Behind India's Intransigence on Climate-Change Talks

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Altaf Qadri / AP

Children play near a brick factory in a village on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, on Nov. 8, 2008

Narinder Kumar wants to buy an electric steam iron. The 24-year-old dhobi, or washerman, earns his living ironing clothes with a coal-fired iron as his ancestors did, in the same shack in south Delhi's Lajpat Nagar district as his father and grandfather before him. It's hard to imagine a workplace with a smaller carbon footprint than Kumar's: At 6 by 4 ft., it consists of only four iron poles holding up a roof made of plywood and corrugated iron. There's one electric fan for the summer days when the heat from the bulky coal iron makes him dizzy and one electric bulb, which is rarely used because work is over by 6 p.m.

Kumar has heard of global warming, but to him it's incomprehensible that the live coals in his iron are partly to blame for it by producing black carbon, or soot, a greenhouse gas considered more destructive than carbon dioxide. Though he would like to stop using coal — "an electric iron would be so much more convenient," he says — the upgrade is too expensive. But he is saving up for one, and once he does, he will move from using coal to using electricity produced with coal, the source of more than 60% of India's electricity.

If you ask India's climate-change negotiators, the December summit in Copenhagen will be not about how to save the planet but about how to accommodate the rights and aspirations of millions of Indians like Kumar. Since developed countries have already pumped out a large proportion of the greenhouse gases that the environment can safely handle, they argue, those same nations must vacate some atmospheric space for the latecomers to industrialization. The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 380 parts per million (ppm), 72% of which has been emitted by developed countries. Most scientists agree this needs to be stabilized at 450 ppm or less, leaving a tiny wedge — about 70 ppm — in which the developing countries must jostle for space to industrialize and pollute.

According to India's climate-change policy, there's no question that it is the moral obligation of developed countries to accept binding emissions cuts. Further, the argument goes, since developed countries are historically responsible for the state of the planet, they should pay up by helping developing countries with money and technology to leapfrog to green technology without following the familiar high-carbon path to growth. Only with outside funding will India be able to effectively shift to renewable sources of energy, which, being costlier, will have to be subsidized for widespread use by people like Kumar and the over 400 million Indians still without access to electricity.

Obviously, bringing these demands, which other developing countries like China and Brazil support, to the global negotiating table has been contentious. There is a stalemate over just about everything — from how to apportion blame to who should pay and how. In the run-up to Copenhagen, the Indian government and Indian NGOs have upped the ante against what they call the one-sided Western discourse that blames India and other developing countries for being obstructionist and not doing their bit. In recent weeks, there has been a steady stream of Indian-generated reports bolstering India's assertions that it is unilaterally greening its act. A report released last week says India has consistently greened its GDP since the 1980s, with the energy intensity of India's GDP falling from 0.3 kgoe (kilogram-of-oil equivalent) per dollar of GDP in 1980 to 0.16 kgoe in 2004. This, it adds, is an achievement on par with über-green Germany and is bettered only by Japan, the U.K., Brazil and Denmark.

The Indian government has also announced a range of policy initiatives — a $22 billion solar-energy program, $2.5 billion forestation fund and a national energy-efficiency mission, among others — that won kudos from visiting British Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband. "I think India wants to be a dealmaker — not a deal breaker — in Copenhagen," Miliband said during a visit to New Delhi on Sept. 2. Both the nonprofit sector and industry have also been organizing seminars and workshops with aims ranging from enhancing the Indian carbon market to supporting India's negotiating stance in three months.

"Our contention is not only that rich countries have been the biggest polluters, but also that they have done nothing about it," says Sunita Narain, director of the New Delhi–based Centre for Science and Environment, which organized a South Asian media workshop two weeks ago. Rich countries, or Annex-I nations of the Kyoto Protocol, were supposed to cut emissions 5.1% over 1990 levels by 2008-12, she explains. But barring the economies in transition (like those of Eastern Europe, whose economies collapsed following the breakup of the Soviet Union), developed countries' emissions actually increased 14.5% during this period. "The fact is, even if India stopped breathing today, the West would have to undertake cuts at home to save the world from an ecological catastrophe," says Narain. More crucially, she adds, "there is no serious effort towards lifestyle changes in the west. Households need to consume less. More people need to take public transport."

For their part, Western countries have accused India and other developing countries of obfuscating the bigger issue by equating the "stock" problem of global warming with its "flow" problem. The stock of historical emissions for which the West is largely responsible must be dealt with by assigning responsibility, but the flow — the continuing emissions that developing countries are increasingly adding to — must be resolved by incentivizing cuts on future emissions. They demand more flexibility from India; the U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 because it would not accept any binding cuts unless developing countries accepted cuts too.

Developing countries refuse to do this. They say the hard-fought Kyoto Protocol, whose successor they will be working out at Copenhagen, is unequivocal in laying out differentiated responsibilities, and since the biggest polluters have yet to fulfill their responsibilities, the goalposts cannot be changed. But, they add, India will be happy to green its energy mix if the West provides the money and technology (this is the common position of developing countries — Brazil, India and China have all submitted proposals demanding that funds and technology flow from rich to poor countries to enable the latter to undertake mitigation and adaptation efforts). Regardless of who will appear the correct party in 20 years, any solution will have to be not only fair — and seen to be fair — but also acceptable to all parties. Intransigence will only hurt the fragile process that scientists, industry and government will engage in this winter, and negotiators will do well to remember that this is one case in which no deal may not be better than a bad deal.