Spotlight on India at COP20

“We have forgotten to live with nature,”  India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, told a group of school india modikids in September.  Urging them to conserve electricity by switching off fans and lights when not in use and turning off tap water when brushing teeth, he connected energy use with climate change impacts.  Modi wrote a 2011 e-book, Convenient Action (a play on words on Gore’s more well known An Inconvenient Truth), which chronicled his climate change mitigation work as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

As the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the U.S., India’s approach to the climate change negotiations that will start next Monday at COP20/CMP10  is under a particularly glaring spotlight after the US-China climate change announcement two weeks ago.  In India, coal use is rising,India nationa-emissions-and-projected leading to a carbon dioxide emissions increase last year (5.1%) that surpassed China’s (4.2%) and the United States’ (2.9%).

Yet India has a very large number of poor people, with national income levels several times lower than those of China.  According to World Bank, 25% of India’s population lived at the poverty level of $1.25 a day or less in 2011, compared to 6% of China’s population.  Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Modi faces huge pressure to develop economically; he already promised on the campaign trail to provide around-the-clock electricity for all citizens by 2022, given the current prevalence of power blackouts.

Modi’s approach domestically is called “Development Without Destruction,” with an emphasis on windIndia RE energy (doubling capacity over the next five years) and energy efficiency of cars, appliances, and buildings. His government has also recently called for a fivefold increase in solar power usage, targeting total renewable energy use at 100 gigawatts by 2022.  This internal stance is in line with its voluntary pledge at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to cut the “intensity” of its carbon emissions and thereby reducing CO2 emissions from economic output by 20-25% from 2005 levels by 2020.  Nonetheless, coal now accounts for 59% of India’s electric capacity and the country seeks to lower coal imports and double domestic production to one billion tons during the next five years.

According to Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow and India expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “India’s willing to make commitments to its own people” but not to the world. “I would not expect any big shift in India’s climate policy in the next year or two … It’s not ready to make binding international commitments.”

Perhaps India’s growing miindia killer airddle class, suffering under the same degree of illness-inducing air pollution as its Chinese peers, will provide a new internal push for clean energy production and energy efficiency? The  World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 13 of the top 20 cities worldwide with the dirtiest air are in India – not China, as many believe.