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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The U.S. Pushes India to Adopt Carbon Limits

Air Date: Week of July 24, 2009

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(Courtesy of the State Department)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Indian minister of environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, to talk about climate change. The U.S. wants India to implement binding limits on carbon emissions. But that doesn’t sit well with Mr. Ramesh who countered that India’s per capita CO2 emissions are among the lowest in the world and that developed nations like the United States should set an example by reducing their emissions before asking developing nations to follow suit. Host Jeff Young talks with William Antholis, the managing director of the Brookings Institution about Secretary Clinton’s trip to India.

Transcript

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

To reach an international agreement on climate change, negotiators must bridge the chasm between rich nations and developing ones. The path to a truly global, global warming pact goes through emerging economies like China and India. And top US officials were blazing trails there recently.

The commerce and energy secretaries traveled to China, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked climate change in India. We’ll hear from the commerce secretary in just a bit.

But first, Clinton’s trip to India. Secretary Clinton told Indian officials the US will do its part but Indian emissions matter, too.

CLINTON: India’s own greenhouse gas pollution is projected to grow about 50 percent between now and 2030. So climate change would not be solved even if developed countries stopped emitting greenhouse gas emissions today—unless action is taken across the world. So, we have to work together.

YOUNG: It’s not clear how well her message got across. So we asked Brookings Institution Managing Director William Antholis for an assessment.

ANTHOLIS: I think in general the trip was a big success. And it’s important to view this meeting as the beginning of a process and a dialogue that leads up as an important milestone to the Copenhagen meeting in December. But even that is just one step along the way and the fact that she listed climate change as a priority and got at least behind the scenes a cooperative spirit from the Indians I think was a success.

YOUNG: She did run into some push back pretty publicly from India’s environment administer, Mr. Ramesh, who told Secretary Clinton very publicly that India should not have to reduce emissions. Here’s what he said, “There’s simply no case for the pressure that we who have among the lowest emissions per capita face to actually reduce emissions.” What do you make of that argument?

ANTHOLIS: Well, I think that the core of the argument is a good one. In broad sense, there wouldn’t be much disagreement with the core of Jairam Ramesh’s statement. India’s per capita emissions are, compared to the United States, really quite small. And I don’t think anyone is looking for India to act at the same level, in the same timescale as the United States. And so in that sense, there’s a bit of a false fight there. The bigger fight is over where we’re going over the next 35 years, and at what point India might take on binding targets and what level those binding targets should be.

YOUNG: You point out that there’s also some responsibility here for reigning in population.

ANTHOLIS: Well, what the India’s want is a per capita emission standard that applies to all countries equally. So say that that target was four tons of emissions per person. In the United States, we would have to cut our emissions by about 80 percent. India’s per capita emissions right now are about two tons per person, so they would be able to double per person. But here’s the catch, if India’s population doubles between now and 2050, that’s twice as many emissions, even though their emissions per person would be the same. So, a per capita emission standard by itself may not solve the problems.

YOUNG: So do we see indications from India that they’re willing to say we need to control population as well?

ANTHOLIS: Population control has not been brought up as part of the climate change talks. And I think the way that people will try to address it is not to say population control needs to be part of climate change, but rather our climate change benchmarks need to have a number of different factors, one of which is per capita emissions. But that by itself can’t be a freestanding thing. The Indians haven’t yet acknowledged that.

My expectation is in the negotiations as they come forward and as we try to establish targets for 2050, the targets will have a number of different elements. One will be the total amount of emissions per country and as a globe. Two will be the global temperature itself. And then finally, per capita I think will be part of the final equation, but not by itself as a standard but one that incorporates these other concerns.

YOUNG: So what’s the effect back home when say members of the Senate who are about to consider an energy and climate change bill watch Secretary Clinton taking this trip and what was said. Does it will or hurt the effort to get a bill through the Senate?

ANTHOLIS: It definitely helps to see Secretary Clinton making this a priority in her conversations. But what they want to know is that U.S. companies are not going to be hurt when a comprehensive cap and trade bill is passed and that the emissions that we cut at home aren’t simply going to happen someplace else, particularly in big emerging developing countries.

  

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton with Jairam Ramesh, the Indian minister of environment and forests. (Courtesy of the State Department)

YOUNG: What about the politics in India? Did we get some insight into what they’re dealing with back home?

ANTHOLIS: I think we really did. First Jairam Ramesh – this is a key political strategist in the Congress party and had been for years. He’s an astute politicians who understands politics in the United States as well as in India. But he’s really an India political operative at heart. And he knows that in a country where four or five hundred million people are living at the poverty line, that doing something precipitous on climate change is really dangerous politics.

YOUNG: Is there a broad awareness, though, that India faces great risks from climate change?

ANTHOLIS: Well, the Indian political leadership certainly have taken notice. First of all the leader of the UN scientific effort which one the Nobel Prize along with Al Gore several years ago is an India.

YOUNG: Right.

ANTHOLIS: Dr. Pachauri. And he was been a very outspoken proponent of fast action in India on climate change, not just for the global commons, but for India. India probably would suffer greater per person from the ravages of climate change than any other country in the world. But India is a country because of the high tech revolution that really could benefit from fast developments in solar and other renewable energy, not to mention nuclear. So India potentially has a real upside on this, and India leadership is paying careful attention to that. The idea that climate change is something that is in India’s broad interest, I’m not sure has reached the broad public in India in quite the way that it has in Europe and increasingly in the United States.

YOUNG: William Antholis is managing director of the Brookings Institution. He’s been talking to us about Secretary Clinton’s recent trip to India. Thanks for your time.

ANTHOLIS: You’re welcome.

 

Links

The Brookings Institution on India and climate change.

For more about Clinton’s India trip, click here.

 

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