When the United Nations climate summit convenes in Glasgow, Scotland, in just a few weeks, rich countries will once again pressure India to speed up its energy transition. India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its use of fossil fuels is still rapidly growing as it continues to industrialize and raise its standard of living. Because India is so dependent on carbon-based fuels—especially coal—and has understandably little interest in curtailing its own development, it has been a notable holdout in the current global climate negotiations, including an agreement to phase out coal consumption and end the financing of coal plants. India skipped the pre-summit ministerial meeting in London, the only one of 51 invited countries to do so. And while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the Glasgow summit, New Delhi risks once again being painted as an obstacle to the global fight against climate change.
Yet those who point to India as a climate boogeyman—mainly policymakers, activists, and journalists in the developed world—are holding it to an unfair standard they would never apply to themselves. Yes, we all know that burning coal is bad for the environment, not to mention the health of coal workers and local communities. But it is not fair to ask a developing country like India to bear the costs of an exit from a carbon-based economy without developed countries making significant emissions reductions first—which they are demonstrably not doing. What’s more, weaning India off coal too fast would come with terrible human costs that cannot be ignored.
It’s a truism but bears repeating: One of the main reasons Indians are still poor is that they don’t have enough access to energy. Modern energy services such as reliable electricity, clean cooking fuels, and mechanical power are critical for lifting people out of poverty, ending malnutrition, improving health and education outcomes, and raising productivity in agriculture and industry…
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