Climate: India Is Still a Long Way from Cutting Carbon

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You’ll hear it over and over again in the debates over the global climate negotiations: while the U.S. has put more carbon overall into the atmosphere than any other nation (and is still the number two emitter overall), the lion’s share of future carbon emissions will come from the big developing nations. China, now the world’s undisputed carbon champ, gets most of the attention from the U.S., but fast-growing India is also a rising carbon power. The country’s carbon emissions rose 58% between 1994 and 2007, to 1.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, good for fifth in the world. And assuming India keeps growing in the future, with all the energy that will require, we can expect the country’s carbon emissions to grow severalfold over the next few decades. It may not be much longer before American opponents of a climate pact are making as much noise about India’s refusal to accept carbon caps as they do today about China.

But for all the attention over the Indian economic miracle—and the glitter of skyscrapers in Bombay—the reality is that India is still incredibly poor. The country recently raised its poverty rate from 27.5% of the population to 37.2%, or 410 million people. (The Indian poverty cutoff point is an income of roughly 23 cents a day.) And as Michael Levi—a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations (and a great global energy blogger)—points out, India’s extreme poverty makes it very difficult to push the country to do more to cut carbon:

When I visited India in January, I came away deeply uncomfortable about any international climate change effort that pushes India to do more than what is already in its self-interest. On my visit last week, I spend my last two days in several rural villages, where a household income of ten dollars a day makes you rich, and wandering around Calcutta, which has largely missed the “New India” that you see in the office towers of Mumbai and Bangalore. Those two days only reinforced my earlier sense. India is simply too poor, and too ridden with other immediate problems, to be asked to make climate change a priority.

In India—like much of the poor world—development will come first, and most likely last. But that doesn’t mean the country can’t do anything on carbon, if only because Indian leaders know that business-as-usual development will be financially and environmentally impossible, given global energy supplies. “India is recognizing that economic growth at 8 to 9%, the demand for energy will grow very rapidly,” says Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “India has to make a radical shift and bring about a movement towards cleaner energy technology.”

That’s where the U.S. and India can work together. President Obama will be visiting India next month, and clean energy cooperation and climate will be on the agenda. The U.S. has already worked surprisingly well with China on direct clean energy partnerships—though the White House’s apparent decision to get tougher on China (with reason) might disrupt those actions. India and the U.S. are developing a Program to Accelerate Clean Energy Deployment (PACE), which will receive $50 million over 5 years to fund energy efficiency, wind, solar and biofuels. There’s also $60 million coming the U.S. Agency for International Development for clean energy and similar projects, and Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—who cooperated to bring off the Copenhagen Accord late last year—will likely look to build on that. “We need a strong India and U.S. partnership on clean energy,” says Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Still, don’t expect India to be able to accept a cap on carbon emissions any time soon. As Pachauri points out, there are 400 million people in India without access to electricity—they’ll come first. But that fact—which is as true for other developing nations like China as it is for India—seems to make a global deal on carbon little more than a pipe dream. “God knows when a multilateral agreement will come,” notes Pachauri. But in the meantime, what happens when Obama and Singh meet in New Delhi may be even more important for the climate than what happens at the UN’s Cancun meeting later this year.