Turning Up the Heat on a Hot India

The U.S.-China climate deal has all eyes on India. But is New Delhi ready to commit to emissions targets?


This week’s landmark agreement by the United States and the People’s Republic of China proposing aggressive measures on carbon emissions sends an undeniably strong signal to the rest of the world. The United States was able to ratchet up its goals for absolute emissions cuts, and China — for the first time — formally committed to a peak emissions target.

While the action on its own isn’t enough to stick to the 2-degree Celsius limit agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, the joint announcement still sets an ambitious agenda in the run-up to the 2015 United Nations negotiations in Paris. China and the United States are the world’s first- and second-biggest emitters of carbon dioxide in absolute terms, and their deal puts the global community on notice that there is a renewed seriousness behind national contributions to arresting climate change.

Their progress now leaves India, the third-largest emitter, in an awkward situation if it too cannot commit to more aggressive action. Righting India’s energy mix is no small challenge. Nearly half of its total energy consumption comes from coal, according to analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As observers like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi have noted, that consumption is forecast to grow, even with the impressive strides India has made in the renewables and nuclear sector in an all-out effort to deliver on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to power every Indian home by 2022.

But it’s unclear how India feels about curbing emissions. While its government officials seem to recognize that climate change is a global problem even for developing nations, in public statements they have tended to shrug off their responsibility. Even before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, Indian officials had given some overt signals about their concern with how far ahead China was in its commitments to lowering emissions, which it voiced at the U.N. climate summit in September.

India has also tried to distance itself from its neighbor on economic grounds. In an interview with the Indian Express in early November, Suresh Prabhu, then an informal adviser to Modi on climate issues and Minister of Railways, indicated that India should not be compared to China when it comes to climate. "India has the largest number of poor people. Our income levels are several times lower than those of China. There is no way India could be asked to take the same kind of climate actions as China," he said, couching his concerns in the context of India’s poverty alleviation goals (China has 11 percent of its population living at poverty level of $1.25 a day; India has over 30 percent, according to World Bank data). India, he added, "has become a victim of this bracketing with China." The Indian government, under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Modi alike, have pledged reductions in carbon intensity (carbon dioxide per unit of GDP created), but not to absolute cuts.

That position seems increasingly untenable, especially after the Beijing deal. And outside analysts’ concern with India’s stance on climate change has only grown in recent months. Commentators cited Modi’s absence at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City in September as a signal of a lack of serious, high-level attention to the issue, with Indian environmentalist Anirvan Chatterjee calling his non-attendance "incredibly disappointing." While Modi’s decision not to speak at the summit was not an outright rejection of action on climate change, the perceived snub followed remarks he delivered to Indian students in early September that were widely interpreted as skeptical of climate change. At the event, India’s environment minister also gave a speech echoing the long-standing Indian position that climate change was a problem, but that the onus was on the developed world to lead efforts to fight it.

India’s reluctance to firmly commit to emissions reductions is hardly nefarious: its leaders genuinely believe that poverty reduction must come first. But in the wake of the deal between the United States and China, that will be a hard stance to preserve. Even former Indian officials like one-time Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh have begun to openly question this position.

That said, the debate over poverty reduction versus emissions reduction belies an encouraging reality. The Indian government, at both the federal and state level, has aggressively invested in renewables, especially solar. The government has also created a national adaptation fund to pursue additional alternative energy solutions. The impression remains, as Brookings Institution senior fellow William Antholis wrote, that New Delhi remains stuck to the rigid divisions between developed and developing world countries, allowing India to evade specific goals for emissions reductions.

While some Indian commentators have suggested that the United States-China deal will take pressure off of India to make a similarly grand gesture, the opposite is likely true. Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the original agreement that classified countries based on their historical contribution to emissions growth, India cannot, as a developing country, be forced to take specific action, and need not commit beyond what it has promised.

That old reality, however, may be rendered moot in light of this week’s events. Public perception of what is both acceptable and doable has shifted. The new normal for national commitments to carbon reductions suggests an accelerating momentum toward an ambitious international deal. And when viewed against the wider context of other recent bilateral announcements by the United States and China on trade, clean energy cooperation, and a tentative relaxation of military tensions, India may not be able to afford to be seen as a laggard.

With China no longer the world’s No. 1 recalcitrant climate power, India will find itself the target of increasing attention in the coming year. The last thing it should want to see is an emerging G-2 world, one where the United States and China set the global agenda and everyone else is either part of the problem or part of the solution. This week’s breakthrough trade deal on India’s stockpiling of food, which had derailed World Trade Organization facilitation talks due to a long period of aggressive Indian negotiation, gives some reason for optimism that, while protecting its interests, it is willing to advance the process.

So what is New Delhi likely to do now? The business-as-usual approach that Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar alluded to in his speech at the United Nations in September — that India would continue to increase emissions for 30 years — would seem to be a non-starter now. With India apparently caught off-guard by the climate change announcement, officials will have to rethink their approach.

But the international community can give India a boost. Though climate change is not on the formal agenda of this week’s G-20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, the pact between Washington and Beijing will certainly be a topic of conversation. Clarity about pledges by developed countries — particularly from the United States — to the Green Climate Fund, a U.N.-administered program meant to provide financial support to the developing world for emissions reduction and adaptation projects, would go a long way towards reassuring all of the developing world that commitments made at Copenhagen will not be overtaken by bilateral side agreements. And the summit along Australia’s Gold Coast would also be an ideal forum for further building momentum on liberalizing trade in green goods and services.

Such initiatives could be a promising first step towards ensuring that India sees the deal between the United State and China as the beginning of a wider process that both reduces carbon emissions and gives the developing world the tools it needs to grow and prosper. It is also an opportunity for the Modi government to seize the initiative and inject itself directly into the global campaign to finally turn the corner on climate change.

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