Climate Conundrum: How to Get India to Play Ball

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Mustafa Quraishi / AP

Hillary Clinton speaks about climate change in New Delhi alongside Indian Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit on July 19 to the Indian city of Gurgaon, on the outskirts of New Delhi, was supposed to showcase the way India and the U.S. might work together to slow climate change. On the agenda was a tour of an ultra–energy efficient office building called ITC Green Center, which has earned the highest environmental rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It was just the sort of project that exemplified how the world's second biggest carbon emitter (the U.S.) and the fourth biggest (India) could cooperate best — on high-tech projects designed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

But Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Environment and Forestry Minister, had other ideas. With Clinton standing by, Ramesh told reporters that India was in no position to reduce its rising levels of carbon-dioxide emissions, and that the West — which had polluted with impunity for decades — was in no position to dictate reductions to developing poor countries. "There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions," he said.

Though Clinton assured her Indian counterparts that the U.S. "does not, and will not, do anything that would limit India's economic progress," the uneasy exchange illustrated a troubling reality: with less than five months to go before the crucial U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen, there remains a deep chasm between developed and developing nations on the issue of CO2. Unless that gap is narrowed — and the world can find a way to fairly reduce emissions from rich countries while making developing nations pay their fair share — years of global climate-change negotiations could finally collapse.

No country has proven more recalcitrant than India. Some of the clamor owes to the fact that India is a more openly contentious society than, say, China; and, like American leaders, Indian politicians need to cater to their own domestic constituencies. While India is booming, it is still incredibly poor on average, and that is reflected in its per capita carbon emissions, which are 13 times smaller than America's. "This is not our responsibility," Shyam Saran, India's climate envoy, recently told TIME.

India is industrializing fast, however, and carbon emissions could more than quadruple over the next 20 years if the country does nothing to slow them. Ramesh pointed out that even in 2030, India's per capita emissions would still be far lower than levels in developed countries — but sheer population growth means India will become a bigger carbon emitter on the whole. In the future, developing nations will contribute the large majority of CO2 emissions, but if the world has to wait for countries like India to get rich before they begin cutting carbon, the planet is doomed.

Ramesh's outburst may have been triggered by concerns that the U.S. cap-and-trade bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives — and which will soon be taken on by the Senate — includes a provision that would eventually impose trade sanctions on countries that did not accept binding emissions targets. The passage was inserted to appease members of Congress who worried that a carbon cap would lead to the migration of energy-intensive industries from nations with emissions limits to those without them. That restriction seems fair — until you realize that many of the products exported from countries like India and China, with lower environmental standards, are sent to rich countries like the U.S.

President Barack Obama has said that he is concerned about the potential impact of such tariffs on free trade, and that putting up such barriers would only make a global agreement more elusive. But other provisions could give the U.S. quiet leverage over developing nations. Annie Petsonk, the international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, says that the U.S. could make access to American carbon markets — which could eventually be worth trillions — contingent on how developing nations deal with climate change, for example by agreeing to mandatory reductions in the rate of growth of their emissions. "Carbon-market access is the first and most powerful carrot and stick," she says. "Members of Congress can say that if countries want to sell us carbon credits after we have capped our emissions, we want them to follow suit."

However the responsibility for climate change is divided, the reality is that poorer nations like India will sacrifice disproportionately in a warmer world. It's up to rich nations like the U.S. to move first and move most — and the good news is that Obama seems ready to do so. Still, those efforts will come to naught unless countries like India do their part as well — with a lot of help from the developed world. It's not fair, but it is true.