Monday, December 7, 2009


On Friday morning all Indian newspapers opened their first pages announcing that the Government was ready to pledge a 20-25% cut in carbon emissions intensity per unit of GDP by 2020 at Copenhagen. And forget about the fact that these targets would be ‘voluntary’ and ‘non binding’. Indeed, this announcement represented quite a radical (and in a way unexpected) shift from the negotiation position that the Government developed and maintained in the past few months.

But let’s do a step back. Many of you have asked me in the past weeks what I am doing here in India. Well, the short answer is that, as many Environmental or Natural Resource Management ‘specialists’ colleagues of mine, I am trying (or pretending) to recycle myself as a ‘Climate Change’ specialist. And so, after having solved the problem of land degradation in Africa, here I am to solve the problem of climate change in India…

Apart from the very noble nature of my new job, this position allowed me to follow a bit the discussions that have led the Government in the past months to define its stance vis-à-vis the negotiations that are about to start in Copenhagen. And have to say that I found these discussions extremely fascinating from both an intellectual and an ethical point of view.

The official position of the Government in the past months has been that India would not negotiate or agree to any emission target. This position was supported by two main arguments. First, that India was not and is not part of the problem. Not only India has not contributed to past emissions (whose responsibility is of the industrialized countries), but its current per capita CO2 emissions are extremely low: about 1/20 of those of the US and 1/10 of those of the EU and of Japan. And anyway well below the world average. According to India, it would be therefore immoral to impose any cap to its emissions, and, consistent to the above, India’s declared position was that it would not discuss any emission target until when its per capita emissions would reach those of industrialized countries.

The issue here is however how countries' responsibility for carbon emissions should be attributed - whether counting the per capita emissions or instead counting the total emissions. If in fact India is one of the least CO2 polluting countries in the world in terms of per capita emissions, it is on the other hand one of the most polluting countries in terms of total emissions. India is the forth-largest emitter in terms of total volume of CO2 - after China, the US, and Russia, and before Japan and Germany. As much as the 'nation' India is not part of the problem if we look at the average emissions of its people, the 'country' India is very much part of the problem if we count its total emissions. But here the ethical question: what should be considered just and ‘equitable’ in this context, that each country is entitled to emit the same, or that each person is entitled to emit the same? …

The second argument used to support India’s position in the climate discourse was that imposing limits on carbon emissions would prevent or limit India’s capacity (and right) to develop. Evidence seems in fact to suggest that per capita CO2 emissions are closely related to a country’s level of economic development (and in fact, historically, no country has improved its level of economic development without a corresponding increase in per capita use of energy - which implied an increase in CO2 emissions). Under the current circumstances (i.e. in a world that is very much dependent on fossil fuels for energy production) growth cannot be achieved without contextually increasing CO2 emissions. Imposing limits to CO2 emissions to a developing country would therefore implicitly imply limiting its possibility to grow and develop.

The key issue here is whether it is possible to conceive an alternative, less carbon-intensive, model of growth, which would allow countries to develop economically without overloading the atmosphere with green-house gases. Even though no country has yet proved it, scientific progress and technological innovation suggest that this could be possible by improving energy efficiency and by relying more heavily on renewable sources of energy. In short, by building a so-called ‘low-carbon economy’. But the question is: who should pay for this conversion? Well, you could easily imagine India’s opinion in this regard…

But let’s now get back to the sudden change in India’s conventional position, to the announcement that India would reduce its carbon emissions intensity by 20-25% by 2020. What’s really behind the few words suitable for the occasion, i.e. that India would like to be seen as ‘deal-maker and not as a deal-breaker’, that India ‘was not part of the problem but wants to be part of the solution’, etc.?

Well, of course nobody knows. Here there are two, absolutely personal, hypotheses. The first: that India is selling these targets (which would be anyway achieved by simply implementing its national programs) to gain 'negotiation' credits for other (more important for India) issues on the table, i.e. transfer of technology, access to patents and intellectual property rights, financial resources… The second: that India is projecting itself in 20-30 years from now - and what it sees is that it will be then where the US, the EU, Japan, etc. stand now. And with this perspective in mind, that India is trying today to well position itself at the negotiating table, and build the basis for the bilateral and multilateral negotiations of tomorrow…

Well, as we would say in Italy: "chi vivrà, vedrà - e intato io pago"*…

(*) “Those who’ll live, will see - and in the meantime, I pay…”


  1. E' vero che chi vivrà, vedrà, ma nel mondo futuro ci dovete vivere voi giovani.
    Noi "vecchi" i nostri danni li abbiamo già fatti.
    Spremetevi il cervello per trovare soluzioni che vadano bene per tutti, o rassegnamoci a vivere alla Blade Runner.

  2. An excellent summary of India's position and dilemmas, Matteo.