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India shifts stand on carbon emission cuts after China announces a national program

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — With a new U.N. climate treaty to be considered in Copenhagen in December, the developed world and the emerging economies are trying to bridge their differences on how to curb greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming. The United States wants developing countries like India and China to agree to specific reduction targets on the emissions produced by their galloping economies.

India argues that this would hurt its economic growth and wants the industrialized world to curb its pollution as well as fund new technologies in the developing world. Even as most countries see the need for an agreement at Copenhagen, India has made it clear that it cannot accept legally binding limits on carbon emissions.

Although around 80 percent of world growth in carbon emissions is coming from fast-growing economies like India and China, India has argued that even if India’s economy continues to grow at current levels for the next decade or two, its per capita emissions will still be below those of developed countries.

A recent bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, which would impose carbon tariffs on products from countries that do not undertake emission-cut targets, has elicited a strong negative reaction in India. Such tactics are viewed as protectionist in nature to shield businesses from the costs of its own national emission targets.

One of the major stumbling blocks in global negotiations on climate change has been the reluctance of the developed world to adequately finance and transfer enabling technology to the developing world, to help the developing world reduce emissions without incurring heavy out-of-pocket development costs. India is seeking a bilateral arrangement with the U.S. on this issue.

The current U.S. administration has committed to cutting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels. Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has outlined his country’s intentions of reducing emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

As a consequence, the emerging economies are now under increasing pressure to demonstrate their commitments to tackle climate change even as they continue their efforts to reduce poverty. It is thus significant that China and India conveyed positive signals at the recent summit on climate change at the United Nations in New York.

An iconic image of India’s defiance on the issue of climate change came during U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s visit to India in July, when India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, publicly asserted that “India’s position is clear and categorical that we are simply not in a position to take any legally binding emissions reduction.”

Ahead of the global climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, there has been growing pressure from the developed world on states like China and India to accept quantifiable targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Although India has expressed strong disapproval of the West’s threat to impose carbon tariffs on India’s exports, India now appears to be gradually changing its position as exemplified by the remarks of Ramesh at the climate change summit in New York. He suggested that India “cannot hide behind any excuses and we [Indians] have to be aggressively taking on voluntary mitigation outcomes.”

While the acceptance of binding international targets remains out of question, India is now underlining the importance of taking on national commitments to enhance its global credibility.

This change of heart is a result of two interrelated factors. One is the evolving Chinese response to climate change. China has declared that it is pursuing a National Climate Change Program, which includes mandatory targets for reducing energy intensity and the discharge of major pollutants as well as increasing forest coverage and share of renewable energy for the 2005-2010 period. India was caught unaware by specific measures that China recently announced at the U.N. General Assembly and is now planning to follow suit.

Toward this end, India plans to have regular dialogue with China to exchange views on their respective action plans.

The other factor driving India’s new approach to climate change negotiations is a sense among Indian strategic elites that a rising India should engage the world on its own terms and with a degree of confidence that befits its stature as a rising power in the international system.

In tune with this assessment, India agreed at the Major Economies Forum meeting in Italy about two months back that all countries would work to reduce emissions to try to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre- industrialization levels.

Critics argue that the agreement will restrict India’s diplomatic space at the Copenhagen summit. Yet, India hopes that such steps will help it overcome its traditional image as a deal-breaker when it comes to global negotiations. India has committed itself to a mandatory fuel efficiency cap beginning in 2011, a change in its energy matrix whereby renewable sources will account for 20 percent of India’s power usage by 2020, and an ambitious solar energy plan.

Still, it is far from clear whether the climate change negotiations will succeed, as the developing countries seek financial and technological support. Without such assistance, states like India will not be willing to open their efforts at greenhouse emission reductions to international verification.

Climate change talks not only involve competing economic interests but also raise matters of broad principle for the West’s relationship with developing nations. India has shown itself ready to lead coalitions of developing nations in the past, vetoing those global agreements they see as discriminatory.

Given the issue of the West’s “historical responsibility” for atmospheric pollution, Indian agreement will be hard to secure. Still, the fact that India has started to gradually change its approach toward one of the biggest challenges facing the international community portends well for the future.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is currently a Visiting Professor at IIM Bangalore.