An ‘India Exception’ and India-US Partnership on Climate Change

The authors propose an 'India exception' in global climate talks as the only realistic pathway to a global climate deal, which could also be a key tool in cementing stronger ties between India and the US, two critical actors in the evolving international order.

Climate change has become the major global challenge of this young century. For years, the search for solutions has run up against a sharp North-South divide over the historical emissions of Cdeveloped countries and the parameters of what is termed, in the climate world, “common but differentiated responsibility” for developing nations. A common appreciation of climate and economic equity between disparate countries and regions remains both critical and challenging for the global climate negotiations process if it is to culminate in a major deal in Paris in 2015, and for implementation beyond that date. The authors believe that the only way to remove this roadblock is to forge an “India exception” in global climate talks; doing so is the only realistic pathway to a global climate deal, and could be a key tool in cementing stronger ties between India and the US, two critical actors in the evolving international order.

The Lima Conference of Parties (COP) in some ways breached the North-South firewall as it sought details of climate action from a larger set of stakeholders, but at another level it reinforced the historic differences between nations on the question of “equity” and “responsibility.” Perhaps more important, the 2014 US-China bilateral agreement on carbon emissions constitutes an important breakthrough in the North-South dynamic—as well as showing that great power agreements on climate change can be forged. In the November 2014 agreement reached between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, three important things happened. First, China accepted that there was a specific timeline wherein its emissions had to peak. Second, both countries accepted that they had greater responsibility than other countries for an effective global climate arrangement, given their outsized contributions to global emissions. And third, the United States accepted that China has the right to energy-intensive industrialisation, as every major developed nation has had before it.

China is in a very specific place: Its growth over the past two decades means that while it is still treated as a developing country in climate negotiations, its economic position and influence far surpass that of any other developing country; for example, its emissions and GDP per capita remain four times that of India, the only other relatively significant developing economy. To get from a US-China deal to a global one, the next challenge is to find the critical path for other major developing states. Of these, India by far remains the largest, although it is at a far earlier stage on its trajectory of industrial development.

In the spectrum of common but differentiated responsibility, India finds itself uniquely situated between nations that industrialised long ago and can now afford expensive renewable energy production and climate adaptation, and those who largely gain their livelihoods from traditional subsistence practices that continue to follow preindustrial low-carbon practices. India is confronted with the dilemma of being between an identity as an emerging power and as one of the least developed countries. It exhibits the economic weight of an emerging power while still containing many hallmarks of a least developed country in its villages and communities. Furthermore, the sheer size of its population means that India’s choices about development and climate/energy carry global consequences to a degree that is far greater than any other developing country.

After two decades of economic development that have begun to lift sections of its population out of poverty, India cannot and will not let its development wait for the eventuality of commercially deployable and cost-competitive renewable energy. More than 300 million Indians still have little or no access to modern energy sources¯India’s dilemma is that several generations of Indians are on the cusp of prosperity if growth is powered by cheaper energy. The most accessible option is often carbon-polluting coal. In this, India is similar to all previous industrialising nations, from Britain, Germany and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries to China in the recent past; all powered their industrialisation, rural urban transition and rise in per capita incomes with fossil fuels.

But India faces a predicament all previous countries that used energy to reduce poverty did not: It stands on the verge of industrialisation just as the world may finally be willing to take multilateral action to reduce carbon emissions. Possessing vulnerable coastlines and reliant on the monsoon and glacial melt, India is as vulnerable as any to the consequences of collective action failure on climate. But for India, the tradeoffs between environment and growth are harsher than perhaps anywhere else. India’s overall size in both population and emissions accords it unique attention for a low-income country in the global climate debate; yet its relative poverty and low per-capita energy use compared to every other large emitter creates what Indians view as a justified overriding imperative for poverty elimination.

Editor(s) / Author(s)

Bruce Jones