Resources & Climate

India Goes to Copenhagen

in Program

By David Michel – On December 3rd, as the international community prepared to gather in Copenhagen to hammer out an agreement on global strategies to combat climate change, Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister for Environment and Forests, declared that India would reduce its emissions intensity (the measure of greenhouse gases produced per unit of economic output) by 20 to 25% below 2005 levels by 2020.  Coming even as the Indian delegation packed its bags for Denmark, Ramesh’s eleventh hour statement represented the latest turn in a sinuous path that has seen Delhi striving to balance pressures from the Western countries with the positions of the developing world.  Indeed, only the previous week, India had both signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the US to enhance climate cooperation and agreed a joint negotiating stance – including the possibility of a collective walkout over key issues – with China, Brazil and South Africa.  The high stakes drama of climate diplomacy has often led observers to treat India as a monolithic actor, whether as a possible spoiler or potential partner, in the international negotiations.  In fact, however, these maneuvers reflect the reality that decision makers in Delhi – like decision makers everywhere – confront multiple competing concerns and constraints as they struggle to reconcile contending issues and interests into national policy choices.  India, it turns out, has its own climate politics as well as climate policies.[1]    

India looms increasingly large as a crucial environmental and economic power in the global arena.  Since 1990, when negotiations on the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change began, India’s GDP has tripled and its CO2 emissions have more than doubled, making it both the planet’s fourth largest economy and its fourth biggest carbon producer.  According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2009, by 2030 Indian GDP will more than quadruple and its emissions nearly triple again, vaulting the country into third place among the world’s preeminent economies and among its predominant emitters.

Yet despite India’s prodigious expansion in recent years, it remains very much a developing country.  In 2005, more than 41% of the population, some 450 million people, survived on less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank’s international poverty benchmark.  More than four in five Indians in rural areas and nearly half of city dwellers lacked improved sanitation services, while 44% of Indians had no access to electricity.[2] 

Economic development and poverty alleviation thus constitute Delhi’s primordial policy preoccupations.  By some estimates, India will need to maintain economic growth rates of 8 to 10% in order to eradicate poverty and attain its human development goals.  To accomplish this, India would in turn need to expand its primary energy supply three to fourfold and boost electricity supply to some five to seven times current levels by 2031, according to The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.  Meeting these mounting energy demands will necessarily drive India’s emissions for the coming decades.  IEA projections suggest that India alone will account for 18% of all global growth in CO2 emissions between now and 2030.  Supplying India’s energy needs will also have significant economic and geopolitical implications, as Delhi is keenly aware.  Recent analyses indicate India’s extractable coal reserves remain limited, while the IEA reckons that by 2030 the country will spend $300 billion a year – 6.4% of GDP – to buy 92% of its oil and 39% of its natural gas abroad, making it the world’s third largest energy importer.

While India numbers among the top sources of growing greenhouse emissions, it also counts among those nations most vulnerable to global warming.  Shifting temperature and precipitation patterns could substantially affect India’s freshwater resources and food supplies.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks India could suffer outright water stress – annual availability of less than 1000 cubic meters per capita – by 2025, and gross water availability could fall 37% by mid-century. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2010 estimates climate change could cut India’s agricultural output some 38% by 2080.  Meanwhile, sea level rise of 100 cm would inundate 5,763 km3 of the country’s landmass. 

Indian policymakers well recognize the twin challenges of continuing the economic development that has lifted millions out of poverty while countering the climate impacts that could threaten the livelihoods and welfare of millions as well.  India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change explicitly declares that “It is imperative to identify measures that promote our development objectives, while also yielding co-benefits for addressing climate change effects.”  Indian society recognizes the challenges too.  As Delhi debated its options heading in to Copenhagen, 43 organizations ranging from the charity Action Aid to the Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote to urge the Prime Minister that “India should definitely take appropriate and ambitious steps [but] India’s climate policy must be founded on [its] development needs.”[3] Recent polling reveals that 80% of Indians deem climate change a serious problem and 81% consider India has a responsibility to act.  Yet they are more ambivalent about what action requires.  Fewer than half think it will be necessary to increase energy prices to encourage conservation or switching to alternative fuels, and only 55% would accept to pay more for energy and other products to fight climate change.[4] 

In Copenhagen, each delegation must represent the preferences and positions of a single state.  This is true for India as for any other country.  Underneath the efforts to achieve one international agreement, however, lie many national decisions and debates.  In India as elsewhere, though the climate problem is global, all climate politics is local.  

[1] See David Michel and Amit Pandya eds., Indian Climate Policy: Choices and Challenges (Washington, DC: The Henry L. Stimson Center, 2009).

[2] United Nations Economic and Social Survey for Asia and the Pacific, Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2009 (New York: UN, 2009); Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, National Action Plan on Climate Change (New Delhi: Government of India, 2008).

[3] “India’s climate policy should not compromise development needs,” The Hindustan Times, 28 October 2009.

[4] World Bank, Public Attitudes Toward Climate Change: Findings From a Multi-country Poll (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 3 December 2009).


David Michel is a Research Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project.

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