India's Stance on Climate Change
Its greenhouse gas emissions are among the world fastest-growing, but will the South Asian giant embrace new global climate change standards as it's still climbing out of poverty? by Joshua Kurlantzick
In recent years, the global debate on climate change often has come down to a standoff between two of the biggest powers, China and the United States, neither of which wants to be the first to accept mandatory emissions caps. But lost in the China-America battle, another rising power is on track to be one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas: India. And unfortunately, Delhi seems to have learned its lessons from Washington and Beijing, showing little desire to support progressive climate change legislation. Though India remains a poor country, with nearly 40 percent of the population unable to read, over the past decade its economy has taken off, and with it there's been a rash of new homes, apartments, factories, and car dealerships. On one visit to Delhi, I drove from the central city, where vendors pushing handcarts wove their way around piles of beggars, to the southern suburbs, where young tech workers shopped at upscale malls that wouldn't have been out of place in Palo Alto.
As a result of this boom, India's greenhouse gas emissions, already the fourth-largest in the world, will skyrocket over the next three decades; one study by the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2030, India's demand for energy will double and its imports of coal could rise nearly seven times. Already, India is highly dependent on the dirty fuel: The World Coal Institute estimates that 69 percent of its energy derives from coal. With rising incomes will come rising consumer demand, and a country where until recently it was virtually impossible to buy foreign cars has become one of the fastest-growing car markets on earth. To demonstrate its green credentials and show that it's ready to play at the table of major powers, Delhi this summer announced its first national climate change plan. The plan includes eight national "missions" India hopes to live up to, including conserving its natural resources and boosting spending on renewable energy. Announcing the plan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted the grave threat of climate change, using language the Bush White House never would have uttered: "There is a real possibility of catastrophic disruption of the fragile life-sustaining ecological system that holds this world together," Singh declared. *** Eager to leapfrog into new technologies, India has acted on some of these promises. According to a report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, India accounts for the most Clean Development Mechanism projects -- initiatives under the Kyoto Protocol that give nations emission credits for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- of any country. But even as it embraces cleaner development, India's government insists that because it is still a developing country and creates very little emissions per capita Delhi should not have to be a climate change leader. In the recent climate change plan, India included no firm commitments or plans for mandatory cuts in carbon emissions, and last year India, along with China, stalled a major climate change conference. India, officials often argue, has to provide cheap energy and infrastructure for its poor even if it does so in a less efficient manner. (To be fair, India's emissions are less than one-tenth of America's.) Or as the prime minister's special envoy on climate change, Shyam Saran, told reporters before the 2008 G8 summit: "There must…be a recognition that there is a difference between what I would call lifestyle emissions and survival emissions and these cannot be equated." Given this stance, India will be tough to win over in the next round of UN-sponsored climate change negotiations. Joyashree Roy, a professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata who studies climate change issues, thinks India has not written off the next round of talks, possibly because the country long has had close ties with the UN. "My understanding is India is not negative as they are making necessary preparations and trying to define and focus on its stand," she says. But Warwick McKibbin, an India expert affiliated with Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington, thinks that ultimately India will not support tough language in the next UN document. He says, "I would be surprised if any of the large developing countries -- particularly India -- expected to grow quickly in coming years would take on binding caps of the targets and timetables." There's little likelihood, he thinks, that India's strategy will change even if Barack Obama pushes the US toward mandatory caps. *** Unlike China, India is a democracy, and on the topic of climate change Indian politicians seem to have read their audience correctly. For the vast majority of India's poor, global climate change is an abstract issue that seems to have little to do with their daily, often hand-to-mouth, existence. Meanwhile, India's growing middle class appears to have bought into the "prosperity first" argument of development now that it's clawed its way out of centuries of poverty. In one recent poll, only 19 percent of Indians agreed that global warming is a "serious and pressing problem" that requires immediate action. And the Indian government plays to its audience: Speaking with Indian business leaders recently, the prime minister vowed that the government would take any measure to keep growth rates high. The country does have a vibrant environmental movement, led by high-profile local celebrities like God of Small Things author Arundhati Roy. But unlike in the United States or Europe, India's enviros mostly focus on local green issues, like controversial dams. India also has not developed a large group of politicians, like in the European Union, who've made green issues their focus. The fact that the head of the UN's Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, hails from India, also may help sway Delhi -- though many Indian analysts think this will not be enough. Yet the impact of climate change is already devastating parts of India. The country is dependent on monsoon rains for its huge agriculture sector, but in recent years the monsoons have become far less predictable and the country has suffered one massive drought after the next. The UN now predicts that global warming will spark food shortages in India. India's fabled tigers, already endangered, are also facing new pressures from climate change. Last month, Indian wildlife experts told the media that tigers in the Sundarban islands have begun attacking people because climate change forced them out of their natural habitat. Though its need to ensure the well-being of its human population is understandable, eventually India will learn -- along with the rest of us -- that de-prioritizing the mitigation of global warming is already having a raft of unintended, unforeseen, and dangerous consequences.