Big breakthrough in Beijing
To address climate change, India has committed itself to a 20-25 per cent reduction in intensity of carbon emissions by 2020, but the international community will want more
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have just signed a historic bilateral accord on climate change and clean energy cooperation in Beijing. This accord will have impacts in the run-up to the Paris Conference in December 2015 when the world community is expected to clinch a new agreement to combat global warming. The agreement was in the works no doubt, but it certainly came sooner than expected. Another agreement on trade in technology-intensive industries has been signed and this has great relevance for the World Trade Organization (WTO). With these two accords, the U.S. and China have signalled that they will influence multilateral outcomes through their bilateral agreements.A historic accord
The accord is historic for a number of reasons. First, China has publicly announced that its emissions of carbon dioxide will peak by 2030 and that the intention is to have the peak year earlier. Second, China will increase the non-fossil fuel share (mainly nuclear, solar and wind) of all energy to around 20 per cent by 2030. Third, the U.S. will cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 with an aspirational goal of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. Fourth, the two countries will vastly expand cooperation in clean energy, phasing down of the use of hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air-conditioners, demonstration of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies and climate-smart urbanisation.
The joint announcement recognises the special responsibilities that the two largest emitters have to curb their emissions. However, the statement understates their contribution to global warming. It acknowledges that “the U.S. and China account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions” whereas the facts are that the U.S. and China account for around 15 per cent and 29 per cent respectively of global greenhouse gas emissions, making a total of about 44 per cent. China’s peaking year of 2030 means that it would peak at about 10 tonnes per capita (compared to the present level of around 7 tonnes per capita) while the U.S.’s per capita emissions then would probably be in the region of 15 tonnes.
“India’s opposition to a concrete proposal for equity in greenhouse gas emission cuts put forward by the Africa Group has been an unwise stance.”
China and the U.S. have been engaged at different levels over the past year at least to come up with such a joint announcement. The recent commitments of the 28-member European Union to deep cuts in their emissions by 2025 and 2030 has undoubtedly put a little extra pressure on China and the U.S. not to lag behind in demonstrating to the world that they recognise the onus is on them to do something dramatic. And to the credit of both, the Beijing announcement is indeed a landmark. It is a hugely important starting point, even with all the political upheavals that the U.S. has witnessed in the recent midterm elections.
Significance for India
What does this agreement mean for India? To be sure, India with about 6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions is simply not in the same league as China, the U.S. or the EU. Even with 8 per cent economic growth over the next decade and a half, its share will not cross 10 per cent at most. Of course, in per capita terms India will be more advantageously placed simply because its population, already 1.24 billion, will increase by about 400 million over the next 35 years. But it would be extremely unwise to dismiss the significance of this agreement on the grounds that India is “different” because of the per capita argument. The international community will now expect India to make some firm commitments for 2025 and 2030. It has already committed itself to a 20-25 per cent reduction in emissions intensity (tonnes of carbon dioxide divided by dollars of GDP) below 2005 levels by 2020 and there should really be no problem to unveil plans for 2025 and 2030 as well. This would be in keeping with domestic imperatives as well.
The Planning Commission’s expert group on low carbon growth strategy had in its final report submitted in April 2014 projected that the contribution of solar, wind and biomass to electricity supply can realistically increase from the present 6 per cent to 18 per cent by 2030. Similarly, it had projected that nuclear energy (which does not entail emissions of carbon dioxide) could increase its share in our electricity supply portfolio from the current level of around 8 per cent by 2030. It is the government’s prerogative to do what it wants regarding the Planning Commission but it would be most unfortunate if this expert group’s report is ignored even without a discussion in the Union Cabinet or in the newly reconstituted National Council on Climate Change chaired by the Prime Minister himself. The Prime Minister has, on occasions, maintained continuity. His September 30th joint statement with Mr. Obama, for instance, has remarkably similar (at times even identical) language on climate change, energy and environment issues as the September 27th 2013 joint statement of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Mr. Obama. Hence, it should not be difficult really for the Prime Minister to have the targets suggested by the expert group accepted as publicly stated objectives both domestically and internationally. The passage of a new and comprehensive law with specified goals would also add to India’s position as will demonstrable actions to ensure cleaner coal production and use actions which unfortunately have not been visible so far.
Balance of growth and ecology
The Sino-U.S. agreement does not automatically mean that the Paris Conference will yield something constructive that will meet political, economic and environmental objectives all at once. Paris will be more of a starting point rather than a final destination. But even for that starting point to be achieved, India has to start thinking creatively. It has long been a champion of equity in any international agreement but it has been opposing a concrete proposal put forward by the Africa Group in this regard. This has been a most unwise stance. In any case, equity gets reflected in the nature of mitigation responsibilities a country takes on — the fact that India is allowed to pledge reductions not in absolute levels of emissions but in relative levels measures of emission intensity is itself a reflection of equity considerations. India’s continued insistence on the Annex I (industrialised countries)/non-Annex I distinction that forms the bedrock of all climate change negotiations also needs to be relooked. Differentiation is essential but is this distinction made in a completely different era over two decades back still meaningful? Simply put, it is not.
Strong domestic actions are needed not just to strengthen our global standing but also to address growing public health and livelihood security concerns domestically. Rapid growth is imperative. But it needs to be sustainable as well. The current ruling dispensation seems to think that environmental and forest regulations and laws are a drag on economic growth. This is a profound misreading of the situation. In fact, in some cases, like in the case of emissions of sulphur dioxide and mercury, new concentration standards are required. To say that growth and ecology have to be integrated is fine in theory, but in practice there are choices to be made, complexities to be unravelled, contradictions to be understood and conflicts to be managed. There will be trade-offs and these have to be made public and transparent. The balance of growth and ecology calls for great nuancing and sensitivity which, alas, has not yet been in evidence.
(Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha MP and former Union Minister.)