Obama China Pact Raises Stakes for India in Climate Talks

India Emissions
Cooling towers stand at the NTPC Ltd. power station in Dadri, India. Carbon dioxide emissions will jump 34 percent in India by 2020 and double by 2030 under its existing policies, according to the International Energy Agency. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

U.S. President Barack Obama’s breakthrough deal with China to rein in fossil fuel emissions puts the spotlight squarely on India and other major economies as the world’s governments gather in Peru in search of a plan to fight climate change.

Carbon dioxide emissions will jump 34 percent in India by 2020 and double by 2030 under its existing policies, according to the International Energy Agency. A promise by the planet’s third largest polluter behind the U.S. and China to limit emissions would send a message to the world that every country needs to contribute to the fight against climate change.

Having India on board is politically essential, both to advance a United Nations push toward a global agreement, and for Obama to gain support for his deal with China. The U.S. Senate rejected the 1997 climate deal signed in Kyoto, Japan, because its limits only applied to rich nations.

“No one expects India to make the same kind of pledge that China did -- an absolute peak -- but they want to see some fairly ambitious effort,” said Alden Meyer, who has been following the talks for more than two decades for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “They will be expected to say something about where they stand in their preparations.”

Diplomatic Momentum

The move by the U.S. and China marked a diplomatic step forward in the UN talks on global warming. Under the agreement, the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China said it will cap emissions by 2030 and turn to renewable sources for 20 percent of the country’s energy.

Previously, China sat with India, Brazil and South Africa in arguing that rich countries created the problem and should pay to fix it, and that poorer ones need room for their economies and pollution levels to grow. China’s decision for the first time put a major developing country on the side of the U.S., Europe and Japan in signaling caps on pollution.

India is “really trying to internalize what this sort of tectonic shift would mean,” said Peter Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and former a climate adviser in Obama’s White House. “Since then, a lot of people have really begun to be more interested in the dynamics of the U.S.-India relationship.”

Pledges Outstanding

The talks this week and next in Lima are aimed at putting in place the foundation for a deal the UN is pushing for in December 2015 in Paris that would limit fossil fuel emissions in all nations, rich and poor alike. That means more countries including India need to step forward with commitments.

Other than the U.S., China and EU the only major economy to say what it’ll do as part of the Paris agreement is Russia. Its climate envoy Alexander Bedritskiy said in New York in September that Russia may cut emissions by 25 percent to 30 percent in the four decades through 2030. Industrial nations such as Australia, Canada and Japan also have yet to set down targets and agreed last year to do so by the end of March 2015.

Brazil, South Africa and other developing nations face a similar quandary on how to balance the demand for pollution reductions with the desire for further economic growth. Neither, though, has the scale of issues India faces.

Brazil already leads the world in tapping hydro-electric dams and renewables for its electricity. South Africa’s carbon emissions have fallen 8 percent since peaking in 2008, BP Plc statistics show, and the country is working to spur wind farms and restrain coal.

India’s Position

How India responds will become clearer in the next two weeks at the UN climate talks in the Peruvian capital. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who is in charge of India’s climate policy, declined to comment, saying he planned to speak publicly on Dec. 4 about India’s strategy in Lima.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which swept to power in May promising universal access to electricity for India’s 1.24 billion people, has maintained it won’t sacrifice growth for climate goals, noting that India’s emissions are a quarter of China’s and will remain much lower for decades to come.

At the same time, the International Energy Agency has said India will overtake the U.S. by 2020 as the world’s second-largest coal consumer and soon after China as the biggest importer of the dirtiest fossil fuel.

“Coal will continue to dominate our energy mix for some time,” Piyush Goyal, a former investment banker appointed by Modi to oversee the coal, power and renewable ministries, told a seminar in New Delhi on Nov. 25. “We are taking steps to protect the environment. Neither India nor the world has the luxury of time when it comes to protection of the environment.”

Renewable Goals

That’s not to say India is doing nothing. Goyal plans to double the share of renewable energy feeding India’s power generators within the next five years. He’s targeting 100 gigawatts of solar power plants by 2022, an ambition on par with China’s support for clean energy technologies.

In his public comments, Modi has made a priority of cleaning up India’s energy supply, including the smog that chokes the air in New Delhi with pollution worse than Beijing’s by some measures.

His most recent remarks on the issue put him in sympathy with island nations concerned they’ll be swamped with rising sea levels expected with rising temperatures. But they also suggest that he wants richer nations that caused the problem to make more efforts.

“We, too, are facing the searing impact of climate change,” Modi said in a Nov. 19 speech. “ We cannot side aside and take no action. I have a deep personal commitment to it. But, it is also equally important that the global community accepts its responsibility and implements its commitment.”

Curious Envoys

That’s left envoys from industrial nations scratching their heads about whether -- and how -- India can join in the deals the UN envisions coming together next week in Lima and in December 2015 in Paris, when final details of a global emissions pact are expected to be finalized.

India is “an enormously important country,” said Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department official in charge of climate, in comments made in Washington on Nov. 24. “They’ve got to see a path to get to those fundamental development needs that is as low-carbon as possible. Exactly how they are going to play it in Lima and Paris, I don’t know.”

Elina Bardram, the lead envoy for the European Union, told reporters in Lima that, “India coming on board and putting forward their intentions within the first quarter of 2015 would be an instrumental signal of their effort readiness to take part in global efforts.”

The U.K. government has also cited India among nations that should take on “commitments commensurate with their emissions levels.”

“India has low per capita emissions and is rightly focused on development and growth,” the U.K. government said in a Sept. 9 report. “We therefore expect India’s emissions to grow in the near term. The earlier it can peak, around or shortly after 2030, the better.”

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