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Dale Wen: Reality Check on India and Climate Politics

Reality Check on India and Climate Politics

Dr. Dale Jiajun Wen

Martin Khor, the Executive Director of the South Centre, recently published an article titled “Is China still a developing Country?” After laying out all the facts and numbers in per capita terms of indicators including GDP, Human Development Index, and carbon emission, etc all of which unequivalently showing China is still a developing country, he finished the article with following sentence “China's fight to retain its developing-country status is of interest to other developing countries, for they will be next, if China loses that fight.” The politics of the ongoing Durban climate negotiation seems cannot wait to confirm his prediction.

Media reports are starting to portray India as the blocker. There are headlines like “Durban climate talks 'roadmap' held up by India”, “China readies big climate offer, India mulls support”. And some NGOs are calling leadership from India. Let us have some reality check.



In 2010, India was ranked a lowly 132 out of 184 countries in per capita GDP. Its level was US$1370 compared to US$46,860 for the US, according to IMF data.

In 2008, India was ranked 138 in per capita carbon dioxide emission; its level of 1.48 ton compares with 17.52 tons for the US, according to UN data. Its high total emission is largely due to its huge population of 1.2 billion, for which it can be hardly blamed. Similar thing can be said about India’s emerging economy status. In terms of per capita GDP, countries like Tonga and Congo are doing better than India.

400 million people in India do not have access to electricity.

According to a 2005 World Bank estimate, 41.6% of the total Indian population falls below the international poverty line of US$ 1.25 a day (PPP).

The 2011 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report ranked India 15th, amongst leading countries with hunger situation. It also places India amongst the three countries where the GHI between 1996 and 2011 went up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, succeeded in improving hunger condition.

India is also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. During Cancun negotiation, WFP released a "Food insecurity and climate change" map. In terms of "hunger and climate vulnerability index", mostly together with Africa countries, India gets the highest rating, meaning it has very high chance to face even worse food insecurity because of climate change.

For hundreds of millions of poor Indian, the right to development is the right to survival. Some narratives which pitches the right to survival (most by AOSIS and African countries) against big developing countries’ including India’s right to development is nothing but false dichotomy. India has very good reasons to insist on historical responsibility and equity, to insist developed countries to implement what they have already agreed under the convention, under the Bali Action Plan and under the Cancun agreement while it itself is on track to implement its NAMAs.

India embodies the double challenge of climate change to developing countries: to avoid the high carbon development pathway of the west, and to lift its people out of poverty. As a country with such heart-wrenching poverty, it undoubtedly needs help, meaning financial support, technology transfer and capacity building help from the north.

All these are not to say India is blameless, its recent development has yet to reach large segment of the population. For countries like India and China, the notion of historical responsibility and common but differentiated responsibility are important both internationally and domestically to fight for equity. Common but differentiated responsibility is for everybody. It is NOT a blank check for developing countries as often misinterpreted. As a country/region/person’s income and emission grow, their corresponding responsibility grows as well. In terms of accumulative per capita emission, the rich in India and China are following the footsteps of the west, rapidly using up their fair share. If the principle of common but differentiated responsibility went out of the window, the rich in the emerging economies would be much easier to continue following the example of the west, meaning, continue to occupy a disportionately large share of the atmosphere space, leaving little for the poor.

Global emissions need to peak as soon as possible, thus it is urgent to have a honest look at how much atmosphere space is still available and how we can share it in an equitable manner. On December 3, BASIC experts jointly launched an equity paper, which is an example of ongoing efforts on this front. However, instead of engaging with such discussion, the west has largely avoided the topic and is using the emission growth of the countries like India and China as a smoke screen. For example, it is widely reported that India’s emission grows by 9% between 2009-2010, but little known is the fact US emissions also grows 4%. In absolute terms, US's increase of 0.2 Billion Ton is actually larger than Indian's 0.15 Billion ton. It is not only the US. EU-15 emission also grows by 2.8%, with Germany and UK emissions go up by 4%--but somehow, these countries are still considered forerunners of the supposedly progressive EU---let's don't forget all these developed countries have a legal obligation to reduce emissions. Instead of taking real leadership, it seems that EU is now hiding behind US and even India. This is no way for global emission to peak.

We are here to fight for the future, especially for the future of children. Indian children are already in dire situation. For Indian children under 5, 43.5% are underweight due to malnutrition, the highest in the world, even worse than any least developed countries. By insisting on equity in climate negotiation, India is already showing great leadership. Further leadership from India means, Indian government should improve the implementation of the same equity principle at home: this is something international colleagues and Indian colleagues can jointly ask. But in terms of international negotiation, it is simply unfair to ask India for more. Calling India a blocker in climate negotiation is almost tantamount of calling Chad or Lesotho a blocker.

Please find a pdf-version of this text here.
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