To keep its developmental options open, India must insist that the North drastically reduce its occupation of the global atmospheric commons and compensate the South for what it has taken away.

What precisely is at stake in global climate change negotiations for India and other developing countries? Undoubtedly, checking global warming of anthropogenic origin is the central concern; it would affect them the most. However, equally significantly, the negotiations are critical to keeping open their energy and developmental options while holding global temperatures within tolerable limits.

It is important to revisit some basic facts to appreciate the seriousness of this second concern and the gravity of the situation.

At the beginning of the industrial era, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was roughly 280 ppm (parts per million). If the rise in global temperatures since that base year is to be limited to 2 degree Centigrade (the scientifically accepted target), with at least 50 per cent probability, a concentration of 450 ppm of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is the maximum that can be allowed. (For convenience we shall take all of this concentration to be due to carbon dioxide. Including all GHGs will change the numbers somewhat, but will not significantly alter our conclusions.) The rise in concentrations from 280 ppm to 450 ppm represents the total amount of emissions possible, without serious negative impacts. Of this total emission space available, a significant portion is already occupied by past emissions that cannot now be removed. The issue at Copenhagen therefore is how the remaining ‘carbon space’ — space that India and other developing nations urgently need — is to be divided equitably among all nations.

On a per capita basis, the principle that India and all developing countries have always upheld, a fair share of the carbon space for any country corresponds to its share of the world population.

Of the carbon space that has been occupied till 2008, the Annex-I countries (consisting mostly of the advanced industrial nations) have taken roughly 73 per cent, even though they account for only 19 per cent of the world’s population. Of this the United States takes up 29 per cent, even though its population share amounts to 5 per cent! The remaining 81 per cent of the world has emitted the residual 27 per cent.

Even if the Annex-I countries were to cut their emissions according to the recommendations of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which means reducing annual emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 90 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, they would still retain more than 55 per cent of the total carbon space by 2050. The U.S. for its part would still retain close to 21 per cent of the total carbon space. This is the foundation of the argument that the advanced industrial nations owe the rest a carbon debt for their occupation and exploitation of more than their fair share of the global commons. To date no Annex-I country has offered to cut emissions according to the IPCC recommendations. In particular, the cuts the U.S. is currently considering — the Kerry-Boxer proposals before the U.S. Senate — fall far short of the IPCC recommendations.

The relative share of other sections of the world, outside Annex-I, is of course subject to some specification of detail within the scope of the constraint of a maximum concentration of 450 ppm. All developing countries need to reduce the growth rate of their emissions to keep concentrations below this target. Generally speaking, countries like China or the large developing countries as a group (excluding India and China), would by 2050 get about 20 per cent less than their fair share. There is a fit case to regard India in this context as belonging to the rest of the G-77 rather than the large developing economies.

Today India has a carbon space share of roughly 2.5 per cent compared to a fair share of 17 per cent. By 2050, with a reduction of growth rates in emissions, India would still have only about 4 per cent. India’s elite is also culpable in this regard for hyping up ‘service-sector-led growth,’ while ignoring, in the era of global warming, the critical issue of the gradual closing of India’s energy and manufacturing window, especially as a consequence of economic reform. The rest of the G77 will find itself in a similar situation. Given the existing occupation of the global atmospheric commons, the developing countries appear to have little scope to improve significantly on this share, while keeping global emissions below the maximum.

All considerations of India’s climate strategy must face up to this reality. Not only will India and the rest of the G77 never get their fair share; the costs of whatever developmental trajectory they take will also be significantly higher. Low-carbon pathways, though much talked about, are techno-economically speaking, unexplored terrain.

Any talk therefore of India taking the ‘lead’ in mitigation actions is mere pretension to superpower status. The central issue for India remains that of ensuring deep and binding emission cuts by the developed nations with suitable compensation for their occupation of the global commons through financial and IPR-free technological transfers. Any form of assurance to the global community by the developing countries can only be contingent on suitable action by the Annex-I countries.

Clearly India needs to recognise the reality that, by 2030 or so, its emissions growth rate will have to deviate significantly from its current growth. However, it also has no carbon space to gift away. The statement by Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh (citing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) that India could be “flexible” regarding the targets of the developed countries suggests that the government is contemplating precisely such an unacceptable giveaway.

A section of the environmental movement in the country is attracted by the possibility that unilateral mitigation actions by India could herald a major shift towards an equitable, sustainable, de-carbonised future. But carbon space that is gifted away will be occupied by others, foreclosing our energy future. Even if India, hypothetically speaking, had a maximally environment-friendly, sustainable path of development, it would still be seriously affected by the GHG emissions of others. Every developing nation must democratically determine the manner of utilisation of its share of carbon space, but there is no case for unilateral renunciation.

That the country’s political and business leadership does not appreciate the gravity of the situation is clear from its unseemly enthusiasm for carbon offsets. Carbon offsets, whereby developing countries undertake emission reductions that accrue to the mitigation actions of developed countries in return for carbon credits, amount to a double burden on developing countries. They undertake more than their fair share of mitigation action. It also amounts to selling our carbon space cheap; buying it back will be at a higher cost because later emission reductions will be more difficult. Despite India’s rhetoric at the global negotiating table, criticising the insistence by Annex-I countries that their mitigation actions would significantly depend on offsets, government and corporate India have been actively promoting carbon offsets as a new route to foreign direct investment.

It is in this context that sections of the media, the climate policy community, and civil society have reacted with alarm to indications that the government is contemplating major policy shifts, including not only unilateral mitigation actions and “flexibility” regarding developed country emission reduction targets, but also on related questions of adaptation financing and global technology transfer.

Parliament and civil society must ensure that the parameters of India’s negotiating positions at Copenhagen are firmly fixed so as to ensure that the nation’s vital energy and developmental options are kept open and not foreclosed by unwarranted giveaways.

(Dr. T. Jayaraman is chairperson of the Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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