Newly inducted Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu’s remarks on the need for India to reassess its hyphenation with China in global climate action forums have turned out to be prescient. In Beijing, on the sidelines of the Apec summit, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised observers by unveiling a potentially gamechanging deal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The US and China are the world’s two biggest emitters of GHGs, and this ambitious new agreement ensures that climate change will remain on the international agenda in the run-up to the next UN climate change conference in Peru in December, and at the G-20 summit next week. Although the proposed targets do not appear to be binding, this is a watershed moment in the race to negotiate a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol at the crucial Conference of the Parties in Paris next year.
Cooperation between the US and China, which together account for 40 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, is a sine qua non for the success of any global effort to avert catastrophic climate change, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned just last week was inevitable in the absence of urgent and drastic reductions in emissions. Each has routinely invoked the other’s inaction as an alibi for its own weak commitment to cutting emissions. India, too, has used the US’s reticence to justify its limited domestic measures to reduce emissions, rightly pointing to the need for equity in global negotiations and prioritisation of economic development and poverty alleviation. But the US-China accord will force New Delhi to recalibrate its strategy at global summits. Prabhu’s suggestion that India should argue that the principle of common but differentiated responsibility apply within the emerging economy block as well as between developed and developing countries is sound. In total emissions, China comes a comfortable first — more than the US and India put together. China also far outstrips India in emissions per head and emissions intensity. India can leverage this data to bargain for a better deal if it is no longer hamstrung by having to make common cause with China.
But India must also acknowledge that it too bears responsibility to combat climate change, if only because, as one of the countries deemed most at risk from extreme climate events, the costs of inaction will be massive. If China’s voluntary embrace of emissions reduction targets signals a plan to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and the US’s pledge consolidates a shift from coal towards natural gas, the Indian government must scale up its renewable energy capacity and develop a long-term plan to wean the power grid off coal.