Most references to the role of China and India in global mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are generally simplistic. The typical argument put forward highlights the fact that these countries would continue increasing their emissions substantially, and, therefore, any efforts at reduction in the developed world would be more than neutralized by increases in the former. The reality is in fact much more complex. It is important to remember that the problem of human induced climate change has been caused by the cumulative emissions of GHGs with concentration levels at 280 parts per million of CO2 in pre-industrial times growing to around 380 parts per million currently. This increase is largely the result of substantial increase in use of fossil fuels in the industrialized world. For this reason, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) included the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility", requiring the developed countries to take the first steps in mitigating emissions of GHGs. However, the record of the developed world has been less than satisfactory in this regard.
The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC recorded that global GHG emissions due to human activities increased 70% between 1970 and 2004. Developing countries have argued that they have a long way to go in eradicating poverty and providing the benefits of development to their people, for which they would have to burn fossil fuels on an increasing scale. Hence, if stabilization of the atmosphere is to take place for limiting increase in global average temperatures, the developed countries would have to mitigate emissions of GHGs to not only compensate for the increase in emissions in the developing countries but also to bring about a net reduction globally. One of the stabilization scenarios assessed by the IPCC which would limit the temperature increase to 2.0 – 2.4oC would require that GHG emissions peak by 2015, and decline thereafter. This presents a formidable challenge for the world as a whole.
The reality today is that the world knows and pursues only one distinct pattern of economic development. This is based on the industrialized world's dream of large homes with air conditioning, increasing use of electrical appliances using energy from fossil fuels, growing ownership of private cars and increasing consumption of goods and services in general, with an expanding carbon footprint on the earth's ecosystems. There are some exceptions to this universal dream, such as the kingdom of Bhutan which emphasizes gross national happiness as a measure of human progress or Iceland which has moved from total dependence on fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy resources. But these two countries together account for a population of about a million.
If the emerging economies were to continue on the same path of development as the industrialized world there would not only be negative consequences for the globe but for these countries themselves. Already, the increasing consumption of energy is leading to concerns about their energy security. China, which was self-sufficient in oil production is now scouring every corner of the globe to gain access to hydrocarbon resources. The current pattern of development would not only place an unsustainable demand on the earth's natural resources but would cause an unmanageable level of pollution locally, with serious consequences for human health. It is, therefore, essential for the emerging economies to question the unsustainability of a pattern which emulates the model of growth followed in the industrialized world. A totally new path much lower in intensity of natural resource use, including energy, is essential. But is this really possible? Can we accept a single globe and a globalized economy but two distinct patterns of development and standards of living? This would be clearly unacceptable to the deprived populations of the world and may become disruptive of peace and stability. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Mr. Al Gore signals the dangers of conflict if the earth's climate is not stabilized. Hence, the answer clearly lies in both parts of the globe moving towards a sustainable path of development, requiring some societies, which could be termed as maldeveloped, adopting "sustainable retreat" as termed by James Lovelock. There is need, therefore, for enlightened minds from north and south getting together to define the sustainability imperative and persuade political leaders of the benefits of growth with lower natural resource intensity in all countries developed and developing. And for reasons of history, economic capability and institutional strength the developed world must begin such a movement. Or can China and India define this new paradigm and lead?