Why India is playing hard to get on climate change

If U.S. diplomats consider India to be a major obstacle to global climate-change negotiations — and they do — it might be because of Sunita Narain. The director of the influential Centre for Science and Environment, Narain can be as caustic as she is intelligent, and never more so than when she is taking rich nations to task for what she sees as their hypocrisy on global warming.
Elephants walk past traffic in New Delhi
Elephants walk past traffic in New Delhi

If U.S. diplomats consider India to be a major obstacle to global climate-change negotiations — and they do — it might be because of Sunita Narain.

The director of the influential Centre for Science and Environment, Narain can be as caustic as she is intelligent, and never more so than when she is taking rich nations to task for what she sees as their hypocrisy on global warming.

They pressure the developing world to control carbon emissions even as they refuse to move themselves, she says.

“The rich have to reduce their emissions so the rest of the world can grow,” says Narain, speaking in her office in New Delhi. “This is about sharing growth between nations and people. If we can’t, then India has to be a naysayer for a bad climate agreement.”

India has emerged as a keystone for global climate-change negotiations, and so far its role has indeed been mostly negative.

The country of more than 1 billion — a populace that encompasses the very rich and the very poor, and whose carbon emissions are microscopic on a per capita basis but massive overall — is uniquely vulnerable to global warming yet suspicious of international efforts to stop it.

As a leader of the bloc of developing nations, India has repeatedly argued that since rich nations like the U.S. are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, they should take the lead on cutting emissions before asking the developing world to step in.

The result is a global standoff. The U.S. has been reluctant to cut emissions unless major developing nations — meaning India and China — take steps of their own on a global level.

The conflict has stifled international climate negotiations for years, and threatens to scuttle the vital U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen next month.

“The developed–developing country divide that has run down the center of climate-change discussions for the past 17 years is still, I’m afraid, alive and well,” said Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy on climate change, speaking to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Nov. 4.

But while China has earned plaudits from Western environmentalists in recent months for its green policies — including hundreds of billions in government spending on renewable energy — and its newfound flexibility on climate change, India is often cast as the spoiler, a country that wants the right to continue emitting carbon with impunity while insisting that the West takes on strict caps.

India has come to be seen less as an impoverished nation than an economic competitor, which aims to use climate-change negotiations as another way to catch up, and perhaps surpass, the West.

“It’s an image that plays to the fears of people: ‘First they take away our jobs to Bangalore, now they want to take away our cars,’” says Narain.

It’s worth asking whether that image is rooted in reality. Like China, India is a major developing power — indeed the country is rising, its economy having grown more than 7% in 2008, even during the recession.

Major Indian firms like Infosys and Tata Group are world leaders. Yet the reality is that much of the country is still unimaginably impoverished — a third of the world’s poor live in India, more than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, its per capita carbon emissions are miniscule — just 2.77 tons of CO2 equivalent, compared with 19.81 tons for the average American and 4.4 tons on average for the world as a whole.

Less than half of India’s population has access to grid electricity — and even those that do suffer frequent brownouts.

There are just 12 cars per 1,000 people in India, compared to more than 800 in the U.S., and thanks to stiff taxes, gasoline and diesel cost more in India than in the U.S. or China.

Even in their diet, Indians put significantly less pressure on the planet: Indians eat one twenty-fifth the amount of meat that Americans do, and their mainly vegetarian food source emits a lot less carbon.

“India has gotten its income through very low levels of energy intensity compared to the E.U. or the U.S.,” says Girish Sant, a coordinator with the Prayas Energy Group.

The main reason that India emits so much less carbon than the U.S. — and will continue to do so for decades — is, of course, because it is poor. Energy equals wealth, and right now, energy still equals carbon.

So when Indian diplomats argue that it is unfair to expect their country to accept limits on growth to combat a problem that Western nations are still overwhelmingly responsible for, it’s hard not to be sympathetic.

“If the U.S. is concerned about a depression [due to carbon caps], we are concerned about keeping our people in poverty for another three generations,” says Prodipto Ghosh, a former Indian climate negotiator.

But there’s no avoiding the fact that India and other developing nations will emit the majority of future greenhouse-gas emissions.

Any global deal that allows them to continue business as usual — as the Kyoto Protocol did — may perhaps seem fair, but it won’t be effective. And with developing nations like India set to bear the brunt of the early impacts of global warming, their economic growth will be imperiled if the world can’t break its deadlock on climate change.

The issue is further complicated by science: new research suggests that black carbon — pollution produced through biomass burning and diesel exhaust, which is far more common in developing nations — has a significant impact on climate change.

That would suggest that poorer nations like India might have a bigger hand in current warming than we’d long assumed. “Going eye for an eye on climate change is going to make us all blind,” says V. Ramanathan, a climatologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has long studied black carbon.

Officially, the Indian government has adhered adamantly to its stance in global negotiations: the West goes first, and pays. But there may be signs that the country’s position could be evolving.

The Indian media reported last month that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him to break away from the developing-nations bloc and negotiate more directly with rich countries at the upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen.

“We should be pragmatic and constructive, not argumentative and polemical,” the minister wrote. Though Singh later said that India’s position would not change, Ramesh’s advice is smart — as a major power, India must step up for Copenhagen to work.

With a month to go, it’s far from clear that will happen. The last round of U.N. negotiations before Copenhagen concludes this week in Barcelona, where little progress was made. African nations all but walked out on the talks, while the U.S. still waited on cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate, and India remained India.

What is clear is that the first step in a successful outcome in Copenhagen will need to come from the U.S., the country responsible for nearly a quarter of the CO2 that is warming our planet.

India and other developing nations will have to follow. It’s not exactly fair, but there’s nothing fair about climate change.


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