Atmospheric Control

India’s stance at climate negotiations is beginning to feel like a smokescreen

A woman gazes towards coal-based power plants in Chilkatand, Uttar Pradesh. Since the Paris Agreement, India’s reliance on coal has not shown any substantial decline, and the government wants more coal-based power projects. Enrico Fabian / The Washington Post / Getty Images
28 October, 2021

This April, France’s embassy in Delhi hosted the country’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister at the time, was in attendance, and in no mood to make friends. “The world is suffering,” he said. “India is suffering because of the actions of others. We cannot just forget it and we will not allow anybody to forget it.”

Javadekar was talking about climate change, and how India—like the rest of the developing world—has contributed very little to a crisis that is almost entirely of the developed world’s making. The immediate cause of his diatribe was a growing crescendo in the West that India commit to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by mid century—something that would have dramatic implications for the country’s economic growth. Javadekar’s position was one that India has long held at global climate negotiations—and that it is likely to continue with this November in Glasgow at the United Nations’ Conference of Parties, or COP 26, where the pressure will again be high to commit to a date for net-zero emissions.

On paper, a country can achieve net-zero by removing from the atmosphere the same amount of greenhouse gases it emits in a year. In reality, at least for now, this is technologically and financially unfeasible, especially on the scale required for a country the size of India. Reaching net-zero in India will boil down to cutting emissions close to nil. Even if, theoretically, India were to transition entirely to renewable sources for its energy needs, this would still not suffice to do the job. The energy sector accounts for about two-thirds of the country’s emissions, with the rest coming from industrial processes, land-use change, forestry and, crucially, agriculture. The transition to a zero- or low-emissions future will need fundamental structural changes and massive investments. Under the Paris Agreement, negotiated in 2015 to try and limit global temperature rise since the industrial era to below two degrees Celsius, developed countries are to provide finance to developing countries for this transition, not only because they can but also as acknowledgment that they are primarily responsible for the climate crisis. But, as India continues to point out, the West has lagged far behind in meeting its financial commitments. 

Given the close correlation between economic growth and carbon emissions under present conditions—something established by numerous studies—for India’s emissions to decline its economic growth has to decline too. Put simply, India cannot afford this. It remains at an early stage of development, a lower-middle-income country with an annual per-capita income of $1,900 and a huge share of the population dependent on farming. Even that figure masks brutal disparities. India’s poorest state, Bihar, has an average per-capita income lower than that of all but three of the world’s countries—Burundi, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some 135 million Indians are living in extreme poverty, on less than two dollars a day.