WARSAW, Poland — Even as the annual United Nations climate change conference is nearing its end on Friday, negotiations are obstructed by longstanding disputes over responsibilities of combating the crisis.
Developing countries want rich countries to shoulder the burden of reducing greenhouse gases and providing finances in view of their historical emissions, captured by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the Rio Declaration of 1992.
But in view of how much the world has changed since then, especially the growth of emerging economies like China and India, developed countries are attempting to remove the differences in international obligations.
As delegates from 189 countries attempt to negotiate a new climate treaty by 2015, a new report by the Global Carbon Budget finds that global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels will reach a record high of 36 billion tons in 2013.
At the National Stadium in Warsaw, the British climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern spoke to India Ink about how India’s future emissions would require it to do more to solve the global challenge, even as it moves to eradicate poverty. Mr. Stern, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, was the co-author of “Palanpur: The Economy of an Indian Village,” a 1982 book based on the village in Uttar Pradesh, and he was co-editor of the book “New Bihar – Rekindling Governance and Development.”
Your theory is that the right to development is not the right to pollute. But developed countries are responsible for historical emissions. How can countries like India develop without polluting?
We have to recognize that two-thirds of the investments in the world and more than half of the output are in emerging markets of developing countries. Actually, we should celebrate that too. But what that also tells us that it will be completely impossible for us to reduce world emissions and reduce them dramatically unless everyone is involved.
We can’t reduce emissions by leaving out countries with two-thirds of investments and more than half of output. Simply mathematically, it will not add up. That’s not to take a political or economic position; it is simply to observe that we all have to be involved to reduce our emissions from 50 billion tons a year now to below 20 in 2050, if we are to have any reasonable chance at controlling the temperature at 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees F].
So are you saying India has to reduce emissions, despite its urgent priority of development, to tackle extreme levels of poverty in the country?
I would put the question differently. We as a world, including India, have to find ways of growing and overcoming poverty, but at the same time reducing emissions. Putting the question that way, I think we recognize that it is possible that you can be more efficient and use renewables and over time you can use nuclear. These are the changes that can be made. It is not a matter of halting development; it is a matter of halting emissions.
But India’s per-capita emissions are small compared to that of China and the United States.
India has quite low emissions so India’s scope of cutting emissions is less than other countries’, so we have to look at other countries to cut more. But it could be possible that India would have a big contribution if India’s emissions grow strongly over the next 20 years — if they change from two tons per capita to eight or nine tons like China is now.
If that were the next 20 years for India, then India’s emissions would be something like 12 billion to 13 billion tons of CO2, while the world budget in 2030 would be 32 or 33. So there is no way the world could achieve that.
Investing in energy efficiency and renewables on a scale to serve 1.2 billion people is still expensive compared to using fossil fuels for pressing development needs.
It is to India’s advantage, as a country vulnerable to climate change, to find a way of growing differently. The question is to put that into practice. I don’t think that India should follow the path that China did, and China followed a path that many of the rich countries had gone. We all have to find a new path, and it’s the rich countries’ responsibility to chart the way forward.
Energy efficiency is not at all expensive. Energy inefficiency is waste that no country, particularly a poor country, should accept. You see the way in which electricity is wasted in India, you see the way in which inefficient vehicles run on fuel, which is wasted. It is part of development to become more efficient.
I’ve lived through many of those blackouts. That’s exactly what I am saying. What you have is energy off and energy on, and when it’s on, it’s often unpredictable. Sometimes you see people leave their tube well pumps on, hoping that it might come on overnight when they sleep. And the pumps go far too long, the water is wasted, electricity is wasted, sometimes the topsoil is taken off. That’s an example of waste associated with very bad management of power and water, and there are many examples like that. So I think it’s extremely important for energy efficiency to have a very high priority everywhere.
India has enormous potential for renewables. You see decentralized solar in India growing quickly in some parts. And the cost of solar panels has come down dramatically. And that’s a way of people having solar energy without relying on a very unreliable grid. So that’s a tremendous opportunity. It has a very long way to go. It is still very early stages. But that’s the kind of decentralized electricity which is likely to be much more than a model than the coal-fire grid structures. And I think India can anticipate.
Why would India consider doing more to reduce emissions if the developed countries don’t do enough to reduce emissions?
It is true that the rich countries’ targets are not strong enough, and it is true that some countries like Japan, Australia and Canada have reneged on their targets. I spend a lot of time pressing rich countries to have stronger targets. I don’t spend any time pressing India to do anything.
But to describe the arithmetic — over the next 20 years, unless India is very involved, the world will not achieve its target. And if the world does not achieve its target, it’s very bad for India. And it’s because I take the well-being of India very seriously that I’m worried about it.