Diplomacy deficit

India wavers on including hydrofluorocarbons in Montreal Protocol meet agenda

By Uthra Radhakrishnan
Published: Saturday 30 November 2013

There was back-and-forth volley of questions between parties at the meeting, which concluded on October 25

IT was the opening plenary of the Montreal Protocol Meeting of the Parties in Bangkok. There was complete silence when A Duraiswamy, head of the Indian delegation, took the floor. He was loud and clear: Montreal Protocol is not the right forum to discuss hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); it is a greenhouse gas and not an ozone-depleting substance. For those following these negotiations, this should not have come as a surprise. This has been India’s stand all along. Yet, several parties expressed dismay, even shock. Duraiswamy was contradicting high-level political decisions taken not long ago. Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed to discuss HFCs under the Montreal Protocol with US President Barack Obama. This was followed by a G-20 communique, and finally came Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s agreement with Obama on the subject.

Surprisingly, Duraiswamy, in his opening remarks, told the US that India was bilaterally discussing HFC with it and once a decision was taken, the matter would be moved to Montreal Protocol. Such a position, favouring bilateral talks at a multilateral forum, did not go down well with others. Duraiswamy’s statement not only made the differences within India clear, but among countries as well. The ensuing back-and-forth volley of questions clearly showed which side of the HFC battle each country was on. Not surprisingly, the US, Micronesia and Canada, who, along with the European Bloc, want to bring HFCs under the purview of the Montreal Protocol, opposed the Indian stand at the meeting. Several developing countries wanted HFCs to remain under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). However, when India articulated its stance most vocally, only Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and later Cuba backed it at the plenary. India’s friends from the BASIC grouping—Brazil, South Africa and China—did not. Incidentally, while Duraiswamy stressed there was no alternative to HFCs, a Godrej board advertised the company’s hydrocarbon air-conditioner and refrigerator just outside.

Eventually, taking note of India’s reservations, a less formal discussion group was set up. Given the limited legal bearing such a group would have on the meeting’s decisions, parties were more open in discussing their real concerns about the harmful greenhouse gas. But here too, the Indian delegate did not fail to remind all present that HFCs did not simply belong here.

For countries from warmer regions, a major concern was how the alternatives to HFCs, tested only in northern temperate climes, would work under higher temperatures. Some countries pointed the need to set standards to address safety concerns, while others spoke about the MultiLateral Fund, the financial mechanism of Montreal Protocol. China accused the developed world of not stepping forth when funding was discussed. Argentina also gave constructive suggestions. India said the current model of financing was not suited for phasing out HFCs. While India’s concerns were not vastly different from those of many developing nations, Duraiswamy’s aggressive statements served only to club him with oil-exporting countries which are not looked upon favourably at environmental negotiations.

India’s stand comes with past political baggage. Earlier, it had an ally in China but with the recent developments, Beijing preferred to withdraw the alliance. The US’ longstanding reluctance to take on CO2 emission cuts does not help; clearly, it is almost tit-for-tat now. The US has long blocked negotiations under the UNFCCC by pushing its agenda. Now the Indian delegation appears not very different. India needs to take a stand where it leads and sets examples, not follow them.

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