State of the Planet

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India’s Climate Envoy: In Global Climate Treaties, Equity is Imperative

In a lively talk at the Indian Consulate in New York last Thursday, Indian climate envoy Shyam Saran called for technology and resource transfer from developed to developing countries, saying that because they are responsible for the bulk of historic carbon emissions, developed countries should bear the brunt of climate adaptation and mitigation costs.

A former Indian Foreign Secretary, Saran currently serves as the prime minister’s Special Envoy on climate change issues. Speaking to a crowd largely made up of UN staff, academics, and media representatives, he spoke about the “extraordinary global response” that is needed to address climate change.

Saran’s remarks made clear that climate change is no small matter for India. Climate change impacts like rising sea levels, more frequent natural disasters and diminishing access to water resources are projected to pose grave threats to Indians—especially those who live in coastal areas or rely on agriculture or fishing for their livelihoods. Some of these impacts are already being felt, and as a result India now spends between 2 and 2.5% of its annual GDP on climate adaptation measures.

The envoy stressed the need for equity in global climate action plans, saying that we must take both responsibility (for global warming) and capability (like technology and ability to fund projects) into account when negotiating countries’ roles in mitigating climate change.

Though India is currently the fifth highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, Saran says that Europe and the United States bear the responsibility for global warming up to this point. Those countries, he points out, have been contributing to the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. As such, they should focus on reducing their own emissions and should not call on India and other developing countries to cap their emissions growth because to do so would be tantamount to capping developing countries’ economic growth.

Saran was quick to clarify that though India is a developing country, it does not have the right to spew unlimited amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Indeed, it has developed commissions to look at solar and other forms of alternative energy. And Saran says that, while India’s emissions will surely continue to rise, it will never allow its per capita emissions to exceed those of developed countries. As he put it, “if that’s not a cap, what is?”

This and similar remarks that Saran has made in the past are a direct challenge to developed countries, designed to incentivize them to lower their per capita emissions before India’s have a chance to catch up. After all, if each of India’s more than a billion residents produced as much CO2 as the average American—though it should be noted that India’s total emissions are only projected to be about a fifth the United States’ by 2030—atmospheric CO2 concentrations would skyrocket.

Saran’s message is clear: India and other developing countries will do as much as they can, but in large part it will be up to the developed countries to steer the world onto a less carbon-intensive path. And, since the Indian prime minister was recently re-elected, there is likely to be continuity in its climate policy—meaning that Saran’s words probably foretell India’s position in the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December.

This is one interpretation of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” And it is consistent with the Kyoto Protocol, in which only developed nations were asked to control emissions. On the brink of a new climate treaty in Copenhagen, would it be reasonable to ask populous rapidly developing nations such as China and India to take action to reduce carbon intensity? Or should historic responsibility, as opposed to future contribution, remain the primary criterion for emission cuts?

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