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Combating climate change: China puts India on the back foot

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 6 July 2015, 12:40 IST

The method

  • Each country is supposed to submit commitments on reduction in carbon emissions to the UN.
  • The submissions are voluntary.
  • The target is to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

The delay

  • Three of the four biggest emitters - US, EU and China - have submitted their commitments.
  • India hasn\'t, and is therefore facing pressure to make major emission cuts.
  • China\'s 30 June submission gives implementation details, putting pressure on India to do so too.

The consequences

  • China\'s emissions will peak by 2030, while India\'s probably won\'t before 2040-50.
  • India may have to commit to a higher cut from the 20-25% levels declared at Cancun in 2010.
  • India\'s economy is dependent on carbon-intensive growth, which may have to be accelerated.

The way out

  • India could submit a conditional commitment to emission cuts and double its current targets.
  • The condition could be that developed countries assist it through technology transfers.
  • While India has always argued for lower cuts, the current situation could make it bite the bullet.
  • Given that the global emissions will likely raise temperatures by 4-5 degrees, this may not be a bad thing.

India has likely put itself in a fix. The country hasn't declared the extent of its commitment for reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change, ahead of the Paris Climate Summit later this year.

This delay means that India has lost its chance to make conservative commitments, as China's recent submission gives implementation details, and its promise indicates that the total global contributions may not be enough to fight climate change.

China declared its intentions on 30 June, leaving India as the lone country among the league of the four biggest carbon emitters (besides the United States and the European Union) that has not submitted its commitment and furnished details on the implementation of its emission targets.

Each country is supposed to submit such commitments, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change before the Conference of Parties-21 (CoP-21) to be held in Paris in December.

Significant commitments needed

The INDCs are the new method to bring countries together and reach a climate deal. Countries can voluntarily decide how much carbon emissions they would reduce in the future, with the hope that the total would be enough to keep temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

This was proposed after countries were unable to agree upon a fair and equitable amount of cuts that each one had to undertake.

China's declaration before India's has changed two things: its intentions are unusually detailed, and the total cuts of the other three major carbon emitters are insufficient to arrest significant climate change. This has put pressure on India to submit significant commitments.

Of the top-four emitters, India is the only yet not to submit its commitment. It may have to make bigger cuts

In order to make these promises credible at the climate summit, India would be under pressure to walk in China's footsteps and submit details on how it plans to keep its promises on emission cuts.

"The strength of the Chinese contributions is a lot of implementation details, which lends credibility to their contribution. We need to pick up on that and provide specifics as well," says Navroz Dubash, senior fellow and coordinator of the Climate Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research.

"Globally, the focus has shifted to the narrative that commitments are just the floor. We are well placed to provide detail on co-benefits based steps in sectors like railways, building regulations and improving energy efficiency, which signals serious action."

Moreover, the total cuts declared so far are insufficient to keep temperatures from rising less than two degrees.

India to peak by 2040-50

In its latest declaration, China has committed to peak its per capita emissions by 2030. But this is expected to be at the US' emission levels, meaning there may not be enough room for other developing countries to emit further.

"The problem is that while China has committed to peak by 2030, it is likely that India will peak by 2040-50. We are looking at an emission scenario where there is barely any carbon budget after 2030, which means that India has to peak fast while achieving its development goals," said Arjuna Srinidhi, programme manager, Climate Change, at the Centre for Science and Environment.

Higher cuts

This means India may have to commit to a higher cut in emissions intensity. At the Cancun conference in 2010, the country had promised to cut emissions by 20-25% from the levels in 2005.

This could be through submitting a 'conditional' INDC, such as the one submitted by Morocco. According to a note by the Centre for Science and Environment, this would include doubling India's renewable energy programme, double its afforestation targets, and increase its pledge to reduce emission intensity to 60% with a condition that developed countries assist it through technology transfers and investments into clean technologies.

Given that the global emissions are most likely to lead the world to a 4-5 degree rise in temperature, this may not be such a bad thing.

But it entails a change in India's policy so far at climate talks. India has argued for lower emission cuts, since it has historically had a low record of emissions, and its economy is dependent on carbon-intensive growth, so it needs some headroom to achieve its development goals.

It could have continued along this policy through an early submission of INDCs, but the current situation could make it bite the bullet and commit to emissions cuts that are more than what is expected to be fair.

First published: 5 July 2015, 19:40 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.