Traffic moves along a highway during morning rush hour in Delhi, India, on Oct 29, 2015. India in October was the last major nation to submit its approach to tackling emissions ahead of a landmark UN climate change conference in December, pledging to cut their intensity about a third by 2030 from 2005 levels. Photographer: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg
India's greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise in absolute terms

India probably has more at stake in the struggle against global warming than any other large economy represented at this week’s climate summit in Paris.

As temperatures rise — boosted by the global emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — India becomes more prone to droughts, floods, crop failures and cyclones. Scientists predict that average temperatures on the densely populated plains of north India will rise by a startling 2.9-5C by 2080.

Climate change, says Ajay Mathur, a veteran of climate talks and one of New Delhi’s negotiators in Paris, is “amazingly serious” for India just as it is poised to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation.

India’s vulnerability to changes in the climate makes it all the more extraordinary that its government is seen as an obstacle to a successful deal, just as previous administrations were accused of obstructing world trade negotiations.

Two weeks ago in Turkey, India blocked efforts by the G20 countries to prepare for an ambitious climate accord. John Kerry, US secretary of state, recently praised China but expressed concern about the “challenge” of India and its desire to burn more dirty coal for electricity. “We’ve got a lot of focus on India right now to try to bring them along,” he said.

President Barack Obama is to meet President Xi Jinping of China and Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, in Paris on Monday to try to ensure a successful summit, and Mr Modi has already promised co-operation. “We need power but we will not create problems for the world,” said the Indian prime minister.

India — which sees itself as a champion of developing countries and a regional rival of China — nevertheless insists it has been misunderstood in the lead up to the Paris climate talks.

In 2012, its annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions were just 1.6 tonnes per person, compared with 16.4 tonnes per person for the US and 7.1 tonnes per person for China. By 2030 its emissions will still amount to only about 5 tonnes per person per year — half the level in China.

The Modi government has also launched an ambitious programme to accelerate investment in renewable energy, particularly solar power, so that in 15 years more than a third of its installed electricity capacity will be based on solar energy, windmills and hydroelectric dams.

Chart: CO2 emissions per capita

Prakash Javadekar, Indian environment minister, called Mr Kerry’s comments “unwarranted and unfair” and said the real challenge in Paris would be getting developed countries to offer more concessions.

Mr Mathur was also critical of Mr Kerry. “When action is happening, when the country has said it will agree to an agreement . . . I find it very surprising when the country is called obstructionist or a challenge,” he said recently.

India does not deny that its greenhouse gas emissions will increase dramatically in absolute terms — from 1.48bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually in 2005 to more than 7bn in 2030 — but says that is because of a growing population and the need to provide electricity to the 300m Indians who lack it today, and the requirement for new coal-fired power stations to supplement other sources of electricity. Half of India’s extra emissions are expected to come from coal.

An acceptable deal — “just” and “equitable” are the words used by India — would have to give India the “carbon space” to develop as other countries did before it. “Either we remain poor or you need to tell us a paradigm by which people can have a better quality of life with lower energy use,” says Mr Mathur.

Chart: India's greenhouse gas emissions

India’s promise to cut its greenhouse gas emission intensity relative to gross domestic product by a third while quadrupling absolute emissions is unlikely to be a deal-breaker, given the equally unambitious targets set by other countries.

The sticking point is more likely to be India’s insistence that signatories reaffirm a pledge of $100bn a year in financial flows from rich countries to poor ones from 2020, to help with emissions reduction and climate change adaptation.

India’s domestic cost of capital is high at around 13 per cent and according to the International Energy Agency the country needs to invest $140bn a year on everything from modernising electricity grids for handling fluctuating renewable energy supplies to improved technology for burning coal.

As the talks begin in Paris, India can be accused of two faults in its approach, say analysts and diplomats monitoring the negotiations. First, it has failed to trumpet from the rooftops its relatively low present and future per capita emissions; and second, it may be too pessimistic about likely technological advances that would permit it to adopt more ambitious carbon emission targets.

Manish Shrivastava, a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute, a think-tank in New Delhi, argues that it makes sense “from a diplomatic point of view” to err on the side of technological pessimism during negotiations. And he compares what he sees as China’s meaningless carbon target unfavourably with India’s apparently unambitious stand.

“It’s a choice between precise and reasonable, and ambitious and ambiguous,” he says.

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