Why the Paris Climate Summit Isn’t About Mere Emission Targets

In a recent interview to the Financial Times ahead of the Paris climate summit, the US Secretary of State John Kerry implicated India in the global climate change debate, calling New Delhi a ‘challenge’. “We’ve got a lot of focus on India right now to try to bring them along,” Kerry said, adding that New Delhi’s push to expand domestic coal output was “not in the direction we ought to be moving in.”

Kerry is right – coal is bad for global warming. But Kerry’s blatant indictment of India will not sit well with New Delhi, or facts themselves. Leave aside per capita emissions, which are far lower in India than in the West. A recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey asked respondents around the world whether they were worried about climate change. Over 70% of Indians surveyed said that climate change is a “very serious problem”. By contrast, only 45% of those surveyed in America responded similarly.

This is not a one-off statistic. The overwhelming trend in the survey was the higher concern shown by respondents in the developing world as compared to their wealthier counterparts. The country that turned out to be most worried about climate change was Brazil, where over 85% of those polled called it “very serious”. More than 70% of people surveyed in Chile, Peru, Uganda and the Philippines voiced equally serious concern. But less than 50% did so in the United States, Britain, Poland and Australia.

But this should come as no surprise. Most people in the developing world still earn from professions like farming and fishing that are vulnerable to the vagaries of climate. In India alone, millions of hectares of cropland suffered losses at different times this year, owing to unseasonal rain, the late arrival of monsoon and even drought, triggering hundreds of farmer suicides. Even fishermen along India’s southern coastline are having it increasingly tough, as unpredictable climate patterns disrupt fishing seasons.

And then there are the other more direct concerns regarding emissions themselves. Nobody knows of the burden of foul air as well as those in New Delhi. In 2014, the World Health Organization’s air pollution database ranked Delhi as the worst among 1600 major cities in the world. In the months that followed, concerns over the environment heightened across India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi eventually launched a much-needed air pollution index to monitor the situation.

But this isn’t just about the environment for India; it is also about the economy – coal imports may cross 250 million tonnes this year and make up a substantial chunk of India’s current account deficit. While domestic coal output has increased, imports are unlikely to stall in the future, owing to the relatively lower quality of Indian coal and burgeoning demand. Better technology for growth, therefore, won’t just save the environment; it’ll also save India precious cash and make its manufacturing sector more competitive on the global stage.

Prime Minister Modi has responded to these challenges by kicking off a massive clean energy drive across the country, particularly aimed at solar energy. In California earlier this year, the Prime Minister reiterated India’s commitment to produce 175 gigawatts of clean energy by 2022. Much of that initiative is already underway.

It isn’t, therefore, that India doesn’t want to get cleaner and greener. It is simply that this is harder for India than it ought to be. With technology for harnessing renewable energy still being nascent, renewable energy is inevitably costlier than traditional fossil fuel (falling crude prices have only made the gap wider). A World Bank study estimates that it will cost India between $10 billion and $64 billion in subsidies over the next decade in order to meet its renewable energy goals. Experts at Modi’s California summit also raised the concern that India’s current grid is not capable of carrying the 175 GW of energy which Modi has targeted. And many of India’s state-owned power distribution companies are already mired in debt.

India’s resource crunch is shared by many across the developing world, who yearn just as much for green technology as India does. Countries like India have a large crop of young scientists and engineers capable of undertaking cutting-edge research on clean energy, but lack the funds, modern equipment and institutions for it. Where can all of this come from? The answer, of course, is the West. Much like any other form of scientific research, clean energy solutions too are largely limited to the West. For the world to fight climate change, that ‘green divide’ has to be bridged, and access to technology has to be made more equitable.

The summit at Paris later this month, therefore, shouldn’t aim at mere emission targets, but rather look to set up a global institutional framework for technology transfer and joint international research in the field of clean energy. Countries in the developing world are already devoting all that they can for the cause, despite being short of funds, institutions and technological collaboration. This is a grand opportunity for the West to lead on all those fronts. Perhaps Kerry can begin tackling the challenge by campaigning for it at home.

(c) 2015, Swarajya