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Why India is the key player in the Paris climate talks

India is subject to all the crosscurrents that make the issue so difficult for the Paris negotiating teams, and their bosses back home.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting with President Barack Obama at the climate change summit in Paris on Monday.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

If you want to keep tabs on the progress of the climate talks that started this week in Paris, and — in the longer run — on the efforts to prevent the worst effects of global warming, it’s worth keeping an eye on one major country. 

It’s not China or the United States. Those two countries are important, of course, because they emit more greenhouse gases than any others.

Instead, watch what India does.

After launching the climate summit with fine words stressing the importance of the endeavor, President Obama and other world leaders have returned home, leaving the details of a global agreement in the hands of their negotiating teams.

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Much of what the leaders said was predictable. Some of it was surprising. Obama expressed optimism about the world’s ability to tackle the problem, and touted the importance of U.S. leadership (even while Republicans in Congress were passing legislation that would undercut a major piece of the U.S. effort). Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has a history of mocking worries about climate change, surprised many by calling it “one of gravest challenges humanity is facing” (while offering little new by way of a solution). 

If implemented, plans submitted by 146 countries would limit the increase in the globe’s temperature to 2.7 degrees Celsius. That falls short of the goal of 2 degrees, which scientists say is the threshold for avoiding the most serious effects of climate change. Even that level of reduction will be difficult to achieve.

Major consequences for India

India is subject to all the crosscurrents that make the issue so difficult for the Paris negotiating teams, and their bosses back home.

It is a country of global ambition that will need vast new sources of energy to keep growing its economy, bring millions out of poverty, and keep pace with an increasing population. But the cheapest way to provide that energy, fossil fuels, will only increase the impact of climate change, and probably will make India’s food and water resources less secure.

Here is a World Bank summary of what could happen in India: erratic monsoons resulting sometimes in floods, sometimes in drought, rising sea levels affecting both urban centers and agricultural areas, and even warmer temperatures, among them. 

Through years of international negotiations, India also has been a leading voice among developing nations. They are demanding steeper cuts in emissions from rich countries, and well-funded efforts to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change and develop new sources of clean energy. Those are some of the biggest issues that must be addressed before the Paris summit can achieve a binding agreement to cut carbon emissions.

Like Obama — and virtually every other national leader — India’s officials face political pressure at home. Climate change isn’t only an international issue. In very many countries, it’s a very big domestic issue, as well. In India, climate change will have very concrete effects, which will carry major political consequences.

A problem they didn’t create

Two facts about India’s carbon emissions help illustrate the country’s rather unique position. According to one of the charts in this handy BBC primer on climate change, India produces about 6 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, putting it in the top 10 polluters. But its emissions per person are a fraction of those in the U.S. or China.

Indian officials say they are being pressed to help solve a problem they didn’t create.

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Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, quoted in this article, argues forcefully that India will have to rely on fossil fuels such as coal in addition to rapidly increasing its use of renewables. “My energy consumption is one twelfth that of U.S. and one tenth that of Europe, so don’t you think that my people also have a right to grow and use energy? … Should they remain in the dark? Is that humanity? That is why I will need power from all sources.”

Some experts argue that for the United States, the relationship with India on climate change may in the future become more important than that with China.

Obama, who considers the issue to be an important part of his legacy, courted Chinese President Xi Jinping and came away with an agreement last year to tackle the issue together. China now says its emissions will peak in 2030, if not before, and Xi says the country will institute a cap-and-trade system for key industries.

Obama has tried to woo India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, as well. The climate conference will help show whether he has had any success.

Billionaires offer help

It’s likely to come down to a question of money, and India will negotiate hard. Help may come from an unlikely source.

While governments struggle to find the money to assist India and other developing countries, some of the world’s richest people, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, stepped in this week to dedicate billions of dollars to a clean-energy fund. Their announcement coincides with an initiative 20 governments, including the U.S.

The idea, says John Healey of the Los Angeles Times, is that the governments would fund basic research, while the business leaders would focus on bringing ideas to market.

The billionaires group includes two from India. In addition, according to this New York Times report, Obama and French President Francois Hollande, the host of the climate talks, have been working with Gates to find ways to accommodate Modi.