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Will India be wrong-footed in a new era in climate change politics?

In the past week, India (the world’s third largest emitter of carbon) has been bolted to attention by two announcements. First, president Barack Obama of the US (the world’s second largest emitter) vowed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by 30% by 2030. The very next day, China (the world’s largest emitter), announced its willingness to set absolute carbon targets from 2016 onwards. For India, this is worrying. It wants to avoid strict targets. In the past, its interests were aligned with those of the US and China. Now India fears it might be left alone out in the rain (or whatever else a changing climate might bring) when it comes to the Paris round of negotiations next year. This is part 1 looking at the changing international landscape. Part 2 will look at India’s options.

  • The US and Chinese climate moves are pragmatic, not principled
  • India loses two key allies in resisting binding carbon emissions limits
  • India wants unlimited carbon room for itself (to grow out of poverty), but strict climate action from others (India is extremely vulnerable to climate change). It is unlikely that it will get both

How India views climate change negotiations

In climate negotiations, India’s stance has been clear: Firstly, India does not accept any binding, external (internationally agreed) emissions caps. This could imperil the more important goal of development and ending poverty though industrialization. Secondly, India has very little responsibility for global climate change. Its per capita emissions are tiny compared with those of the developed world or even China. If you add a historical share (looking at a “carbon budget”) the historical responsibility is clearly with Europe, Japan and North America.

These are good arguments, no doubt. The only problem is this: If the rest of the world does not accept India’s arguments of fair carbon budgets and fails to reduce emissions significantly, Indians will suffer disproportionately. At Copenhagen, India therefore offered a more pro-active negotiating stance, based on the premise that India will never emit more on a per capita basis than developed nations. India also made a voluntary pledge to reduce its carbon intensity of GDP by 20-25% (based on 2005 levels). However, in coalition with China (and, more tacitly, the US and Japan), it prevented a binding, global emissions deal.

India’s alignment with China, Japan and the US at Copenhagen could only be a temporary one (refer). The countries’ interests are fundamentally out of sync: Their position in the economic development cycle and need for carbon emissions are different. Their vulnerability to climate change is different and their ability to deal with the effects of climate change is different. Actually, I would argue that India had more to gain than to lose from a global climate pact: placing limits on everybody’s freedom to emit might be more important than keeping one’s own unlimited freedom to emit. India is just too vulnerable to climate change (see picture).

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The US and China are selling themselves well

The US and China now seem to have changed their minds with respect to emissions. Their announcements, however, are not principled, but pragmatic. Partially, they just follow, rather than drive, developments on the ground. And partially, they aim at other benefits such as cost savings through efficiency, energy security or less local pollution that happen to align with lower carbon emissions and are hence conveniently re-minted in the diplomatic coin of “climate change action”.

Look at the US: instead of triggering climate action, the targets are barely stating the obvious. Driven by the shale gas findings and the subsequent coal-to-gas-shift, emissions have already fallen by 12% since 2005. Extrapolating this trend to 2030 yields much more than a 30% reduction in carbon emissions. (The question is: what happens, if the shale boom is smaller than expected?)

And now, look at China: He Jiankun, Chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, has said, “The government will use two ways to control CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap.” China’s next five-year plan starts in 2016. China’s energy economy is built on coal. But that is changing. Air pollution and water scarcity make coal less attractive, while renewables are getting more cost competitive and are being deployed at a vast scale. The Chinese energy market is changing for political and economic reasons. Luckily, this change also means a lower emissions intensity of GDP. Hence, accepting targets will come at no cost to China or the US. But it gives them leverage on other countries in international negotiations.

India needs to act

Given that the US and China have broken rank and might now pile onto India to accept legally binding emissions targets, India’s newly elected government needs to think of a new strategy soon. On the 23rd of September, there is an international climate summit in New York, hosted by the UN. This is the first time that heads of government will meet again since Copenhagen in 2009. In early 2015, national voluntary guidelines are to be announced. These national plans will determine the global climate course. So the next months are crucial for the next 10 years or more.

Tobias Engelmeier is the Director and Founder at BRIDGE TO INDIA. Twitter: @TEngelmeier

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