In the five years I worked as a reporter in India, I sat through many uncomfortable silences during interviews about Pakistani terrorists, the pervasive caste system and Indian Muslims — sensitive issues that, on the face of it, seem more controversial than carbon parts per million. But these subjects rarely stirred up as much ire as India’s stance on climate change. The topic has become a matter of national pride, a symbol of sovereignty and growing global clout. If you want to make an Indian government official really angry, bring up his carbon emissions.
This fall, when I mentioned to the Indian government’s chief economic policymaker that the United States considers India “intransigent” on climate change, the poised, Oxford-educated Montek Singh Ahluwalia looked slightly stunned for a moment. Pursing his lips, he seemed to struggle to suppress anger. “If I were using a cool description, those are either gross misperceptions or deliberate distortions,” he said in clipped British English. “The Indian approach on this has been, ‘Let’s first decide a fair pollution entitlement for different countries.’ “
India’s position on climate change — as the hard-line negotiator standing up for the moral rights of the developing world — is a familiar one. India is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but for months now, it has come across as an obstinate child, leading the developing world in insisting that industrialized countries bear the brunt of the responsibility for global warming and have no right to dictate reductions to poor countries.
The international climate conference in Copenhagen next month won’t be the showdown it was originally billed as, but the United States and other nations are certainly not going to let up in their insistence that India and China accept hard emissions targets. During Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to India this summer, the country’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, rubbed the United States the wrong way when he had a climate outburst of sorts. Standing beside Clinton, he declared to a bank of reporters, “There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions.”
In a country where almost half a million children die each year from water-borne diarrhea, providing access to basic services such as clean drinking water is more pressing than cutting emissions. And to do so requires energy. “You cannot say that because there is climate change the developing world shouldn’t grow,” was the outraged response when I asked Chandra Bhushan of the Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research group, to explain why it is unfair to ask India to cut its emissions. “You’re essentially saying, ‘No more electricity to your house, close your factories, go back to the fields.’ “
Even under the spinning ceiling fans in his office, drops of perspiration kept springing onto Bhushan’s forehead as we talked. Like many in India, he draws a bright line between India’s “survival emissions,” from burning energy to produce food, for instance, and American-style “luxury emissions,” from things like SUVs and central air conditioning.
In every conversation I had about climate change in India, the lines were clearly drawn: Americans, who emit 20 times more than the average Indian, are greedy over-consumers refusing to make lifestyle changes that would allow the rest of the world to grow. There was no dissent among the ranks. In a country with a healthy tradition of civic engagement and anti-government protests, I was surprised that no environmentalists were urging India to accept international limits. But high-minded nationalism has a proud history there, too; when officials use phrases such as “climate injustice” and “Gandhian moral authority” to describe India’s position, it rings a bell.
Although India accounts for only about 5 percent of the world’s emissions, that includes a wide range of carbon output. The 800 million people who earn less than $2 a day have a carbon footprint of almost zero. But the tiny fraction of rich Indians who use air conditioners and drive big cars are “eating into the carbon space of millions of poor in India,” in the words of Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace. The polluting middle class should be forced to pay a kind of carbon tax, she says, just as the industrialized world owes a debt to the developing world for its historical emissions.
Most U.S. officials consider it unhelpful and misleading to assign blame according to the past hundreds of years of emissions, since we did not know then what we know now. But in India, environmentalists often bring up the greenhouse gases the West emitted not only during its decades of industrialization but also in fighting wars. And they aren’t referring just to Iraq and Afghanistan — the world’s carbon waste in 1941 was mentioned in my interviews more than once.
Essentially, the United States wants India to commit to reducing its emissions, and India wants to be able to do so at a pace of its own choosing. But the two countries actually have a remarkably similar position: The international community isn’t going to tell us what to do. This doesn’t bode well for action on global climate change — not next month or in the sessions that are sure to follow in the future, now that world leaders have agreed that there will be no binding agreement at Copenhagen.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will be in Washington this week, and the Obama administration will almost certainly use the visit to try to wheedle India into softening its position. India, for its part, will try to pressure the United States to commit to giving it funding and low-carbon technology transfers, its key demand from Copenhagen. But no one expects any “deliverables” — despite the fact that India has lately assumed a more flexible posture internationally, with Ramesh, the environment minister, making the case in New York and Washington in September that India is a “dealmaker, not a deal-breaker.”
Meanwhile, at home, the government has proposed sweeping laws to help steer a less-polluting path to development. India will tighten fuel-efficiency standards by 2011, set voluntary targets to improve energy efficiency and aggressively promote solar power generation. The domestic initiative is a diplomatic volley at the industrialized world, showing that India doesn’t need an international agreement to do the right thing. It is also a tacit admission that the country needs to mitigate global warming for its own sake. Environmentalists warn that rising sea levels and melting glaciers will hit India especially hard because of its long coastline and its proximity to the Himalayas.
Nevertheless, the question in India now is not whether its emissions will increase, but how, and by how much. Spending time there is a good reminder of how far India has to go. At least half of the population — mostly people in rural areas — have no access to electricity. Even in the capital city of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the pretty middle-class enclave where I lived from 2002 to 2007 suffered almost nightly power cuts during the long months of summer. The neighborhood guard would blow his whistle and holler “Light gone!” in Hindi, as though he wanted to make sure no one managed to sleep through it. Without the AC, my room would soon become unbearable, and I would join the rest of the neighborhood in shuffling out to our patios to take advantage of what breeze there was. Each summer, bands of furious city residents decide they’ve had enough of this and storm through the streets to protest their unsteady power supply.
To try to meet their demands, India plans to build more coal-fired power plants; more than 70 percent of India’s power needs are already met by coal — the most carbon-intensive source of power — and that is sure to increase in the coming years. As far as India is concerned, it has no choice but to use dirty power. Now that it has opened up its economy and given its citizens a taste of the good life, it can’t just call it all off and leave half the country behind.
But government policy adviser Ahluwalia promised me that India knows better than to make the mistakes of other nations that rapidly industrialized. “We are willing to guarantee that our per capita emissions will never exceed of those of the industrialized countries,” he said, spreading his hands generously, as though revealing a major dispensation. “If, as a result of technology, self-denial and determination, you were to cut your emissions by 50 percent — the moment you achieve it yourself, we will accept that cap.”
When I pointed out that it was inconceivable that that United States would halve its greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, he smiled ever so slightly, with just a hint of righteousness, like a man who knows he has played a match fairly — and won.
Miranda Kennedy’s book about women and globalization in India will be published in January 2011. Her latest reporting trip to India was funded by the International Reporting Project.