Why the Rest of the World Is Mad at India

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Nov. 27 2013 12:44 PM

The India Problem

Why is it thwarting every international climate agreement?

Haze in Mumbai, 2009
India has stalled international greenhouse gas accords because climate change isn't a winning election issue in the developing country.

Photo by Arko Datta/Reuters

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.

But when international representatives gathered for meetings in Bangkok to actually make the amendments, they were surprised and angered to find the negotiations blocked by India. The country’s environment officials told Indian media that they were worried about the costs associated with switching over to new coolants. What may have worried them even more was the fear of being accused of opening the door for foreign air conditioning and fridge companies to take over domestic markets.

If there’s one thing that no Indian government up for re-election in the current political climate would want, it’s to be seen giving an inch to America on trade.

Then came Warsaw. Extensive negotiations around agriculture had been scheduled for the first of the two weeks of meetings. Farming causes about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, due in part to land clearing, energy use, and the methane that bubbles up from rice paddies and is belched out by cattle.

But that’s not what drew farming representatives to Warsaw. Farmers are the hardest hit by changes in the weather—which should help them secure a chunk of the hundreds of billions of dollars in climate aid that a new climate treaty is expected to deliver for poor countries. But India, which is home to farms that are struggling to cope with changing rainfall patterns, spearheaded a maneuver that blocked agricultural negotiations from moving forward. Its negotiators feared that negotiations over farmer adaptation efforts would lead to requests that those farmers also reduce their carbon footprints.

“India has been very clear that agriculture is the mainstay of our population, and we don’t want any mitigation targets there,” said Indrajit Bose, a climate change program manager at the influential Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, who attended the Warsaw meetings. “It’s a red line for India, and I think we agree with that.”

During the second week of Warsaw talks, India again blocked progress on HFC reductions, and it worked with China to water down the meeting’s most important agreement on the final day of talks.

Despite instances of Chinese obstructionism at Warsaw, China and the United States have been making headlines during the past week for their blossoming mutual commitment to tackling climate change. Now India appears to be supplanting China as the developing world’s chief climate agitator, even as it takes real steps to boost renewable energy production at home and meet voluntary goals to reduce the “emission intensity” of its economy. (Meanwhile, Japan, Australia, and Canada are taking America’s mantle as the developed world’s chief climate antagonists.)

The India problem isn’t limited to climate talks. Early this year India helped dilute an international agreement that had been crafted to reduce mercury pollution—a major problem with coal-fired power plants.

Before the country’s environment minister was replaced during a mid-2011 Cabinet reshuffle, India had been hailed as a constructive leader during international climate talks. Now it’s being accused of foot-dragging, obstructionism, and flip-flopping.

Recent Indian shenanigans on the global climate stage are partly a reflection of the fact that a federal election will be held in the spring. Such elections are held every five years, and frantic campaigning by long lists of parties occupies many of the months that precede them. In India, despite the country’s acute vulnerability to climate change, the climate is simply not an election issue. BBC polling suggests that 39 percent of Indians have never heard about “climate change.” Indian voters are calling for more affordable energy—not for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

And India, like other developing countries, has been angered by what appears to be reluctance by developed countries to lend a meaningful financial hand as the climate goes awry. A cruel irony of climate change is that the poor countries that did the least to warm the planet are often the hardest hit, vulnerable to rising tides, crop-wilting droughts, and powerful storms. During the talks in Warsaw, Western countries were suddenly balking at previously promised climate aid that would have been worth $100 billion a year by 2020. And developed countries have fobbed off developing countries’ appeals for additional compensation, so-called loss-and-damage payments, when climate change has harmed their people and economies.

It’s not just the electioneering in India that’s causing problems for global climate talks. Another problem seems to be how little press attention the country receives on foreign shores. “There’s not a lot of focus on India anywhere,” said Manish Ram, a renewable-energy analyst for Greenpeace India who attended the Warsaw meetings. “That’s one of the reasons India gets away with doing what it’s been doing.”

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