NEW DELHI India may eventually commit itself to legally-binding emissions reduction targets, the environment minister said in remarks broadcast on Friday, a shift that could bolster troubled U.N. climate talks in Mexico.
India is the world's No. 3 greenhouse gas polluter after the United States and China, and rapid economic growth and consumption are driving up production of planet-warming carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, transport and industry.
But the government has long insisted it will not accept binding emissions reduction targets in any new climate deal because to do so would harm the economy and stall its aim to lift millions out of poverty.
But Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Cancun, said it was time to shift India's stance by accepting the need for cuts as part of a new legally binding climate pact.
"All countries must make binding commitments in appropriate legal form. This does not mean that India is for a legally binding commitment at this stage. That's our position," Ramesh told CNN-IBN news television channel.
"There are changing realities that we have to understand. Increasingly, more and more developing countries are asking questions of India, China and the United States, the three big countries saying they will not accept an international legally-binding agreement.
"I have nuanced our position ... Let's keep this discussion going, let's understand the sentiments of the rest of the world, and let's not be painted as the bad guy."
Talks on a deal to slow global warming were on a "knife edge" on Thursday in Cancun as Brazil and Japan expressed guarded hopes of ending a dispute between rich and poor about curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The long-running U.N. negotiations have stalled over disagreement between rich and poor nations over how much to cut greenhouse gas emissions and how to share the burden in any new agreement.
Developing nations have said they should not take on legally binding cuts when rich nations need to do more and that the rich are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas pollution over the past two centuries.
PRESSURE AT HOME
Ramesh's stand on eventually accepting binding targets was expected to be slammed by opposition parties back home and any serious political pressure on the government could force him to back down.
An Indian official confirmed Ramesh's remarks.
"What the minister said was that India is willing to open a dialogue on taking binding emission cuts going forward as a means to keep the negotiations meaningful and alive," an Indian official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters over the phone from Cancun.
"We will not take binding cuts as of now and that remains our position. But we are willing to discuss it, that is what we are saying. We are not closed to taking cuts but in what legal form we have to see that.
Another Indian official closely involved in climate talks said this could signal an "in principle" decision by New Delhi to remain flexible on accepting binding emission cuts going forward.
"The point is not whether you agree to do it now or some time in the future. The point is you have moved from a well entrenched stand to one that is malleable," the official said in New Delhi.
"It is a signal that the government has made a decision in principle to agree to cuts, and once that decision is made other things can be worked around it."
Last year's climate talks in Copenhagen ended with a non-binding accord instead of a new treaty to succeed the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol from 2013.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani)