The recent exchange between US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and India’s minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh focused attention on the role of developing countries in negotiations to control climate change. The US media played up India’s temerity at refusing to countenance “legally binding" emission reduction targets for itself as part of a global agreement. One story even felt compelled to note that the minister is “highly educated". No doubt, Clinton’s remarks in India were partly meant to play to this gallery, and to US politicians who have little understanding of or desire to understand the developing world. Ramesh, too, may have been indulging in some crowd-pleasing of his own. Beyond the clamour, however, the issues remain: What’s to be done, and who should bear what burden?

Interestingly, what else Ramesh said to Clinton, and what he said in the following days, did not receive the same global media attention. He reiterated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s earlier statement that India would commit to not exceeding rich world per capita emission levels. That is, perhaps, a weak commitment right now, but imagine if industrialized countries make serious reductions: This would lower the ceiling for India, China and other industrializers. Right now, for example, US per capita emissions are 12-15 times those of India. Even in aggregate terms, that’s a multiple of three or four. Every percentage point reduction in US emissions is not only a bigger total reduction than the same percentage reduction by India, but its economic cost is much lower at income levels that are 15 times higher. Clinton missed this point in stressing India’s total emissions.

The Indian minister went on in subsequent days to show that he is serious about his responsibilities. Legislation was introduced to streamline some aspects of environmental governance. Increased spending on forest protection was announced next. A third step was a new plan to introduce mandatory appliance efficiency ratings, industry benchmarks and tradable energy efficiency certificates. These are small steps, but they can only help.

Clinton’s visit also brought the promise of collaborations between the two countries in areas such as energy efficiency and renewable energy. It remains to be seen what will actually emerge, but it is clear that US innovation in green buildings and some renewable technologies is accelerating. India can play a natural role as a market for these innovations, helping to bring costs down by increasing global market size. Its climate may even improve the economics of technologies such as solar power. Indian firms also have potential opportunities as manufacturers of components for new technologies. Ultimately, global agreements on emissions reduction will be meaningless without innovations that improve efficiency, and industrial countries such as the US are going to have to drive this process.

The Indian environment minister also argued strongly for US support for developing countries’ efforts at reforestation: In contrast to the US media portrayal of India as a negative force in controlling climate change, this is an area where India may stand out as a leader. Yet, there is much more that can be done in this dimension. Forests, rivers and glaciers form a vital ecosystem for India, especially in its Himalayan region, and climate change presents a particularly severe threat to that region, with consequences that will spill over to the great river plains of northern India. In fact, climate change is already taking a toll, and my colleague Ben Crow and I have suggested that India and China play a regional leadership role in managing the Himalayan rivers in the face of this challenge. More generally, the two Asian giants need a coordinated strategy with respect to their roles in controlling climate change, as well as responding to its negative consequences. Such a strategy can seize the rhetorical advantage from a US government that has failed to do its share up to now.

Leading the way on the domestic and regional front will give India increased leverage in making the case that developed countries do more to control their own greenhouse gas emissions. The economic case is clear for spurring energy and other resource efficiency, where there are local gains in air and water quality, or net cost savings. Interestingly, one sector that is important for emissions control is also a constraint on growth and a major candidate for economic reform. The power sector needs more than US nuclear technology to turn a corner. It needs more investment, better regulation and more competition to improve capacity and efficiency. Inefficient power supply in India has significant environmental costs as well as reducing growth.

Perhaps, the biggest lesson from the recent climate change clash of rhetoric is that global and national goals are useful in defining the magnitude of the task of emission reduction, but accomplishing it will require detailed and broad-ranging analysis, policymaking, institution-building and implementation. India and the US may yet find much common ground on these fronts.

Nirvikar Singh is professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at