India skeptical of US pledge to combat climate change

Carbon-emissions targets set at Copenhagen seem unlikely to be reached, given America's political realities. That makes developing nations less eager to meet their own goals.

By , Staff writer

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    River of (melting) ice: The Siachen Glacier, in the Himalayas between India and Pakistan, provides much of the water that flows into the Indus River.
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India and China have released more details about how they intend to combat global climate change. From India's perspective, the ball is now in the United States' court.

For years, international climate talks have been caught in a stalemate. The US claims that India and China are not being asked to sacrifice; the two emerging powers say the US, as a major polluter, must cut back so others can be lifted from poverty.

India and China's recent commitments to action put pressure on the US to join a legally binding climate treaty. But Indian environmentalists – eyeing the election of a GOP senator in Massachusetts and President Obama's State of the Union address and his efforts in Copenhagen, Denmark – are skeptical the move will prompt serious US measures.

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"The general feeling within the government is that [the accord] will break the stalemate and we will have a real outcome," says Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi think tank that advises the Indian government on climate policy. "I'm not that optimistic ... the numbers don't add up."

Those numbers refer to pledges made by the nations involved in the Copenhagen Accord recently hammered out in Denmark. Countries were urged to submit plans by Jan. 31 to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, though the deadline was flexible and the pledges nonbinding.

At press time, China and India were expected to release plans shortly. If those put forth specific targets, they were expected to fall along the lines publicly stated prior to the Copenhagen summit. For India, that means a reduction of 20 to 25 percent in emissions intensity per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. China has spoken of a 40 to 45 percent reduction.

The trouble, says Mr. Bhushan, lies with the numbers from developed countries, which fall far below the longer-range goals of the Kyoto Protocol. The US has offered a cut in overall emissions of 4 percent below 1990 levels (or 17 percent from 2005 levels, which the US announced Jan. 29).

"You are talking about [global] emission reductions of 5 to 5.5 percent in 2020 [from] 1990 levels – maybe 7 percent maximum. What you need is at least 30 percent," says Bhushan. Under Kyoto, cuts have to reach 80 percent by 2050.

Both the Indian government and environmentalists here are concerned that the effort at Copenhagen to break the deadlock by showing everyone's hand will translate into a de facto, watered-down international agreement replacing Kyoto.

India's environmental minister, after meetings last week with his Brazilian, South African, and Chinese counterparts – the BASIC bloc – emphasized that the Copenhagen Accord should only be seen as "input" into an ongoing negotiation process set out under Kyoto. Last week in New Delhi, 60 environmental groups, including CSE, urged India and other countries to reject the Copenhagen Accord out of fear it would become a bedrock structure. The UN then clarified that the accord was a political document, and not legally binding.

"I don't think it is robust enough to build upon a future climate-change strategy," says Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network-South Asia. "The Copenhagen Accord is an outcome of a process that was not legitimate, which did not have poor and vulnerable voices."

Mr. Vashist says that while the accord does pressure the US, it won't provoke US action. "There are movements happening, in terms of bills, but they are not ambitious enough."

Another potential limit on India's ability to prod the US is the nuance of "emissions intensity" reductions versus cuts to overall emissions. India and China's pledges are to lower the amount of carbon spewed per dollar of GDP – essentially, to become more energy efficient. US opponents to a climate treaty can claim India and China aren't being forced to cut overall emissions. Indians say that would stymie development and condemn hundreds of millions of their people to continued poverty.

Achieving greater energy efficiency will require massive outside help, given that India already is relatively energy efficient, as much of the population is too poor to be wasteful. A McKinsey & Co. report in August found that of the gains the country could make, only 10 percent could be achieved relatively easily. For the rest, some $910 billion to $1.05 trillion would be required between 2010 and 2030.

"Even I will say that India can't do the high-cost mitigation like shutting down coal plants and replacing them: They do not have the money," says Siddharth Pathak, a policy officer of Greenpeace India. If developed countries want Indians "to do much, much more, you have to provide them with technology and finance."

The US and other developed nations pledged to mobilize $100 billion by 2020 to fund such efforts, as well as to offset the impact of climate change. In late January, the BASIC ministers in Delhi said it was time for developed nations to put up the first $10 billion – and it should go to the poorest nations already feeling the impact of climate change.

There's a growing sense that further delay will hurt both India and the planet. At some point, some say, effects of climate change will become more obvious, and the resulting panic will force India (and others) to make drastic emissions cuts that hurt development. Others hold out hope that a technological race in green energy could entice foot-dragging nations to embrace tougher carbon limits.

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Without America's vigorous participation in reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, India's environmentalists say, it is unlikely that other nations will feel compelled to cut their carbon output, either.

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