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The two top emitters of greenhouse gases that cause global warming and climate change are China and the US, with China accounting for around 29% and the US for about 16% of world emissions. Thereafter, there is a large gap and in third position is the 28-member European Union (EU) that collectively accounts for 11% of global emissions. Then there is yet another gap and India is in fourth position at about 6% followed by Russia at around 5%.

So, it is true certainly that compared with the Big Two and compared with the EU as well, India is a much lower emitter. Of course, when emissions are reckoned on a per capita basis (emissions divided by population), India’s ranking falls very sharply because of a very large denominator and an increasing one too, at that.

In the last quarter of a century, India’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions has doubled, or thereabouts. Now, with accelerated economic growth, its share will increase at a faster rate. A recent analysis painstakingly put together by New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) that was released a couple of days back has conclusively established what is increasingly being talked about: that by 2030, India’s emissions could be at least two-three times its present level and in that year India may well end up being the world’s second-largest emitter after China. By 2030, going by current trends, India will probably be where the US is today in terms of emissions, but of course at vastly lower levels of per capita income.

However, in per capita terms, the emissions will be well below the corresponding global average of today. But this is of small consolation since per capita alone can never be the basis of negotiations and the world owes us no favour for our own reproductive profligacy.

For the very first time, the CPR-IIASA study critically reviews seven assessments of future scenarios done by different institutions like the erstwhile Planning Commission, TERI, the World Bank, the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the National Council of Applied Economic Research.

The seven assessments vary widely in the sectors they cover, the assumptions they make in key areas like renewables and the quantitative models of growth they use. Hence, the CPR-IIASA review, even though it does not generate numbers of its own, is all the more useful since it attempts to provide a common framework to make sense of the numbers that get thrown about in the public discourse both in India and abroad.

The seven assessments are quoted frequently, but as the CPR-IIASA authors bemoan, none of them really provide any sensitivity analysis of changes in input parameters, apart from having limitations in their basic approach itself (for instance, ignoring local environmental effects of growth in terms of pollution and health).

That economic growth measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) will be a key driver of emissions is obvious. Population growth by itself does not automatically drive emissions as the Chinese experience over the past two decades has demonstrated. It is consumption that matters most and, of course, in the case of China about a quarter of its emissions is on account of its export sector that meets the consumption needs of other countries. During the decade 2004-2014, India’s GDP growth averaged around 7.5% annually, in itself a very impressive achievement that has unfortunately got clouded because of the slowdown in the last two years of the United Progressive Alliance-II regime.

Every effort is being made to accelerate this growth even further and there can be no dispute whatsoever on the need to do so. But while faster GDP growth will no doubt increase the absolute level of emissions in the short term of a decade or two, emissions intensity can certainly come down and, in fact, must through a relentless focus on efficiency and technology.

The CPR-IIASA study shows that by 2030, it is perfectly feasible and possible for India’s emissions intensity to decline by 40-45% on 2005 reference levels. The other crucial finding that has enormous implications is that coal consumption will increase at least two-three times of current levels through both increased domestic production and imports. This is the single biggest climate policy challenge even assuming that the most aggressive of ambitions on nuclear, hydel, solar and wind power will materialize.

Many countries use independent think tanks to inform and underpin their policy positions in global forums. China, Brazil and South Africa, for example, have used academic and research institutions extensively to bolster their negotiating position and to put out new ideas for wider debate and discussion. Very often such ideas have caught India flat-footed—as, for instance, South Africa’s Equity Reference Framework proposal for managing and moderating mitigation of greenhouse gases that incorporates considerations of equity long championed by India itself.

For the most part, however, India’s climate change policies have been the domain of predominantly bureaucrats and diplomats, both serving and retired. Policies can still be decided by the official ruling establishment. But given the wealth of expertise that exists in different institutions within the country and the fact that this expertise is also well plugged into the international network, the Indian government can only benefit from using these human resources. But to use them requires an openness that has been far from being in evidence so far. Using academic institutions means those in power must have the capacity to hear different points of view.

The Planning Commission for all its faults did provide a platform where intellectual debate could take place and views different to the official line of thinking could be expressed without fear of reprisal. Whether the new NITI Aayog will succeed in this task time alone will tell, but the omens are far from promising.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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