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Talking shop with Beijing

India and China must be allowed to chart their own energy-efficient growth paths.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2009 22:41 IST

When Wen Jiabao calls Manmohan Singh has a definite view on the weather in Copenhagen. The two rapidly developing economies are on the same side of the negotiation table in climate change talks. There’s one crucial difference though. China already has a large carbon footprint, India is poised to enlarge its. The two countries will be discharging nearly half the world’s greenhouse gasses 20 years from now, but it is more expensive for China to do anything about it. So Mr Wen needs Mr Singh more than the other way round next week. India’s larger interests are served by aligning with China, yet it has the flexibility to be more receptive to the West’s proposals on saving the planet.

India’s energy use per $1,000 of GDP has declined by 42 per cent between 1980 and 2006 and China’s use by 71 per cent. Still manufacturing-intensive China needs 50 per cent more energy to produce an extra dollar than India where services are growing faster than industry. Both countries face the same scale effect of additional emission as their economies expand. India’s energy use per capita has risen by 70 per cent in a quarter of a century and China has posted an eye-popping 136 per cent growth. However, the composition of consumption in India is ahead in the transition to a less fuel-hungry economy. And its relatively slower pace of growth allows India to gain from technological advances that lower emissions per unit of output.

The more proximate divergence arises from the state of infrastructure development in the two countries. China has already built significant power generation capacity and the UN estimates that if all Chinese power plants were to run on Japanese technology, they would emit 50 per cent less carbon dioxide. India has so far managed to put up a fraction of its required power capacity. It is cheaper to build green power plants than retrofit existing ones (a power plant typically has a life-span of 50 years). Likewise, in transportation. The Chinese road network is in place but the pace of highway development in India allows it leeway to explore fuel-efficient rail networks. A clutch of Indian cities is indeed in the process of acquiring rail-based mass transport systems. Summits are not needed to convince energy-starved China and India to seek efficiencies. The economics is compelling. It is just that they should be free to choose their paths to God.