A powerful but unpredictable force is rising in the battle over the future of the climate. It’s the type of powerful force that’s felt when 1.2 billion people clamor for more electricity—many of them trying to light, heat, and refrigerate their ways out of poverty; others throwing rupees at excessive air conditioning and other newfound luxuries. And it’s the type of unpredictable force that’s felt when the government of those 1.2 billion is in election mode, clamoring for votes by brazenly blocking progress at international climate talks.
Hundreds of millions of Indians live in poverty, wielding a tiny per-person carbon footprint when compared with residents of the West and coming out on top of environmental sustainability surveys. But the country is home to so many people that steady economic growth is turning it into a climate-changing powerhouse. It has developed a gluttonous appetite for coal, one of the most climate-changing fuels and the source of nearly two-thirds of the country’s power. India recently overtook Russia to become the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas polluter, behind China and the United States. (If you count the European Union as a single carbon-belching bloc, then India comes in fourth).
India has been obstructing progress on international climate talks, culminating during the two weeks of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations that ended Saturday in Warsaw. The Warsaw talks were the latest annual get-together for nearly 200 countries trying to thrash out a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
India’s erraticism at international climate talks is frustrating the West. But it is also starting to anger some developing nations struggling to cope with violent weather, droughts, and floods blamed on climate change.
India’s stance during climate talks is that developed countries should be legally committed to addressing global warming by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and that developing countries should do what they say they can do to help out.
But once-clear distinctions between developed and developing countries are blurring. A growing number of developing countries—including low-lying island states in the Pacific and some countries in Africa and Latin America with which India has long been allied—are eyeing the vast, growing, climate-changing pollution being pumped out by China and India. They are wondering why those two countries, and others in the “developing” camp, shouldn’t also be committed to reducing their emissions.
The Warsaw meetings ended with India and China thwarting efforts by the United States, Europe, and others to commit all countries to measures to address greenhouse gas pollution. Instead, countries agreed in Warsaw to announce their “intended contributions” to slow down global warming in 2015, in advance of final meetings planned in Paris to agree on the new climate treaty.
“Developing countries are a varied group at this stage, and there is a growing frustration about the inability to move forward from some of these countries,” said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who attended the Warsaw meetings. “Some of their anger is directed at the U.S. and Europe, but more and more of their anger is quietly being directed at friends in the developing world that they see as stalling progress.”
And no country has done more than India to stall progress on international climate negotiations during the past two months.
It began last month in Bangkok, when negotiators met to update the Montreal Protocol. Signed in the late 1980s, the protocol saved the ozone layer by ending the use of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants, household goods, and industrial products. The problem was, manufacturers often swapped out CFCs for a closely related group of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs don’t hurt the ozone layer, but it turns out that they are potent greenhouse gases. With climate change now the most important global environmental challenge, the United States and a long list of other countries have proposed amending the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of HFCs.
All seemed to be going well with the plans for those amendments. India and the other members of the Group of 20 endorsed the proposal during September meetings in Russia. A couple of weeks later, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated the country’s support for the amendments during meetings with President Obama.