Why India Is Unlikely to Do Much About Cutting Its Emissions

The climate agreement reached by the United States and China at the end of the APEC summit has turned the spotlight on India, the world’s third largest emissions producer behind the U.S and China. As the global climate conference in Peru approaches next week, India has been reluctant and even hostile to suggestions that it step up and pledge to lower its emissions.


Indian officials insist their priority is to tackle the chronic poverty and energy shortages that plague the country. India will likely resist international pressure to adopt cleaner energy practices. Here’s why:

The U.S.-China deal doesn’t accomplish a lot.

Although the agreement has been hailed as an historic step toward addressing climate change, the emissions goals set by China and the United States fall far short of preventing global warming.

For its part, China agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030. Even if China’s economy does not continue to grow by 10 percent per year, which it probably won’t, economic growth will likely cause China’s emissions to double by that time. Essentially, China is vowing to fight global warming by producing twice as much pollution in the next 15 years.

The promise by the United States is equally inconsequential. Obama pledged the U.S. would lower emissions 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025. However, 2005 was the year the United States produced the most carbon. Pollution by the U.S. has fallen 10 percent since then. So the United States is actually promising to lower emissions by only 18 percent.

The U.S. and China produce half of the world’s carbon emissions. Taken together, the agreement actually means that the two countries will increase their emissions by one-third. Earlier this month, the director for an India-based environmental think tank told the news site India Climate Dialogue that the agreement was “neither historic nor ambitious, but just a self-serving agreement between the world’s two biggest polluters.”

The U.S. and China built their monstrous economies by burning cheap coal. Why can’t India do the same?

Although India’s economy is growing rapidly, it’s not as developed as China or the United States. In 2011, according to the World Bank, 6 percent of China’s population lived below the global poverty limit while in India, 25 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Meanwhile, India is struggling to provide energy to its more than 2 billion citizens. The country frequently experiences enormous power blackouts. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has committed to providing adequate energy throughout the country and to increase the standard of living.

"India has the largest number of poor people. Our income levels are several times lower than those of China. There is no way India could be asked to take the same kind of climate actions as China," Suresh Prabhu, an informal adviser to Modi on climate issues, told the Indian Express in early November.

A lot of India’s emissions come from producing items that are consumed abroad.

At the climate conference in Peru, Indian officials are expected to challenge the way that individual country’s emissions are measured. Currently, a nation’s emissions are measured by how much pollution they produce at home. India wants nations to also take responsibility for the pollution they create in other countries.

According to a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

"A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in middle-income countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper middle-income countries to high-income countries."

A study by the UK Energy Research Centre found that, although Britain’s emission fell by 19 percent between 1990 and 2008, emissions caused by goods imported to Britain increased by 20 percent over the same time period.

Between 2011 and 2012, 19 percent of India’s total exports, worth $142 billion, went to Europe while more than 40 percent of its exports were delivered to Asia.

India’s emissions per person are far below the United States and China.

India’s total emissions increased more last year than in China or the United States. However, on a per capita basis, India’s emissions are well below those of the world’s top two polluters. India emits 1.7 tons of carbon per person, compared with 6.2 for China and 17.6 for the United States, according to the World Bank.

The issue of per-capita emissions highlights the challenge of bringing countries with developing economies into the global mission to address climate change. While India might be the third greatest polluter in the world, its citizens are far less responsible for global warming than people in the United States, Europe and now China. If the U.S. and China want to be leaders in the transition toward greener energy, they’re going to have to do more than lord a measly and ineffective energy deal over the Global South.

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