Everyone Is Waiting On India To Make A Move On Climate

REUTERS/Arko DattaA boy rides his bike through hazy Mumbai. Outdoor air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India.

Landmark climate change decisions are being drafted in Lima, Peru, this week, and India is at the forefront of this international debate.

Leaders from around the world have gathered in Lima for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where they are expected to draft a binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally.

One of the major players in this agreement will be India, which has yet to set a cap on its still-growing emissions.

Several other nations have already pledged to reduce their emissions, including China, the US, and the European Union, who respectively emit the first-, second-, and third-largest amounts of greenhouse gases in the world.

Now, India, as the fourth-largest emitter, is at the center of debate.

To be fair, India — while one of the world’s top five emitters of greenhouse gases — pours out significantly less than China: only 6% of the world’s emissions, in comparison to China’s whopping 23%. But as a developing nation, India has a unique set of priorities.

Among the most urgent of these is bringing electricity to the estimated 300 million people in the country who currently live without it, a goal that is cheaply met with coal-fired power plants — the kind that emit a ton of greenhouse gasses.

The country is already very dependent on coal energy: Coal accounted for 44% of India’s energy consumption in 2012, according to the US Energy Information Administration, while renewable sources, like nuclear and hydroelectric plants, made up just 5%.

This coal use will likely get worse as they expand power coverage in the country. 

In developing countries, the desire to serve their people and improve the economy directly butts heads with the need to curb emissions and combat climate change — even though those developing countries are likely to be the most impacted by climate change.

These developing countries think they are getting a raw deal, since the vast majority of the greenhouse gases causing climate change now were put there by now-developed nations while they were growing.

Now, those nations are stable enough now to afford cutting back on their carbon output, and are asking developing nations to do the same, an act that will hamper their growth. 

India’s attitude toward emission reduction clearly shows this conflict.

While national leaders from around the world convened in New York City in September for the 2014 UN Climate Summit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was absent, sending instead his minister for environment, forests, and climate change, Prakash Javadekar.

At the summit, Javadekar expressed concern over the dangers of climate change and announced plans to increase its wind and solar power capacity. But in a subsequent interview, reported by The New York Times, Javadekar reiterated that in order for the country to grow, India’s emissions would continue to increase for at least another 30 years.

While economic growth is good, continuing to increase its greenhouse gas emissions will only cost India down the road.

Financial experts predict that the cost of climate change’s impacts — fires, droughts, floods, severe storms, and famines — will far outstrip the cost of efforts to avoid them.

And in the near-term, India’s air quality is a major public health concern, with outdoor air pollution the fifth leading cause of death in the country. Major driving factors of this pollution include automobiles and coal-powered industries.

So, as world leaders convene in Lima to discuss climate mitigation and outline emission reduction plans in preparation for Paris meeting next year, all eyes have turned to India, waiting to see if it will change its stance and what kind of commitment the country will make.

If lowering emissions still seems outside the current realm of possibility, perhaps India will set a concrete time line on its emissions growth — China, for instance, has recently pledged to cap its emissions in 2030.

Or perhaps, as a recent Bloomberg editorial suggested, India could commit to lowering its carbon intensity — the amount of carbon it emits per unit of energy produced. Investment in renewable energy could help with such a goal.

Negotiations on the draft are still in session now, and participating countries aren’t required to submit their mitigation plans until March, so it will be some time before we start getting answers. Until then, the world will be watching. 

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