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Should India Sign on to a Global Climate Change Treaty?

India Currents, Commentary, Dr. Rajesh C. Oza and Siddhartha R. Oza Posted: Apr 26, 2010

No, India has unique needs that preclude it from fulfilling global agreements.

In 1972 the leaders of the developed world met in the first U.N. Climate Change Conference to sound the alarm bells over global warming. 2010 marks yet another year of ongoing negotiations. The goal has been, and will be, to establish an explicit, legally binding international environmental treaty to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

The inconvenient truth is that the developing world has for centuries had an implicit culturally-binding understanding of how to live sustainably. But with globalization, this understanding has broken down as more of the developing world has aspired to a developed world lifestyle. Everyone wants a car and the carbon-based fuel that makes it go. Indeed, in 2008, the developing world emitted more carbon dioxide than developed nations.

We now have treaties that require both long-standing and new actors on the free-market economic stage to take on equal responsibility for climate change. And herein lies the inequity. As Vandana Shiva writes in Soil Not Oil, Economic actors that never polluted were never allocated credits and therefore are never able to sell them. There is nothing to encourage truly sustainable development.

Unlike America, Europe, and to a certain extent Japan and Australia, the developing world has not broadly benefited from the Industrial Revolution; and to a large extent, industrialization has been the primary contributing factor to the earths climate change issues. The billions living in emerging markets have hardly emerged out of a subsistence existence. Per capita, they spend less than a dollar a day; translated into a carbon footprint, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the oceanic climate mess that the developed world has created.

As such, it is not appropriate for India to accept any binding cut to greenhouse gas emissions. Necessary sovereign actions must be taken to address issues of poverty and economic insecurity. If that means increased carbon output, so be it.

Last year, on her first visit to India as Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton suggested that both India and the United States needed to devise a plan that will dramatically change the way we produce, consume and conserve energy. While India can take a leadership role in adopting a middle way that equitably recognizes the different stages of economic development and different history of pollution, for now, the world must heed the response of Indias environment minister, Jairam Rajesh: We are simply not in a position to take on legally binding emissions targets.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.

Yes, by binding itself to the treaty, India moves to the forefront of the low-carbon economy.

The unique needs argument suggests that it is unfair to compel developing countries like India to commit to reductions before they have even had a chance to fully develop their economies. This faulty line of thinking warns us that those governments that commit to a binding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will lead their countries to economic peril. After all, America and Europe had their chance to advance and polluteisnt this just a new form of Western imperialism?

In fact, its quite the contrary. Climate change poses one of the greatest economic opportunities for India in the 21st century.

The climate change debate too often boils down to the highly polarized jobs vs. environment argument. In reality, the debate is about existing jobs vs. future jobs. Does India want to keep a small percentage of the population mining coal today or develop a renewable energy industry that could employ tens of millions of people tomorrow? Whether or not India signs an international greenhouse gas reductions treaty, the future of the world lies in a low- or no-carbon global economy. It is in Indias interest to lead the world through that transition by researching, developing, and supplying other countries with green technologies.

Despite the potential for economic gain from curbing greenhouse gas emissions, individuals and interest groups have advocated for a business as usual approach for India. This approach should not be considered a viable option. Indeed, India would incur significant economic and societal losses from inaction.

The Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research reported that if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes predictions were to come true, India could face a GDP decline of 9%. Lowland coastal areas, including parts of Mumbai and Chennai, would be under water. Crop yields could decline by as much as 40%. Combine these impacts with the untold and unquantifiable health and environmental effects to reveal a self-evident conclusion: the cost of adapting to climate change in the future far supersedes the cost of mitigation today.

While the short-term costs may be high, India must look to a long-term sustainability strategy to continue its current economic growth. Unlike Chinas handful of policy architects who can roadmap future economic direction, Indias democracy lacks the cohesive political will to look long-term. India must sign on to a binding international environmental treaty to force itself to grow its renewable energy technologies industry. In doing so, India can lead the world into a low-carbon economy and reap the accompanying moral, financial, and social rewards.

Siddhartha R. Oza is studying Earth Systems at Stanford University.

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