One month after the global summit meeting on climate change is a good time to take stock of the events at Copenhagen. Leading to the summit was a well informed debate in Parliament, in which a number of our younger MPs took active part. Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh gave a comprehensive reply, stating clearly the red times in India’s negotiating position. Before the Indian team left for Copenhagen, some of the negotiators expressed dismay at his announcement that India would work for a voluntary reduction of 20 to 25 per cent in energy intensity in 2020, compared to 2005. The Minister took his cue from China, which had announced a reduction of 40 to 45 per cent.

India has been saying it does not want to be part of the problem but wants to be part of the solution. India with a per capita carbon emission of a little more than one tonne cannot create a problem for the survival of the world. The U.S. with an emission of 23 tonnes certainly can. It refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and has been trying to let the Protocol die. Its position is that it can take on binding obligations only if countries like China and India undertake similar obligations.

There is confusion in the minds of many that the positions of India and China are identical. In one respect, they are identical: neither of them is responsible for the historical emissions from the advent of industrial revolution till the last decades of the 20th century. Now China is the biggest single emitter of carbon and its average emission is about 5 tonnes, compared to about 10 tonnes by the European Union, Japan and Russia. Hence its announcement of a voluntary reduction of 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, compared to 2005, is to be welcomed.

The U.S. is still a laggard in coming up with a target for reduction. There is legislative action under way whereby the emissions are to go down by 17 per cent by 2020, as compared to 2005. But this will mean a reduction of only 4 per cent compared to the 1990 level. Thus this falls far short of what developed countries were obliged to effect under the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, even the modest reduction goal set by President Barack Obama may not receive the approval of the U.S. Senate. These numbers have to be compared with the necessity of the developed countries to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, if the global temperature rise is to be restricted to 20 degrees C.

The Danish Chair of the Copenhagen summit was clearly under pressure to drive the negotiations in the direction desired by the developed countries. Thus it was that the financial assistance promised to the least developed and island nations, put at some $30 billion now (and going up to some $100 billion by 2020), was made contingent on the major developing countries, including China, India, South Africa and Brazil, taking on mandatory emission cuts.

The developing countries were pressing that a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, with higher emission reduction obligations for the developed countries, should emerge from Copenhagen. The least developed countries and island nations wanted to ensure that the developed countries committed themselves to substantial financial assistance. The conference was heading towards the predicted conclusion of total failure. At this stage, President Obama came in. Initially, he was trying for a one-to-one meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister. However, he was prepared to meet Mr. Obama only along with the leaders of Brazil, South Africa and India (the BASIC Group). In fact, Mr. Obama virtually barged into a meeting of the BASIC leaders.

It was at this meeting that the so-called Copenhagen accord was arrived at. The accord stated there should be an upper limit of 20 degrees C for rise in global temperature by 2050. No intermediate targets were set. No commitments were made by the developed countries. With regard to the developing countries (such as the BASIC Group), their voluntary emission reduction programmes would be subject to an international consultation process. The U.S., on behalf of the developed countries, indicated that some $30 billion would be available as assistance to the least developed and vulnerable island nations for mitigation programmes. This funding, which might go up to $100 billion by 2020, would come from a basket of governmental, private sector and other sources. There is considerable vagueness as to the actual amount of money that may in fact be disbursed.

When this accord was brought before the final plenary, it was formally rejected by a number of countries because it was arrived at non-democratically by a small number of countries. The developed countries, expectedly, went along with the accord. The BASIC countries themselves entered the caveat that the accord was legally non-binding. It is strange that the U.N. Secretary-General has asked India (and other BASIC countries) to commit themselves to their voluntary emission reduction programmes. The Prime Minister’s prompt rejection of this initiative of the Secretary-General (and Danish Prime Minister) is timely and welcome.

The Planning Commission has been tasked with indicating how the energy intensity of the Indian economy can be cut down by 20 to 25 per cent from the 2005 level by 2020. A time frame of three months has been envisaged for the study. A proper study would need detailed consultations with stakeholders in various sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing industry, mineral extraction, transportation, housing, and service. India should not needlessly put pressure on itself to arrive at a hasty and unworkable programme.

India has held the view that there should be a convergence in per capita emissions over a period of time, as this would mean equitable sharing of the environmental space. It has, however, put no specific number on the table. One may speculate that this number could be about five tonnes per capita, about half the present level in the EU, Japan, and Russia. It is also close to the level China has already reached. This number could go down over a period of time, if most of our energy were to come from non-fossil sources such as solar, hydro, nuclear, wind, and bio-energy.

Another issue is the date by which carbon emissions should peak. R.K. Pachauri indicated that it could perhaps be 2015. This date may be acceptable to the developed world and even China. In view of the late start India made on its development process, the carbon peaking date would have to be much later. Our power generation will continue to depend heavily on coal (and gas to the extent available) for several decades. India hopes to induct nuclear power in a big way but inevitably it is time consuming. So far as solar energy in concerned, further R&D to reduce costs is absolutely necessary. India possesses the requisite S&T manpower to embark on this task. Indian industry is now sufficiently developed to embark on a partnership with government laboratories and academic institutions to make this possible. What we need to evolve is a cooperative partnership that can deliver the desired results. The expectation that the developed countries would make these technologies available other than for profit is unrealistic.

An issue that has engaged climate change specialists is carbon trading, which is already in vogue and may become a big business in course of time. Many specialists feel that this measure will do nothing to reduce emissions. The levy of a carbon tax or grant of carbon credit could directly reduce emissions.

Developed countries are loath to discuss lifestyle changes, which India insists are necessary to permit a transition to a sustainable future. Since we are still in the early stages of our development trajectory, we are better equipped to demonstrate a low carbon lifestyle, which other societies could emulate.

Finally, there is the question of population. So far as India is concerned, a peak population of one-and-a-half-billion is on the horizon. The resources of land, water and food, apart from energy and minerals, available to India will be inadequate to support such a large number, except at a marginal level. Therefore, it is imperative that we adopt policies leading to population stabilisation soon and, indeed, a declining population thereafter.

Since India is still in the early stages of development trajectory, it is better equipped to demonstrate a low carbon lifestyle, which other societies could emulate.

Correction

In “One month after Copenhagen” (Editorial, January 30, 2010), a sentence in the first paragraph was “Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh gave a comprehensive reply, stating clearly the red times in India’s negotiating position.” It should have been “red lines”.

In the fourth paragraph, the last sentence was “These numbers have to be compared with the necessity of the developed countries to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, if the global temperature rise is to be restricted to 20 degrees C.” And in the seventh paragraph, a sentence was “The accord stated there should be an upper limit of 20 degrees C for rise in global temperature by 2050.” In both instances, “20 degrees C” should have been “2 degrees C”.

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