This column was originally published here, during JustJobs Network’s incubation at Center for American Progress.
Most of the attention in the lead up to the December United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen has been focused on the United States and China—the two biggest annual emitters of greenhouse gases. But India may be the country that provides the necessary breakthrough in international negotiations to help developed and developing countries reach an agreement. Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh is urging the Indian government to commit to action without the promise of financial and technological assistance, and subject its domestic efforts to international scrutiny. And this change of position could not come at a more critical time.
U.N. climate talks in trouble
The last preliminary round of the U.N. climate negotiations in Bangkok two weeks ago did not go well. Developed and developing countries were once again in opposition, lobbying charges and countercharges at each other through the media about who is trying to derail progress more. Sudan, the new incoming chair of the G-77 group of 130 developing countries, accused the United States in particular of attempting to sabotage the talks, renege on efforts to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012, and introduce their own new treaty proposal.
Sudanese chair of the G-77 Lumumba Di-Aping, put it this way: “Feelings are running high in the G-77. It is clear now that the rich countries want a deal outside the Kyoto agreement. … This is an alarming development. The intention of developed countries is clearly to kill the protocol.” Yet such charges are completely misleading.
The reality is that all members of the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the U.N. climate summit in Bali in 2007 authorized a parallel track within the U.N. framework for negotiations to create a potential alternative to the protocol. This second track is dubbed the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action, or LCA track. Countries submitted language to the LCA for a new treaty option to replace the Kyoto Protocol last spring. The current negotiating text is approximately 200 pages and consists of language submitted by a variety of countries including Australia, Costa Rica, and Norway—not just the United States.
What really happened at the Bangkok round was that the European Union began to signal that it is willing to discuss alternative structures for a new climate treaty rather than extending the Kyoto Protocol, in more or less its current form, beyond 2012. Some developing countries struck back and started falsely claiming that they had been blind-sided by discussion of a new treaty.
U.S. negotiators have been pushing the LCA track over continuing with the Kyoto Protocol because the Kyoto agreement does not reflect modern day carbon realities. Kyoto divided the world between developed and developing countries—“Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1” countries in Kyoto parlance. It sets binding cuts in emissions for developed countries and does not require similar measures for developing countries. Yet the world’s best scientists argue that we must cut global emissions by half by 2050. Developed countries cannot do this alone.
Scientific consensus contends that the goal of having developed countries cut their emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 will not be enough to reach the target of halving all emissions given current levels of carbon pollution in the “major developing emitters,” principally China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico. Only a new architecture for the climate treaty can create a regime that will move these developing countries to binding emissions cuts of their own so that we can meet the global 2050 goal.
The fight over whether to continue the Kyoto Protocol or construct an alternative may seem like it is destroying any hope of producing a new international climate agreement. But the extreme maneuvering of the Sudanese leadership over the last two months against the LCA track may have cracked the G-77 coalition and set off a wake-up call to major carbon developing emitters. The new leadership of the G-77 has presumed to speak for the major developing emitters, who have all been signaling in different ways their willingness to move to substantial emissions cuts of their own and be counted as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. These major emitters are now concerned that their smaller allies are derailing the prospects of getting a hopeful outcome in Copenhagen.
India offers a new hope
China was until recently toeing the usual G-77 line of refusing to commit to any climate action unless developed countries committed to deep cuts in emissions—25 to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020—and agreed to provide enormous sums to developing countries, as well as technological and financial assistance, for mitigation and adaptation activities. Yet this summer China started to take a more conciliatory tone, publicly announcing that it was considering setting a future date in which it would peak its emissions growth, enacting targets to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP, and being willing to play a constructive role in the international climate negotiations.
India had seemed even more stubborn than China in the negotiation process, but now seems poised to go a step further. The Indian media is citing leaked correspondence from Indian Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh to the Indian prime minister that calls for India to distance itself from the G-77’s latest positions. The correspondence refers to some specific language in the LCA track proposed by Australia, dubbed the “schedules approach.” This approach would allow different countries to pledge a variety of actions for cutting emissions such as renewable electricity standards and provisions to avoid deforestation rather than relying on economy-wide caps on emissions as the indication of a country’s commitment. Ramesh suggested that such alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol structure were acceptable “as long as it maintains this basic distinction [between developed and developing countries] and nature of differential obligations.”
Ramesh also said that India will need to alter its long-held G-77 position that it would only undertake international commitments if developing countries supported them with technology and finance. And it now appears that Ramesh had previously advocated, in a separate letter to the prime minister, that India should willingly subject itself to the international verification of its own domestic climate programs—a move that China and other developing countries have so far resisted.
There is no doubt that Ramesh’s positions will be met with some resistance in the Indian government. But if the Indian leaders follow through on Minister Ramesh’s proposals it would mark a remarkable turnaround. Ramesh told U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton just three months ago on her visit to New Delhi that, “there is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions.”
Ramesh now appears to be singing a different tune. “We are not going to be a dealbreaker in Copenhagen,” he declared at a conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, after describing a suite of domestic policies that India would be willing to adopt in renewable energy and energy efficiency—although he stopped short of committing to internationally binding targets.
It will be interesting to see how India’s position evolves in the last 50 or so days leading up to the Copenhagen summit. Ramesh appears to be leaning toward a structure that would commit India to binding its domestic actions to an international agreement and subjecting those actions to international scrutiny. This would represent a sea change in India’s previous positions on submitting itself to an external verification regime for its emissions cuts. India is often thought of as the most intransigent of the major developing countries when it comes to climate action, but now appears to want to be, as Ramesh puts it, “pragmatic and constrictive, not argumentative and polemical.”
Moving forward on a climate change agreement
India stands to lose a great deal if global warming continues. Indeed, Ramesh said in his appeal to the prime minister that a change in stance was necessary “because we need to mitigate in self-interest.” The dire implications of global climate change have become hard for India to ignore as low-lying areas such as Kolkata get flooded by rising sea levels, displacing hundreds; rising sea levels cause sea water to flow into the Ganges, threatening ecosystems and turning fertile farmland barren; and melting glaciers in Kashmir cause regional chaos over water shortages.
Yet climate change and energy policies in India are subject to domestic concerns about the additional cost that may come with capping emissions, just as they are in the United States and other counties. Most Indians want to maintain the competitiveness and relatively high levels of economic growth to which they have grown accustomed. And doing so has become necessary to maintain political stability.
The Indian government has established the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, making it the only country in the world with a separate ministry charged with transitioning the country to an economy that runs on more clean and renewable energy sources. Nine percent of its installed power capacity consists of renewable sources excluding hydropower, which accounts for another 25 percent.
India has adopted a comprehensive climate change action plan, which, among other things, creates a market-based scheme for the trading of energy efficiency certificates that is worth an estimated $15 billion, sets energy efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings, puts in place fuel economy standards for automobiles, and aims for the world’s largest installed solar photovoltaic capacity at 20 gigawatts by 2020, which is equivalent to the capacity of 20 new nuclear power plants. India is also the world’s fifth largest installer of wind energy capacity, and Indian company Suzlon is one of the world’s leading wind energy companies. The national government is giving serious consideration to enacting national renewable electricity standards, and at least a dozen progressive Indian states have already set their own requirements, ranging from 0.5 to 10 percent.
It remains to be seen whether the Indian prime minister will heed Minister Ramesh’s call to action. India needs the space to maneuver through its domestic political constraints, just like the United States. Let us not forget that India’s per capita emissions are just 7 percent that of the United States’. And some 400 to 600 million of India’s 1.1 billion population is without or only has limited access to electricity, which makes the coutry resistant to capping carbon emissions ahead of the United States.
The United States is the one clear roadblock to this progress. Internal opposition to action on climate change will strengthen in India if the United States does not demonstrate leadership on this issue. The more the United States is willing to do, the easier it will be for the best impulses of some sectors of the Indian government to prevail. Worries about whether the United States will reduce emissions slow progress in countries like India and China just as U.S. concerns about progress in these countries stymies legislation in our country. Progressives on climate change there are fighting battles that mirror the ones we are fighting here.
The path to a deal in Copenhagen lies in highlighting the potential economic opportunity that the transformation to a energy economy brings for all the countries involved, as well as making clear the importance of developed countries doing their share to provide resources that will facilitate clean development in emerging and less developed countries. India’s recent initiatives reflect the country’s understanding of the potential that the energy transformation brings to their own economy. As hearings begin next week in the U.S. Congress on the Senate companion to the House climate and energy bill, we hope that the United States will do the same.