The Wall Street Journal reported this week that China had passed the US as the world’s top energy consumer in 2009. The report, based on new data from the International Energy Agency, went on to add that while China had been expected to do this sometime in the next five years, it did so in 2009 itself because of the recession in the US. The latter, however, remains the world’s biggest per capita energy consumer, and also the biggest consumer of oil. Much of China’s energy, just like much of India’s, is generated from coal. China also happens to be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
From a geopolitical perspective, China’s growing hunger for energy should worry India. Both countries import much of their fuel requirements and the rising demand in China for fuel is bound to create ripples, if not waves, in the global energy markets. More worryingly, it will mean more competition between India and China to acquire energy assets in other countries—something in which China has had far more success than India. The Journal report did not put a number to India’s energy consumption, but the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010 puts it at 469 million tonnes of oil equivalent in 2009, compared with China’s 2,252 million tonnes.
But there is another, far more critical, aspect to China’s numbers—one concerning the environment. Multilateral environment talks have typically come unstuck because of the widely differing positions of the US, on the one side, and developing countries including India and China, on the other. The much-hyped Copenhagen talks held last year failed largely on this count and this is also the reason why most analysts and experts do not expect much from the Cancun climate talks scheduled for November.
China has sought to take a leadership position in the talks, which is understandable given its status as both the world’s biggest consumer of energy as well as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The Chinese government recently announced that it would host a discussion in Tianjin in October, as a run-up to the Cancun talks. Being present on the Chinese side of the table is sure to give India’s position in the talks some heft. Still, India, which has simultaneously sought to take the high ground in environmental issues by announcing its own ambitious action plan to combat climate change, will do well to remember that China, like any right-minded nation, has always been guided by self-interest. India will have to do the same: compete with China for resources, even as it collaborates with its neighbour to arrive at what the two countries see as an equitable climate deal.
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