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Change our climate

Last month India hoped to be a climate change leader. Why are we scurrying in China’s shadows today? Samar Halarnkar elaborates.

columns Updated: Dec 02, 2009 20:48 IST
Samar Halarnkar

India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh doesn’t get startled easily. He’s quick-witted and sharp, boasts a world-class education (IIT Bombay and MIT) and diverse experiences on the boards of international and Indian institutions, and has been a newspaper columnist and author. One of his books is Making sense of Chindia.

None of that helped last Friday: the Chinese startled Ramesh.

The minister was in Beijing on a Chinese invitation, to discuss last-minute plans to present a united front at the critical 19-day climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, starting December 5.

He was pleasantly surprised when Premier Wen Jiabao — one of China’s most powerful men — gave him an unscheduled audience.

When they met, the next surprise was not quite as pleasant. First, Ramesh was told of China’s new plan to lead the developing world in presenting a united front against the West. Second, Jiabao told Ramesh, you will get a draft by tonight: read it overnight, and if it’s fine, let’s tell the world tomorrow.

The draft was written in simple English, and next morning, India had no option but to sign on to a plan that said China, India, Brazil and South Africa would stand united at Copenhagen.

The credit, rightly so, was China’s.

With its slow, obstinate approach to climate change, India now looks like a holdout with no creative thinking. (In October too, it was China’s idea to make the two countries sign an agreement to consult each other on climate issues.)

Two days before Wen’s late cut, China had already hit us for a six with a surprise announcement that it would pare emissions intensity by 40 to 45 per cent.

The Indian government and sundry pundits quickly declared this was meaningless, that China would indefinitely continue to be the world’s biggest polluter.

Admittedly, there is some hot air here, and it isn’t all carbon dioxide — the stuff that’s warming the globe. Emissions intensity is a measure of emissions per unit of GDP. That means total emissions can grow while cleaner technologies can pare emissions incrementally, say, for each tonne of paper. In the long term, a reduction in emissions intensity does slow emissions growth. In the short term, it allows developing countries to bring something to the negotiating table and lets rich countries take something away.

With its bold moves, China is acting like a leader, occupying its place in the sun, while India scurries in the shadows.
It didn’t look this way last month. When I met Ramesh, he said: “Let us take on aggressive commitments domestically. Let us negotiate from a position of strength because we have a good story to tell the world.”

Indeed, we did. India’s technocrats have successfully run some energy-savings programmes. Three examples: India will save the equivalent of 10,000 mega watts (MW) of energy — enough to power Delhi and Mumbai — by 2012, as new conservation schemes and laws kick in; between 2011 to 2014, India hopes to save the equivalent of 10 million tonnes of oil and reduce national energy use by 7 to 8 per cent; by April 1, 2010, companies that cannot clean up will be able to buy energy credits from others that can.

We only had to add up the numbers and tell the world our story.

It never happened. Now, pushed by China, India is scrambling to put together a target for an emissions-intensity cut before Copenhagen, anywhere from 18 to 30 per cent.

By the time you read this, it may be official.

India’s proclivity to ponderousness has previously served it well. The economy could shrug off the global economic meltdown and grow a stunning 7.9 per cent during July to September (second, of course, to China’s 8.9 per cent — except that India’s growth was real, led by consumer spending and private investment, not a state splurge like our rich neighbour) because the government was ultra-cautious in removing fiscal controls.

The big difference this time: even if you ignore the geopolitics of Copenhagen, India is still running out of time. Our climate is changing faster than we anticipated. Flip through the pages of this newspaper over the past 10 days and you will see what’s in disarray: wheat yields in Punjab; the fish catch in Bengal; tea output in Assam’s tea gardens; the harvest in Himachal’s apple orchards; and the air quality in all our major cities.

We need swift incentives, radical action. ITC chairman Y.C. Deveshwar gave me one: Replace excise duty, break it into two taxes, one linked to energy savings. Another came from Finance Commission Chairman Vijay Kelkar last week: Sell 50 per cent of the public sector to create an ‘environment fund’ of $200 billion (Rs 94,000 crore) for green technologies.

Will India agree? A quick HT poll across four cities (albeit not statistically significant with 514 respondents) revealed that 61 per cent said ‘yes’ to voluntary emission cuts; 63 per cent wanted India to show leadership. Three things struck me at four schools I visited this past week. First, how well informed students were on climate change. Second, they were walking their talk — pushing parents to cut car and energy use and recycle. Third, the finely nuanced positions they presented on India’s options at Copenhagen — none of which included holding to old, tired positions.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose officials insist he will visit Copenhagen only if the final agenda accommodates India’s points of view, now knows we need a new climate deal.

India, and Indians, are ready to lead.