India and Climate Change – Spoilsport or just late to the party?

The Hindu

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

India may have been late to the emissions party, but with innovation and rapid development, it can make a disproportionate contribution to emissions reduction.

India’s carbon reduction pledges (the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) have been labelled as medium or even weak by many global observers. Global op-eds talk of India as the “stumbling block”. In contrast, not only has China pledged to peak emissions by 2030, there are discussions it could peak even sooner. The sad reality is twofold — India is doing its fair share, but even that will not be enough.

The challenge, simplified

Emissions of carbon dioxide (rather, all greenhouse gases) result in a rise in average global temperature. At this point, it’s not a question of will it rise but how much, how fast. Targeting a likely 2°C rise, there is only so much the earth can emit. Unfortunately, some three-quarters of this global carbon budget (including relevant historical emissions, since CO remains in the atmosphere), also termed the carbon commons, is already used up. Most of it was used up by countries other than India, which isn’t even using its per capita share. Naturally, India, coming from a low base, expects to grow its emissions.

There are three framings one could choose from. First, India wants to emit as others have done. The world turns super-hot. Second, India says we will stay within our budget’s “fair share”, but the world still turns hot, mainly because many others over-emitted. Third, India consumes less than its fair share, to try to avoid or at least minimise global warming. That seems to be the frame with which people are looking towards India, and then saying “not enough”.

So the question is, to what extent is it reasonable (let alone practical) to place the burden of emissions reductions disproportionately on those with higher future emissions? Should India be punished for being late to the emissions party, when its aims are to merely develop, and not over-indulge (over-emit per capita, especially on a cumulative basis)?

India in context

Every time I hear about dramatic emissions cuts being made from a high base, I remember advertisements for sales screaming “70% discount!” — on high prices. India emits about a quarter that of China, and on a per capita basis, an order of magnitude less than the U.S. China’s population is mostly stable, while India’s will still grow.

China already has provided almost all its citizens modern energy. India still has hundreds of millions of people lacking electricity, and those that have a wire face supply shortfalls (load-shedding), sometimes on a daily basis. India needs to develop.

That said, perhaps the world is better off with a disproportionate contribution to emissions reduction from growing economies like India, where new designs (of both supply and consumption) can likely be undertaken with greater effectiveness than in developed regions where the annual GDP growth is low and there is a lot of existing capital stock. However, such solutions require capital and other support (including technology).

India has announced ambitious Renewable Energy (RE) plans — how it can meet or even exceed the targets depends on the economics, which goes beyond simplified Rs./kilowatt hour. RE cannot be stored easily, and it usually isn’t available when the demand is highest.

Thinking beyond treaties and commitments

Treaties are a step forward, but how does India exceed its commitments or targets?

Innovate. This isn’t just technology such as batteries or solar energy, but also business models, regulation, etc. Global help is valuable, but this would necessarily involve the private sector, and not just governments or those signing treaties.

Focus on the longer-term and on efficiency. Lots of houses (and even cities) are yet to be built. We should not rely on “clean energy” to absolve us of over-consumption or inefficiencies. Fixing this will take a systems approach that spans jurisdictions or even politics, with much of the effort required at a state or local level.

Recognise that population growth is an issue. Make it easier for people to want fewer children (through social security schemes, non-agricultural jobs, etc.). No one says use coercion or be as strict as China, but imagine where the world would be if China’s population growth rate was like India’s?

Develop. If you believe the environmental Kuznets curve (where you first develop by being dirty and then clean up when you can afford it), India should develop quickly. If a nation consumes energy but is “coasting along” (not developing enough), it has squandered energy and carbon resources. There is no inherent cap on consuming more energy if it gives disproportional and ultimately sustainable development.

India can be considered a spoilsport, but only if viewed through certain rules, including ones naïve (or selfish) enough to ignore the past, allocating only the future carbon budget on a per capita basis. The new rules are for India to develop, but develop faster and in a more sustainable manner than anyone thought possible. Not because India has to, but, as the Prime Minister says, because India wants to. India owes it to not the world, but its own people.

This article was first published in The Hindu on December 9, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.