Climate Change and India: Is There a Basis for U.S. Pressure?

August 10, 2009

During her recent visit to India, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to prepare the ground for the major negotiation on carbon emissions in Copenhagen in December by calling upon India to join hands with the United States to “combat global warming.” Recognizing that Clinton was indirectly calling for India to accept mitigation commitments at Copenhagen, India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh reacted swiftly and sharply stating that his country was “simply not in a position to take on legally binding emissions [reduction] targets.”

Is India being self-righteous and risking its own interest, as the Financial Times and The New York Times claimed in the wake of the tough stance by Ramesh, or acting in self-interest while asserting its reasonable rights? A good case can be made in favor of the latter.

Let me make clear at the outset that the opposition to mitigation commitments at the aggregate level is not to be confused with opposition to all mitigation. If replacing regular light bulbs with “green” bulbs would lower carbon emissions while also bringing down the cost of lighting the house, the change is obviously welcome. Likewise, if clean energy sources are available at no extra economic cost over those that pollute, their use is to be encouraged.

Therefore, the issue subject to debate is whether mitigation at the aggregate level would best serve the interests of India. To answer, begin with a few relevant facts. Going by the most conservative estimates, 300 million Indians currently live in abject poverty. Forty percent or more of households in the country are without electricity—they literally lack an electricity connection. On a per-capita basis, India ranks 137th in carbon emissions. Even when compared to China, India’s carbon emissions are approximately one-fifth in aggregate terms and one-fourth in per-capita terms.

Setting aside the equity issue for the moment, if India were to accept even modest mitigation commitments, it will have to seriously compromise its growth. Economic growth of 9% to 10%, necessary to bring electricity to all households and offer a modest living standard to all citizens in the next two to three decades, cannot be achieved without significant increase in aggregate emissions. One way to see this is to ask how much lower the emissions of China could be if it adopted overnight the most cost-effective clean technologies currently available. Even making the generous assumption of a 25% cut on this basis, the Chinese emissions would remain 3.5 times those of India. It is simply unrealistic to think that India can achieve the income standards China currently enjoys while holding its emissions to current levels.

What about the argument that India is highly vulnerable to the risks posed by global warming and therefore risks devastation unless it accepts mitigation commitments? Frankly, such argument borders on fear-mongering, while obfuscating the fact that mitigation advocated by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is entirely feasible without subjecting India to binding commitments for some decades to come. India accounts for just 4.4% of the current annual emissions. Given this tiny share and the vast existing stock of carbon from emissions in the last 100 years in the atmosphere, mitigation by India can add no more than a drop in the ocean.

Indeed, if we were to seek a solution to the emission problem based on maximizing any reasonable global-welfare objective, we would likely exempt India (and Africa, which also has a large poor population and accounts for a small part of annual global emissions) from mitigation obligation until it is able to provide a humane living standard to its citizens. It is astounding that liberals in the West entirely turn a blind eye to the poor in India when insisting on compulsory mitigation by the latter, some even going so far as to advocating import tariffs to enforce mitigation by it. Surely, rich nations can undertake to do just a bit more in the early decades to accommodate the poor, with today’s poor nations joining the clean-up effort later.

The argument for mitigation commitments by India for some decades to come looks even weaker once we take into account the existing international agreements and equity. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to which 192 countries currently subscribe explicitly exempts the developing countries from mitigation commitments. Consistent with this provision, the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated under the auspices of the UNFCCC, set mitigation targets exclusively for developed countries. The insistence by the United States that the post-Kyoto agreement on mitigation, to be negotiated in Copenhagen in December, must subject India and China to binding commitments is in violation of the UNFCCC agreement.

As for equity, developed countries have emitted the bulk of the carbon in existence in atmosphere today. They accounted for more than 70% of the emissions between 1850 and 2000, with India’s share being a paltry 2%. Even in terms of current emissions, Canada, the U.S., Europe, Eurasia and Japan together release more than 50% of the carbon into the atmosphere. Any principle of moral philosophy would require the developed countries to substantially cut their emissions before asking developing countries to commit to mitigation.

Indeed, developed countries have chosen to play strategically by framing the negotiation in terms of mitigation commitments rather than emission rights. Given their disproportionately large current emissions, even very substantial mitigation commitments leave them with disproportionately large future emission rights. They can claim the high moral ground for having made large cuts and yet walk away with the maximum rights to pollute in the future!

Finally, it should not go unrecorded that while the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress have moved climate change up on the U.S. national agenda, their efforts to date are scarcely laudable. Even ignoring the protectionist provisions for import tariffs and the decision to distribute 85% of pollution permits freely to the firms that successfully lobbied, the Waxman-Markey legislation—which still awaits approval by the Senate—requires emissions to drop to only 20% below the 2005 levels by 2020. Under the original Kyoto Protocol, which a prior Congress chose not ratify, the United States had agreed to bring the emission levels to 7% below their 1990 levels by 2012. Because the United States substantially expanded its emissions between 1990 and 2005, by shifting the base year to 2005, it has now set its 2020 target 12% above the 1990 emissions. This can hardly be hailed as “leadership” by a great nation, as much of the Western press has implicitly done by chastising India for standing up to U.S. pressure.