India: The costs of aligning with China

The India Climate-Change Calculus

Aligning with China only undermines New Delhi’s negotiating position and costs its people dearly


Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2009-January 3, 2010

China has been publicly excoriated by U.S. officials and others for opposing a binding climate-change deal at this month’s United Nations summit in Copenhagen. But the real loser was India.

By aligning itself with China’s negotiating position, India bracketed itself with the world’s largest polluting nation. This tack has been months in the works; back in October, New Delhi signed a five-year memo of understanding with Beijing and agreed, among other things, to present a united front in Copenhagen. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went so far as to declare there "is no difference" between the two countries’ negotiating positions.

Yet there is a huge difference in actual emissions. China is the world’s largest polluter, responsible for 24% of global carbon emissions. Most of these emissions are due to China’s economic development path, which has relied heavily on carbon-intensive, manufacturing industries. China’s per-capita carbon emissions are four times higher than India’s, which boasts the lowest per-capita emissions among all-important developing countries, at 26% of the world’s average.

China also doesn’t share India’s basic approach to curbing global warming. New Delhi wants per-capita emission levels and historic contributions to the build-up of greenhouse gases to form the objective criteria for any global carbon mitigation plan. China, as the world’s factory, wants a different formula that discounts carbon intensity linked to export industries.

Nor does India have much in common with other major developing nations, either in its carbon profile or industrial-development levels. For example, in 2007 (the latest figures available) India’s per-capita emissions totalled 1.2 tons; South Africa, 9.4; China, 4.8; and Brazil, 2.1, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

These facts argue for India to align itself with the least developed nations, which have lower emissions profiles. Yet the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh entered the Copenhagen negotiations joined at the hip with China, first by agreeing to put up a united front and then by following in Beijing’s footsteps to unveil a voluntary plan to slash its carbon intensity by 2020.

The move forced the U.S. to strike a watered-down deal with the developing-world bloc of Brazil, India, South Africa and China—rather than deal directly with the world’s largest polluter, China. The deal also committed India to "implement mitigation actions" open to "international consultations and analysis." Rather than focus on providing basic services—like electricity and safe drinking water—to the hundreds of millions of poor Indians who desperately need them, Mr. Singh also pledged to slash India’s emissions intensity by 20% "regardless of the outcome" in Copenhagen.

Past experience should have taught India that whenever it has joined hands with China on environmental issues, it has been let down by Beijing’s proclivity to jettison principles in the ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Take the 1989 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer: China teamed up with India in the negotiations, only to reverse its stance and agree to abide by the protocol if it were compensated for the compliance costs. India was forced to follow suit.

In Copenhagen, India would have done better to delink itself from China and the other two leading developing nations and to encourage the world’s largest polluters—the U.S. and China—to do a deal.

India not only aligned itself with the wrong group, but also it presented itself inadvertently as a major global polluter by making common cause with China, whose developmental path threatens to unleash a carbon tsunami on the world. After all, had the situation in Copenhagen been reversed—with India’s per-capita emissions four times higher than China’s, and with India in the line of international fire—would Beijing have helped provide New Delhi diplomatic cover?

Mr. Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of "On the Frontline of Climate Change: International Security Implications" (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2007).

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s