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Paris COP21: Is India the Main
Stumbling Block at Climate Talks?

By Fred Pearce

03 Dec 2015

Floods have engulfed Chennai, one of India's great megacities, in recent days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who began the week in Paris at the opening of the climate conference, rushed to the city to offer help in battling Chennai’s worst floods in a century.

It is impossible to say if the roughly 250 people who have died so far are victims of climate change. But some of Modi's compatriots here in Paris believe he would have been better

Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the opening day of the Paris climate talks.
employed staying around to up his country's contribution to the battle against climate change — and prevent future climate disasters for India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants.

By some measures India has offered a lot to the talks. Its national pledge on future emissions includes perhaps the most ambitious renewable energy program in the world, with 175 gigawatts of green power, including 100 megawatts of solar panels, by 2022. But many here nonetheless see India as the biggest single threat to curbing CO2 emissions in the next few decades.

The problem is coal. The speed of India's current industrialization is so fast that, even with a huge surge in solar energy, the country still plans the world's fastest rate of construction of coal-fired power stations — another 110 gigawatts of capacity by 2022.

Speaking here this week, one of India's most influential climate policy analysts added his voice to the concern. "India is very far from a two-degree pathway," Priyadarshi Shukla, a recently appointed co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told a side meeting. Its current pledges "won't deliver [Indian emissions] peaking before 2050."

India's addiction to coal is making enemies among countries it would normally count as its friends — poor nations most at risk from climate change. Both sides claim the moral high ground.

India invokes "climate justice” — a favorite phrase here — in saying it is entitled to industrialize with coal in the same way the rich world once did. But small island states at risk of disappearing beneath the waves as warming raises sea levels don't buy that. The president of the Pacific island state of Kiribati, Anote Tong, also demanded "climate justice" when calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and help save his nation.

"India has failed to really convince many developing countries why it wants to continue using coal," said Joydeep Gupta, director of the web site India Climate Dialogue, speaking on a panel earlier this week. It often aspires to be "the new China," critics say. But it doesn't want to follow China's new pathway of reducing reliance on coal.

India is the world's fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China, the United States and the European Union. But its per capita emissions remain only a tenth those of the U.S. As it industrializes and strives to get electricity to the 400 million people currently still in the dark, the potential for massive further increases in emissions is huge.

India argues that investment in solar power will curb that increase. Its emissions pledges in Paris should, it says, reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 33-35 per cent between 2005 and 2030. That sounds like a lot, but is only half the Chinese pledge.

Shukla's analysis of India's emissions pledges — its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, in the conference jargon — is sobering. Despite the rapid spread of renewables, India's continued addiction to coal would increase its CO2 emissions by 60 percent by 2030 with further rises in the future. He expects them to reach 5.9 gigatons, which is less than the business-as-usual figure of about 7 gigatons, but far above the 3.7 gigatons that Shukla says would be consistent with a two-degree pathway for the world. A two-degree pathway would require the country to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy not by 35 percent but by about 60 percent.

Will India's often belligerent language about its right to burn coal translate into a concerted attempt to prevent a strong agreement in Paris? Nobody seems sure. "We don't know what India's red lines are," said Gupta.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month called India's position in the negotiations a "challenge" — a comment Indian environment minister Prakash Javedekar called "unwarranted and unfair." But insiders say India is among the countries actively opposing language in the final conference text that would refer to full "decarbonization" of the global economy later this century.

Another uncertainty is the extent to which India's solar revolution is conditional on receiving financing from rich nations. The bill could be huge. The Indian government has suggested a figure of $2.5 trillion between now and 2030, says Shukla. This demand, too, has caused anger among poorer nations, who believe India could siphon off money intended for them. China is not demanding foreign aid to green its energy system, they say. Nor should India.

Fred Pearce, a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K., is on assignment in Paris for Yale Environment 360 and will be reporting regularly throughout the climate conference.

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