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Why the nuclear deal is climate change saviour

The recent National Action Plan on Climate Change had no mention of the India-US nuclear deal. Some Indian officials see it as a missed chance to have highlighted a little-known fact: the nuclear deal is a carbon-buster on the scale of the Kyoto Protocol, reports Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

delhi Updated: Jul 06, 2008 00:46 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The recent National Action Plan on Climate Change had no mention of the India-US nuclear deal. Some Indian officials see it as a missed chance to have highlighted a little-known fact: the nuclear deal is a carbon-buster on the scale of the Kyoto Protocol.

In research over the past two years, Stanford University professors David Victor and Varun Rai have shown that if India installed 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020 it would save the world 145 million tonnes of carbon emissions. This, they have noted, is “nearly as large as the entire commitment of the 25 European Union nations to reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.”

In their defence, officials say it was felt the action plan, whose target audience was overseas, would be less credible if it is was merged with the nuclear deal controversy. “Also, the deal is a possibility. An action plan is about policies that are being implemented,” said one.

Neither Washington nor New Delhi have made much of the carbon argument. Victor testified before the US Congress in 2006 that the nuclear deal could transform global climate change policy.

The deal’s carbon savings “would exceed the total carbon savings from the 100 largest developing country projects” of the Clean Development Mechanism. Given the Bush administration’s own scepticism regarding global warming, it is no surprise it never flagged it as a major argument for the deal.

Indian diplomats say New Delhi has used the climate change argument when it has sought to sell the deal to the international community, especially in Europe. “It has been one of our more effective arguments,” said one.

Domestically, the carbon case for the nuclear deal was seen as a non-starter. “Neither the communists nor the BJP were interested in such arguments,” said another diplomat.

Rai finds Indian reticence understandable. The Indian debate has concentrated on “clearing off doubt clouds about the deal’s impact on India’s indigenous nuclear programme. Given the importance India accords to its nuclear programme, there would be apprehensions in India’s political circles about mixing climate change and nuclear power in the same bowl.”

While the energy benefits will receive the most attention, Rai says the ordinary Indian should keep in mind the environmental gains.

“To the extent nuclear power can substitute coal-based power generation in India, benefits for India’s environment can be substantial, especially the positive impact of nuclear power on local air quality (reduced sulphur and nitrogen oxides and particulate matter). This has been an increasing problem in India that promises to grow worse.”

If Manmohan Singh’s promised 40,000 MW nuclear target is reached, the carbon saved would be a whopping 300 million tonnes. India’s total carbon emissions in 2005 were roughly 250 million tonnes. At this level, Rai says, the savings “would be crucial in limiting potentially significant climate change impact in India.”

Nuclear power would resolve the energy versus environment equation that always bedevils any national climate change policy.

For India, says Jacob Funk Kierkegaard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “to develop sufficient stable base load electricity supply without exploding CO2 emissions in the coming years, nuclear energy will have to play a major role. Other renewables simply don't provide the required stability of supply.”

Rai also believes it’s a double win: “It offers India the opportunity to solve some of its chronic electricity problems and to play a role at the global stage in reducing CO2 emissions.”