President Barack Obama has correctly differentiated some developing countries as those that must pull their weight to mitigate climate change. Although he did not, in his speech at the New York summit convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, get into specifics, he evidently had China and India in mind as heading the list of rising powers that must curb carbon emissions. Mr. Obama’s own task of creating a road map for U.S. emissions cuts ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks is far from easy, but time is running out for India in the climate debate. The official stance that the country’s per capita emissions will always be lower than those of the developed countries cannot form the basis for serious climate talks, when the goal is to reduce the rate at which greenhouse gases are being added to the Earth’s atmosphere. There is much to learn from the Chinese response, which first materialised in the National Climate Change Programme 2007. Beijing has deservedly been praised for the big steps it has promised to take. The first will be a reduction, by the year 2020, of the energy intensity of its GDP growth by a notable margin from 2005 levels. In parallel, China is engaging the United States on climate change with potentially beneficial outcomes for both sides in terms of technology development and preferential assistance. All this should persuade India to abandon its defensive stance.
If India assumes a more pro-active position on climate change, it can lend a strong voice to the calls to compensate developing nations for mitigation and adaptation costs. In terms of priorities, the global effort must focus on sequestering carbon in all coal-fired power stations, as emissions from this source are growing. In the Indian context, the poor efficiency of thermal power plants also needs to be addressed. The solar mission, which forms part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, needs a major push. It is revealing that in 2006, a not-so-sunny Germany produced 2,220 gigawatt-hours of power from solar energy while India’s tally was 19, equalling tiny Luxembourg. To make a credible case at Copenhagen, therefore, a lot of detail needs to go into the eight missions that make up the national plan. The States need to vigorously pursue the green agenda in areas such as sustainable agriculture, water protection, urban planning, and forestry. Here again, China’s policy is on firm ground. President Hu Jintao has spelt out clear actions on renewable energy, greater reliance of non-fossil fuels, and increase in forest cover. In the weeks ahead, New Delhi must come up with a strong climate agenda for 2020 — rather than approach the UNFCCC talks with a set of defensive arguments.