Climate change may well be the most significant environmental problem of our time — significant not just for its portentous consequences, which are severe, but for its ability to test humankind’s collective conscience to take moral responsibility for a problem of its own making. If the ongoing international negotiations are any indication, the world community is yet to come of age. Since its inception, the climate negotiations have witnessed intense bickering between and within the industrial and developing world over who should take responsibility in averting climate change.
India, along with China, Brazil and others, argues that it is inequitable to ask developing countries, which have played little part in creating the problem, to take on greenhouse gas reduction commitments. There is legitimacy to this position. Countries like the US, which with a mere 4 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for 24 per cent of the world’s emissions, have rejected reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol; India with one-sixth of the world’s population is responsible for a mere 4.7 per cent of the world’s emissions.
It is in recognition of this powerful equitable rhetoric, enshrined in the climate change treaties as the ‘principle of common but differentiated responsibility’, that developing countries do not as yet have reduction commitments.
India’s energy use, however, will change dramatically in the near future. If its current growth rate continues, energy demand will double by 2020. In addition, if India’s targets on poverty, unemployment and literacy in the 11th Five Year plan are to be met, it will lead to greater energy use. India, then, will soon be a significant contributor to the problem. While the equitable rhetoric may serve it well at international forums, the lack of serious domestic action will hamper the world’s ability to tackle climate change.
And climate change is not a problem that affects small island states and African dry regions alone. It will have significant consequences for India. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Nicholas Stern Review underscore this. Even a small change in temperature could result in up to 25 per cent lower agricultural yield, desertification, loss of arable land, and an escalating refugee crisis. It will critically impair India’s economic growth, and its ability to meet its development goals. India needs to take urgent action to limit its emissions.
India argues in its position papers for voluntary practical actions to “decarbonise” its economy. It is a member of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which focuses on voluntary practical action. The less charitable would describe its position, as well as that of the Asia-Pacific Partnership between the US, Japan, Australia, India, Korea and China, as an effort to appear busy while others make verifiable efforts under the Kyoto Protocol. Decarbonisation, according to India, is a shift in primary energy use from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear energy, and changes in production/consumption patterns. The India-US nuclear deal may be an illustration of action on the former, although the extent to which climate concerns play a role in this deal is debatable. The US Senate Committee on Energy, however, did consider testimony that suggested that the annual carbon dioxide decreases by 2020 as a result of the India-US nuclear deal would equal in scale the efforts of the EU under the Kyoto Protocol. And if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s estimate that India will increase its nuclear energy by 40GW before 2015 is accurate, it will result in 300 million tons of carbon dioxide reductions.
It is unclear what action India proposes to take to change production/consumption patterns, reduce carbon dependency, and adapt to climate change. All it has done is to put systems in place to operationalise the Clean Development Mechanism, and harness the economic potential of the Kyoto Protocol. Some 32 per cent of all registered projects are from India — much higher than that of Brazil and China — and they are expected to yield 14 per cent of all certified emission reductions annually. This demonstrates the potential for emissions reductions in India and the dynamism of Indian industry. It also demonstrates that economic growth and climate protection are not mutually exclusive.
India with its vibrant civil society, enterprising industry, pool of technocrats and sympathetic judiciary, is well positioned to lead developing countries in finding synergies between climate protection and development goals. Twain once said, “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” It is time India proved him wrong.
-The writer is an associate professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi