July 01, 2008
China and India Reject Carbon Caps
by Breakthrough Fellow, Siddhartha Shome
India reiterated its staunch refusal to adopt binding emission reduction targets today, when Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh blamed developed nations for failing to fulfill the promises they made under the Kyoto Protocol. He called this failure--not India and China's resistance to emission caps--the "single biggest issue" currently standing in the way of international climate talks.
Ramesh told a foreign press conference in New Delhi that India is committed to "a meaningful international agreement that all countries will take seriously and implement, unlike Kyoto where countries took on legal obligations and reneged on them."
"Just because we draw attention to the hypocrisy of the West does not mean that we are not conscious of our own responsibility," he said, adding that India has a right "to be recognised as latecomers and stepchildren of the Industrial Revolution."
This comes as the latest in a string of increasingly sharp criticisms from India and China as they maintain their opposition to an international treaty based on reducing emissions.
Consider two events that occurred within a few days of each other last month.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on an official visit to India. In the midst of the mundane declarations of mutual cooperation and everlasting friendship that are typical of such diplomatic visits, a jarring note crept in. According to a New York Times report entitled "Meeting Shows U.S.-India Split on Emissions",
In a meeting with Mrs. Clinton, India's environment and forests minister, Jairam Ramesh, said there was "no case" for the West to push India to reduce carbon dioxide emissions when it already had among the lowest levels of emissions on a per capita basis. "If this pressure is not enough," he said, "we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours." Rather than projecting solidarity, the visit ended up laying bare the deep divide between developed and developing countries on climate policy -- a gulf the Obama administration will have to bridge as it tries to forge a new global agreement on climate change later this year.
In India many newspapers cheered the environment minister's stand, one headline even declaring, "Jairam Talks Tough on Climate Change".
Clinton was forced to backpedal, saying, "no one wants to, in any way, stall or undermine economic growth that is necessary to lift millions more people out of poverty".
Just a few days later, U.S. and Chinese officials wrapping up high level talks in Washington D.C. let it be known that they still remain at loggerheads over climate change policy. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times,
"China and the United States are different in their stages of development, national conditions and historic footprints, so I think they should shoulder different responsibilities in tackling climate change," Zhang Guobao, president of China's National Energy Administration, told reporters.
These two incidents, coming so close together, demonstrate how difficult it is to convince fast-growing developing countries like India and China to accept binding regulations on carbon emissions. Not only are such regulations seen as harmful for economic growth, they are seen as fundamentally unfair - rich countries, having already climbed up to a high standard of living, are viewed as pulling up the ladder of economic development behind them, thereby denying people in developing countries the means of upward mobility, and perpetuating today's huge economic chasm between the developed and the developing countries.
The conventional environmental approach towards climate change, which sees carbon emissions as pollutants and hence seeks to regulate them, faces a particularly difficult reception in developing countries, but the underlying difficulties in this paradigm are evident even here in the United States.
Consider, for example, the Waxman-Markey Climate Change Bill that has been approved by the House of Representatives and is now winding its way though the Senate. This bill is premised on the notion that carbon emissions need to regulated as pollutants. However, given the public pressure to avoid imposing stifling regulations that may slow down the economy, the bill has inevitably been watered down so much that its impact on global warming is likely to be negligible. So much so that even proponents of the bill, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, praise it not because it is likely to bring us any tangible benefits in the climate change arena since "so much had to be given away to polluters", but rather for intangibles, such as an international demonstration of American resolve on climate change, and the hope - Friedman calls it a gut feeling - that the passage of this bill will turn American public sentiment against carbon "pollution".
In effect, even its backers concede that give the political and economic realities of the world we live in, it will be almost impossible to make the regulatory mechanism for carbon emissions so stringent that it can deal effectively with climate change.
Given this situation, perhaps what we really need is not a marginally more stringent regulatory regime for carbon "pollution", but rather an entire new paradigm for dealing with climate change.
Instead of focusing on regulating carbon "pollution" and on punishing the "polluters" (which pretty much includes everybody on the planet), the focus needs to turn towards developing realistic alternatives that are economical as well as environmentally friendly. Surely if alternative energy sources become widely available that are clean as well as cheap, people will on their own turn to clean energy sources to meet their energy needs.
The focus needs to turn away from punishing carbon "polluters" and towards finding technological alternatives to carbon-emitting energy sources. Not only is this likely to be more effective in dealing with climate change, it is also much more likely to be welcomed by the public for the economic growth that it would generate.
What is more, with stringent regulations on carbon "pollution" being a complete non-starter for countries like China and India, where much of the future increase in carbon emissions is expected to happen, the alternative paradigm of investing in new clean energy alternatives offers a realistic hope of transforming these fast growing economies from being part of the climate change problem to being part of the climate change solution.
Imagine if on her visit to India Hillary Clinton, instead of trying to push India to accept carbon regulations, had had announced "the U.S. is looking to make large investments in India's clean energy industry and wants to partner with India to develop new clean energy technologies for the future". Surely the Indian minister would not have objected, but would have welcomed the he investment with open arms.
Some countries like China, Japan and South Korea are already investing large sums of money in developing clean energy technologies. This is certainly very welcome. However, without the wholehearted involvement of the United States, there is only so far that such efforts can go. Not only is the U.S. the world's economic engine, American universities and research centers have unmatched capabilities in developing new technologies, and the American venture capital system has unmatched capabilities in producing new technologies and bringing those technologies to market.
A serious and well-funded effort by the United States to find technological solutions for climate change is the need of the hour, and offers perhaps the only realistic way to deal with this problem.