one of the weaknesses of the act. That is something we need to address.
Is charting a green path for India challenging, or frustrating?
I wouldn't call it frustrating. Challenging, yes, even thankless but not frustrating. I make one decision and the environmentalists are very happy, but the growth guys are unhappy; then I take another decision the growth guys are very happy, the environmentalists are very unhappy. I cannot please everybody.