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Home / Opinion / Climate change: boxing India into a corner

The global climate is not nearly as volatile as the politics around it. After several years in the deep freeze—a time coinciding with the global economic downturn, when advanced economy politicians were more worried about jobs (including keeping their own) than the environment—the debate is flaring up once again, and India is very likely to be in the hot seat.

As a leader in this newspaper warned, the recent pact on carbon emissions reduction by the US and China is likely to ratchet up pressure on India to join the club of the putatively virtuous. While critics contend, correctly, that the agreement is more symbolic than substantive, the more salient point is that the unity of the fast growing emerging economies—perhaps more apparent than real, to begin with—has finally been broken.

In retrospect, the tactical decision to operate as a bloc, with China and India in one negotiating ship, has proved to be a major strategic blunder. I recall in the run up to the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh joked at an academic seminar that the Chinese loved having Indians on their side, as we spoke good English and our clever negotiators knew where to use curly brackets and where to use square brackets.

As it turns out, being bracketed with China was what did us greatest harm, as the new railways minister Suresh Prabhu has rightly observed. Ramesh’s arrogance and insouciance, in parading our camaraderie with the Chinese, obscured the reality that India’s natural negotiating allies ought to have been poorer and less industrialized economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and not a China which was catching up quickly to advanced economy income and emissions levels.

Just who was cleverer, and who was using whom to what end, now seems evident.

The rhetorical push against India has already begun in right earnest. The New York Times, bellwether of the swirling currents of centre-left and pro-Democratic Party thinking in the US, recently carried an absurdly alarmist report warning portentously—on the basis, so far as I can tell, more of shrill advocacy than respectable science—that if India continues with its drive toward coal, the consequences for the global climate would be disastrous and irreversible.

This is only a harbinger of what is to come.

Having cracked the emerging economy negotiating bloc wide open, one should fully expect the US to attempt to persuade—or cajole, convince, or bully—India to follow the Chinese example.

One can only hope that the Narendra Modi government holds firm, and asserts India’s right to develop her economy, and pull hundreds of millions out of poverty into gainful employment and secure livelihoods, before we can ever contemplate signing on to major international commitments to abate carbon emissions.

The reality is that, if India is to grow rapidly and eradicate poverty, this will necessitate a huge expansion in large-scale, labour-intensive manufacturing—the absence of which has been, thus far, the Achilles heel of the India growth story. Economic growth—and manufacturing especially—is carbon-intensive. Emission levels are going to continue to rise as India industrializes and gets back onto a high growth trajectory. There are no two ways about it.

Consider that an economy’s total emissions may be decomposed into its emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) multiplied by GDP itself—this is a modified and simplified version of the so-called Kaya identity. Emissions per unit of GDP—a measure of carbon intensity—are, mostly, technologically determined, and fall only slowly as cleaner technologies become available. Thus, for an economy at India’s level of development, as GDP rises rapidly, total emissions will, invariably, rise, as GDP growth outpaces the decline in carbon intensity.

This is accounting—not ideology.

In the interest of countering those abatement aficionados—whether in India or abroad—who chant the mantra that India is now the world’s third largest emitter, let us remind ourselves just how distantly in third place we are.

At present China is responsible for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the US accounts for 15% and India is nowhere close at 6%. The gulf is even greater when expressed in CO2 emissions per capita: the US is at a whopping 17.6 tonnes, China is at 6.2 tonnes, and India weighs in at a measly 1.7 tonnes.

Based on these sobering statistics, it is surely right and proper that China—whose GDP per capita is more than four times as large as India’s, and whose aggregate GDP is almost five times as large—should smartly step up to the plate and join the US and other advanced economies in striving to abate global emissions.

To expect India to do so at this stage, and thereby condemn hundreds of millions to poverty and destitution, is at least as shameful and obscene as the dangers posed by a changing global climate.

Every fortnight, In the Margins explores the intersection of economics, politics and public policy to help cast light on current affairs.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com. To read Vivek Dehejia’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/vivekdehejia

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