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Time: Behind India's Intransigence on Climate-Change Talks

Author: Madhur Singh
September 10, 2009

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Madhur Singh places India's intransigence on climate negotiations into perspective, explaining how any international climate change framework will have to be acceptable among all nations.

Madhur Singh places India's intransigence on climate negotiations into perspective, explaining how any international climate change framework will have to be acceptable among all nations. 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. (See pictures of how climate change is affecting the planet.)

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. (Read a story about how India's cows contribute to global warming.)

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