This week, China announced a historic goal: its carbon emissions will peak around 2030, and subsequently decline. This announcement is widely regarded as a landmark moment in humanity’s efforts to avert catastrophic climate change. Scientific evidence leaves no room to doubt that the well-being of all nations will soon depend critically on the emissions that we are all pumping into the air today.
For now, the worst offenders are the richer countries of North America and Europe. But, the large developing economies are catching up fast.
Only China and the US exceed India in annual carbon dioxide emissions; Europe does too, if it is counted as a country.
Yet, annual emissions are now declining in the US and Europe, as well as in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. India’s rate of increasing emissions is greater than the combined rate of increase for the total of both Russia and all of Africa. China’s announcement leaves India as the largest remaining carbon polluter without either declining emissions or a target set for declining emission levels. Even if China’s commitment is a weak one — or would be met automatically under business-as-usual — it remains politically significant that a commitment was made.
So, an important question is whether India will be willing to match what China has done. Can India join the ranks of the leading economies by committing to a timeline for reversing emissions?
Some readers may be surprised that I am writing about climate policy in India, having been born in the US. Indeed, carbon emissions per person are well over 10 times in the US what they are in India. I would have very little to say in approval of the so-called “efforts” of the US to reduce the chances of climate disaster.
But every country must do its part because climate change threatens us all. If an irresponsible, distracted driver is about to run you over as you walk across the street, you will die if you stand still, explaining calmly that the driver is at fault. What matters most is to step out of the way of disaster. You can sort out who to blame after you have done all you can to survive.
The threat to people in India from climate change is far more urgent than that of an out of control car. Analysis of infant mortality in India shows that on the hottest days, more children die. Climate change can only be expected to increase these threats.
Some of the worst case scenarios would be almost immeasurably bad. Economist Martin Weitzman has concluded that we may face a 1 per cent to 5 per cent chance of global warming more than 10°C. Climate scientists Steven Sherwood and Matthew Huber note that, because of the biology of our bodies, exposure to sufficiently high temperatures kills humans within hours. Their models predict that such a temperature increase would make half of the world’s currently inhabitable land literally unlivable for humans — including essentially all of India. One per cent may sound like a small probability, but it becomes very important when attached to such a catastrophe.
Fortunately, many of the most useful steps would come at little cost to society. This is because about two-thirds of India’s carbon emissions from energy consumption are due to the consumption of coal. Coal is not merely harmful to future generations due to carbon emissions, it also releases pollutants in the air that make people ill today. The resulting sickness, loss of productivity, medical expenses, and deaths — to say nothing of long-lasting, but difficult to measure, effects on the health of growing babies — make coal terribly harmful to the people in India alive today.
A paper by economists Ian Parry and co-authors analyses several carbon emitting countries, including India. They find that coal
is so very bad for our health that limiting carbon emissions would be a money-saver and life-saver, even if we did not care about climate change at all.
Politicians who claim that reducing emissions comes at a cost to development or India’s interests do not know the evidence: reducing coal emissions would both reduce emissions and make Indians healthier and more productive.
In other words, even if the present generation of people in India were completely indifferent to the well-being of their future descendants and were completely indifferent to the welfare of people in other countries, it would still make selfish sense to tackle carbon emissions from coal. And with China getting on board, there is no longer any good excuse for India not to.
China is already ahead of India on many dimensions of human development: infant mortality, female literacy, child stunting, and open defecation are only some of the most important for well-being.
This week, when China committed to reversing its increase in carbon emissions, it moved ahead of India on yet another critical dimension of human well-being. Neither we in India nor the rest of the world can afford India to neglect closing this gap.
The writer is an economist at the Centre for Development Economics of the Delhi School of Economics, and executive director of r.i.c.e.