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What the Sino-US climate deal means for India

By Rajni Bakshi
November 14, 2014 17:41 IST

While India will be pushed to keep a tight lid on its own carbon discharges, slow and low emission reduction by major polluters will cause an acceleration of climate change, says Rajni Bakshi.

The bilateral agreement on carbon emissions between the US and China on 12th November has far reaching implications for India.

“We have been hung out to dry” one Indian expert said in response to the agreement announced during US President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing.

In this agreement both the US and China, the world’s two largest polluters, have made specific commitments to lower their CO2 emissions. The US has declared a target of lowering emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level by the year 2025. A statement released by the White House says China has promised to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28 per cent by 2030 or earlier.

What is even more significant is the Chinese declaration that it intends to reach a peak of its CO2 emissions by about 2030.

This is expected to heighten pressures on India to also declare a set of targets and a year by which its carbon emissions to peak. This may not be the best course for India.

The US-China deal is too little too late. However, it is now likely to provide the framework for the global agreement on climate change to be negotiated at a summit in Paris at the end of 2015.

This would mean two things. India is pushed to keep a tight lid on its own carbon emissions. At the same time slow and low emission reduction by major polluters will cause an acceleration of climate change. As a tropical region the Indian sub-continent, namely the SAARC countries, will be extremely vulnerable to catastrophically extreme weather events – including lethal heat waves, flash floods and crop failures due to freaky weather patterns.

The latest report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that global carbon emissions must be reduced by 40 to 70 per cent of 2010 levels if we are to prevent a more than 2 degree rise in global temperature.

According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), India’s leading environmental think tank, the targets announced by the US and China will move the planet closer to a  3°C increase in temperature. This is why a statement issued by CSE describes the agreement as “a self-serving agreement between the world’s two biggest polluters.”

In order to stay within a 2 degree rise the US alone has to reduce its emissions by about 50 to 60 per cent below 1990 levels. The target declared this week means that US plans to reduce its emissions by only about 15 per cent of 1990 levels.

“This deal puts a sub-standard benchmark for other countries to follow,” according to Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE. If India were to follow this benchmark, he added, “then we need not do anything till 2040 and beyond. Our per capita emissions in 2030 will be less than 4 tonne CO2e compared to 12 tonne of the US and China.”

T Jayaraman, Dean, School Of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai is concerned that many Indian bureaucrats working on climate change are in favor of India declaring a peak year for emissions. Instead, said Jayaraman, it is far more important for India to demand a fair share of global carbon space and the freedom to decide how to deploy it over a period of several decades.

Walter Mendoza, vice president of the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC) described the US-China declaration as “ a media event, meant to obfuscate the real issues.” For INECC, a network of Indian NGOs concerned about fighting climate change, the biggest issue is that all earlier targets and promises on carbon emissions by the developed nations have not been delivered.

“An agreement to reduce green house gases by 20 per cent was almost reached in 1997, but  the Americans negotiated it down to 5.2 per cent -- or else! And then they walked out anyway” says Mendoza. “Now the US says it will commit to a 26 per cent reduction with 2005 as a baseline! You shift the goalposts and say you're playing ball!”

At present the US-China deal has set the tone for global negotiations to happen in a framework of ‘business-as-usual’ not radical transformation. It remains to be seen whether the Indian government opts to play within this framework or challenge it.  The message from Indian civil society is loud and clear:

As Sunita Narain director of CSE has said: “India should push for a principle-based emissions reduction target for all countries. This is the only way we can force the US and China to reduce their emissions which are in line with the planetary limits.”


Rajni Bakshi is the Senior Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Rajni Bakshi
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