Why India Should Be Part of a Climate Deal

By Namrata Patodia
December 3, 2009

This article first appeared in Nature India.


With less than a week to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the question on everyone’s mind is what a Copenhagen deal will deliver.

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, in a recent statement, announced that countries should aim for an ambitious political agreement that would launch immediate action and set the stage for a full legal agreement next year. Irrespective of what is finally agreed to in Copenhagen, the high-level engagement throughout the year leading up to the conference has mobilised countries, both developed and developing, to strengthen their national efforts. This has been true for India as well.

India’s stand
Historically, India has put the burden of responsibility to address climate change on the shoulders of developed countries. Recently however, India has been more engaged and open to the idea of implementing domestic policies and measures that will help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The National Action Plan on Climate Change and its eight missions, announced in 2008, was a first step in that direction.

Within the international negotiations, India’s recently appointed environment minister Jairam Ramesh has introduced a new, pragmatic ‘can do’ attitude. Ramesh has said time and again that India will play the role of a ‘deal maker’ and not a ‘deal breaker’ in Copenhagen.  While controversy has arisen around some of his remarks as being too progressive for a developing economy, his statements have, for the first time, allowed for a robust debate about India’s position on climate change.  That debate led to Minister Ramesh’s announcement in Parliament this week that while India is not ready to accept a legally binding emission reduction target, it is ready to adopt a voluntary target to cut carbon intensity by 20 to 25 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.

Why should India sign up?
There are three primary reasons why India will benefit from strengthening its domestic actions and signing on to an ambitious and effective global climate agreement in Copenhagen. 

First and most importantly, India ranks high among the list of countries that will be most impacted by climate change.  Recent studies report that the impacts of climate change have been underestimated and that, in fact, climate change is occurring much faster and sooner than previously anticipated.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the Himalayan glaciers – the largest freshwater resource outside the polar caps, supplying more than 2 billion people – are retreating and could potentially disappear by 2035, though the figures are still being debated over by the Indian environment ministry.
Other climate related impacts include reduced yields from major food crops, an increase in extreme weather events (such as the flooding of Mumbai last year) affecting highly populated cities, and a decrease of almost 40 percent in per capita water availability by 2050. Given the high stakes involved for a country like India, it will be to India’s advantage for countries to agree to an ambitious deal in Copenhagen that can result in urgent and effective action. 

Second, with India’s population projected to reach 1.5 billion people by 2030, and a burgeoning economy growing at 8 percent a year, India will face the challenge of ensuring a secure and sustainable energy future for its people. Currently, about half of India’s energy consumption is from coal and studies show that India could run out of its extractable coal resources by mid-century.

A third of India’s total energy consumption is from oil of which 70 per cent is imported. It has been estimated that this number could become as high as 90 per cent by 2025. Increased dependence on foreign and dirty sources of energy is not a long-term sustainable option, economically or environmentally. Building the economy in a climate-friendly way will not only provide for energy security and health gains but also offer climate benefits.

It has been argued by some that India should concentrate on economic growth and development as a means to deal with climate change rather than invest resources in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. India does not need to make a choice between the two; in fact the two can go hand in hand. As it develops it can ensure that it does so in a sustainable, low carbon way. 

Government initiatives like the recently approved ‘Solar Mission’ that establishes an ambitious goal of 20 GW of installed solar capacity by 2022 and an aggressive programme to increase installed nuclear capacity five- fold by 2020, are evidence of this. Both initiatives will help put India on a low-carbon pathway while simultaneously reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. India can undertake further ambitious actions domestically for example, by installing more efficient coal power plants and increasing the use of natural gas. These measures will not only help strengthen its energy security efforts but also reap environment benefits.

Finally, investing in clean energy can be a source of sustainable economic growth. India’s renewable sector provides an example. India is currently ranked fourth worldwide in wind power generation. Private equity investments in the renewables sector increased ten-fold between 2006 and 2008.

While India seeks to position itself as an emerging power of the 21st century, it must assume the responsibilities that come with such stature. Copenhagen is a critical moment for the international community and an opportunity for India to demonstrate that it can be a global ‘deal-maker’.  Such a deal must of course be fair and equitable and include ambitious absolute emission reduction targets for developed countries, and strong financial and technology assistance for developing countries.  If those conditions are met, India should be prepared to commit to the efforts needed to shift its development onto a low-carbon pathway – a path that will help ensure a more sustainable future for India, and for the world.

Namrata Patodia is an International Fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Chikkatur, A., 2005. “Making the Best Use of India’s Coal Resources.” Economic and Political Weekly 40:

IPCC. (2007). “IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change: (AR4), Working Group II Report Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland.