Stuck with symbolism

Do the Indian leaders know just what they are putting their signatures to?

Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

india's decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is commendable -- it shows a commitment to multilateralism at a time when unilateralism threatens to strangle any hope that the world will ever function as a democracy.

However, before we go overboard with praise for the Indian government for believing in global solutions to global problems, let us stop to consider exactly what the cabinet has agreed to put its signature on. The Kyoto Protocol is an agreement aimed at reducing harmful emissions in industrialised countries, thus saving the world's population from dangerous climate change. Does the existing agreement achieve that aim? No it does not. Not even in the unlikely event that the us suddenly becomes a responsible nation and agrees to make the seven per cent cut it had agreed to when the Protocol was being negotiated, before George Bush rejected the agreement in its entirety. The current agreement is no solution to global warming -- its value lies in its being symbolic of a hitherto unproven intention of rich countries (excluding the us) to cooperate with one another to deal with climate change.

That alone should be enough to make us uncomfortable -- after all, we are extremely vulnerable to the changes that global warming will bring, and are likely to suffer the most if symbolism replaces firm action to control climate change. But there's more. Although India does not have commitments under the Protocol right now, with the ratification, the country would confirm its willingness to be bound by the agreement in future. Do we want that? Does it take into account the basic rights of Indian citizens?

Once again, far from it. The Protocol follows an ad hoc approach to setting reduction targets. Those responsible for the maximum pollution are not penalised the most. This is a dangerous approach for India to sign on to. It could land us in hot water in the not too distant future, when rich countries decide it is time to use their financial muscle and force developing countries to take on emission reductions.

While India's track record of signing on to environmental treaties with such alacrity may give the country a green image globally, we cannot but wish that our leaders cared a little more about the quality of the agreements they ratify. For the time being, we can only console ourselves by viewing the ratification as our country's contribution to promoting cooperation.

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