India’s Climate Change Forecast

Environment minister Jairam Ramesh says India plans to outline unilateral greenhouse gas emissions cuts soon. But he says rich states must commit to greater cuts of their own before developing countries can agree on binding global targets.

September 21, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Climate Change

India and China have long maintained their economic growth will suffer if they accept binding emission targets under an international agreement on climate change. Instead, they have called for mitigation commitments by the developed world and financial support from rich countries to help developing countries adapt to climate change. India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, says India and China are coordinating closely ahead of the December conference in Copenhagen, during which world leaders will negotiate a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  For a successful agreement at Copenhagen, Ramesh says, developed countries must commit to a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels. Separately, he says, India is considering a domestic plan specifying greenhouse gas emission cuts.

After your recent visit to China, you said India and China were "standing 100 percent together" on issues of climate change. Could you talk a bit about what China and India jointly decided on global climate change negotiations?

I met my Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua. Both of us agreed that the essential prerequisite for a successful agreement [at Copenhagen] is a very substantial commitment on mitigation by the developed countries, which calls for a 40 percent reduction in emissions by the developed world by 2020 with 1990 reference levels. We also talked about the limitations of the two-degree Celsius proposal (Spiegel) [to limit the rise in global temperatures by 2050 to less than 2 degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] that was embodied in the L’Aquila agreement of the G8. Without a burden-sharing formula, the two-degree Celsius upper-limit for the temperature increase by the year 2050 does not make any sense. It would in fact jeopardize the development aspirations and objectives of the developing countries. On October 21, the Chinese team is going to come to India. We’re going to exchange views on each other’s national action plans on climate change. So on international negotiations, we are coordinating our positions very closely, whether it relates to forestry, adaptation, financing technology and so on. Although there is a major difference between India and China: China is today the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for something like 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas India accounts for less than 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the United States and the developed world, emissions are lifestyle emissions. For us, emissions are developmental emissions. If you take income class to income class, social strata to social strata, the carbon footprint of an Indian is far lower than the carbon footprint of an American or a European.

Are you concerned that China might go bilaterally to the United States and strike a deal?

I did talk to my Chinese counterparts about the agreement they signed with the United States [in July 2009]. [They] pointed out to me that it was a bilateral agreement they had on cooperation in renewable energy and energy technology, and in no way compromises their international negotiating position. I did ask them, "Are you going to leave India alone in Copenhagen?" They laughed about it, and they said that they’ll let us know before they do anything of that sort. But on a more serious note, I was assured that they have no such desire.

While India has been resistant to any binding caps on emission levels, is there something else that you would consider on emission cuts? What steps is India taking on controlling emission levels?

The words "resisting cuts" would be applicable if you were a major emitter. It’s really surprising to me how the international community is trying to paint India as a recalcitrant or an intransigent player when it accounts for 16 percent of the world’s population  and accounts for less than 5 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. We are at about 1.1 to 1.2 tons per capita of CO2 equivalent. We have estimated that even if we grow [in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth] at 8.5 percent per year, by 2020 our per capita emissions are not going to cross 2.5 tons of CO2 equivalent. And by 2030, our per capita emissions are not going to cross 3.5 tons of CO2 equivalent. So at all points of time, we are far below the per capita emissions of the developed nations. But we realize the impact that global warming can have on our own. We are vulnerable. What we are saying is, "Look, the starting point of a fair and equitable agreement is for the developed countries, which have caused the global warming in the first place, to take on their assigned responsibilities which were assigned to them as part of the Rio Convention, Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan." And now there is a determined effort to undercut the entire United Nations process through G8 and G-20 and all these various permutations and combinations of Gs. We don’t have to be defensive. We want a fair and equitable agreement. We are conscious of our responsibilities. India is contemplating taking unilateral mitigation cuts over the next fifteen to twenty years as a part of its development process, without jeopardizing economic growth. [India is considering making such cuts] part of a domestic legislative framework.

Could you talk a little bit about that?

We realize that from a purely domestic viewpoint, we ourselves are vulnerable. And since a precursor for any successful international agreement is an enduring domestic political consensus, I have proposed very recently that we quantify some of the emission cuts that we could make. These are implicit targets, not explicit targets. For example:

  • We’re saying let’s build a mandatory fuel efficiency standard by law by 2011.
  • Let’s build mandatory building codes which are energy efficient compliant by 2011.
  • Let’s say that by 2020, [a certain] percent of our electricity supply will come from renewable energy. It’s 8 percent now; maybe it can go up to 20 percent by 2020 or 2030.
  • Say 5 to 10 percent of our gross cultivated area could be under organic farming so methane emissions from our agriculture could reduce.
  • Today 10 percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions are being sequestered by our forests. By 2030 we could increase this proportion to 15 percent by increasing the area under forest and tree cover.
  • We could also say that over the next fifteen to twenty years, energy intensity [energy used per unit of GDP]--which today in India is on par with Germany--would further come down by another 10 to 15 percent.
  • We are saying 50 percent of all coal-based power generation must come from clean coal technology.

Let’s take a year for which we’ll be held accountable, 2020 or 2030, and let’s give broadly indicative targets for some of these mitigation activities. We are an open democracy; we have an active civil society, an active media. They will ensure that these are monitored, and the government can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes. This will be enshrined in a domestic law.

These are all activities that ultimately impinge on the emission of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. However, if the United States and the developed world were somehow, by some stroke of  unanticipated good fortune and miracle, to say that by 2020 they are going to cut their emissions by anywhere between 25 percent and 40 percent on 1990 reference levels, I will then think of converting my domestic responsibilities into international commitments. Because the starting point is the developed world’s responsibility. They are the ones that have to show the way first and then we will follow.

The perfect should not become the enemy of the good at Copenhagen. We should be modest and realistic in our expectations and rather than waiting for a blockbuster of an agreement at Copenhagen, we should look at Copenhagen as a beginning process.

So these are plans under consideration. By when do you think they will become a reality?

In the next few months. The parliament is meeting in November, December. I’m hoping that [then] we’ll have a discussion on this. And this is autonomous of what happens in Copenhagen. Whether there’s an agreement or not [at Copenhagen], this is what we’re determined to do.

Developing countries are asking developed countries to commit to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by over 40 percent from 1990 levels to 2020. How do you propose the developed countries meet that goal?

In the United States and the developed world, emissions are lifestyle emissions. For us, emissions are developmental emissions. If you take income class to income class, social strata to social strata, the carbon footprint of an Indian is far lower than the carbon footprint of an American or a European. Change your lifestyle. You’re asking us to compromise on development. You change your lifestyle and then we’ll think of compromising on development.

In Copenhagen, if all countries stick to their positions and question the entrenched positions of the other countries, how likely will we see a global climate change agreement?

The perfect should not become the enemy of the good at Copenhagen. We should be modest and realistic in our expectations. Rather than waiting for a blockbuster of an agreement at Copenhagen, we should look at Copenhagen as a beginning process. But meanwhile, let’s identify the low-hanging fruit and let’s move on [those policies].

What’s the low-hanging fruit?

India has made a number of submissions to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. I mentioned this to [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton when she came to Delhi in July. We [can] have, for example, an international agreement on forestry. [This is very important] to countries like Brazil, Indonesia, China, and India. An international agreement on technology cooperation is eminently doable at Copenhagen. Let’s clinch an agreement on the extension of the Clean Development Mechanism [CDM]. CDM has worked very well. India, by the way, is one the countries that has benefitted very extensively from the CDM.

India actually has more than 345 registered CDM projects, more than any other country. But now some experts are calling for streamlining the CDMs to focus on the least developed countries. How will that impact India?

I have no problem with that. The problem is every time the world sets up a mechanism, India and China [benefit most.] But if we are 40 percent of the population, 40 percent of the benefits will go to India and China. So I have no problem if you extend the CDM mechanism and say that you want to earmark something for the least-developed countries. But let’s make that agreement on the extension of the CDM. I’m not arguing for CDM from India’s point of view, I’m arguing for CDM as a principle.

What expectations do you have from the civilian nuclear program and how it can help in greater energy efficiency?

It’s great. Right now about 3.7 percent of our power supply comes from nuclear power. By 2020 we are hoping to increase this to about 5 percent and by 2040 we’re expecting about 25 percent of our electricity to come from nuclear energy. India is a world leader in fast-breeder [reactor] technology. We have a good understanding with the French, with the Russians, and with the Americans following the civilian nuclear agreement. Nuclear is GHG [greenhouse gas] free technology. A faster expansion of nuclear technology in India’s energy portfolio would certainly have a very salutary impact on the emissions of greenhouse gases.