US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the usual case for India accepting limits on its carbon emissions — the bulk of future carbon emissions, she said, would emanate from high-growth developing countries such as India and China and, therefore, the only way to avoid an environmental catastrophe was for them to follow a low-carbon development path. Despite its apparent logic, the argument has a critical flaw, which is that the rich countries have been environmental free riders all along and seek to continue to be free riders. The environment minister Jairam Ramesh did well, therefore, to make it clear that India would not accept any legally binding restrictions. If India is to move its millions from poverty to an acceptable living standard, it has to adopt industrialisation models, which are energy-intensive. So, if the world has to survive and countries like India and China have to develop, the extra carbon space, as it were, has to come from the developed world reducing its emissions — which is what it committed to doing more than a decade ago, at Kyoto. The commitments have not been kept. The other option is for India to adopt expensive, new, low-carbon industrialisation models — but that would need funding by the developed countries. This has been India’s perfectly logical negotiating stance and, despite what happened at the Major Economies Forum in Italy, Indian negotiators say there has been no dilution in the position.
In other words, the debate has not moved forward. However, since India will be one of the countries that will suffer quite severely from any global warming, and since the poor will pay the biggest price, it needs to look at what it can do. A few examples should suffice to make the point. India subsidises fuel like kerosene, supposedly to benefit the poor. Yet, it is well known that such kerosene does not reach the poor, instead it is used to adulterate diesel. Not only does this destroy the engines of cars and trucks, it increases pollution levels which, eventually, lead to higher health costs. Not pricing electricity and water correctly means that, in the rural areas, there is excessive drawing down of groundwater — the resulting fall in the water table and increased soil salinity hurts farmers. Taxing personal motor vehicles at rates lower than buses, and not giving special tax concessions to mass transport vehicles, ensures that the country’s carbon footprint grows — at the same time, it ensures that the transport which the poor use continues to remain poorly developed. In short, people are paying a price for India’s business-as-usual approach when it comes to carbon emissions. Imposing carbon taxes, or at least rationalising certain types of pricing, will not only earn India brownie points in the global environment debate, it will also help India’s poor. In other words, negotiate as hard as you can so that the rich countries do not continue to be environmental free riders on the poor nations, but do what needs to be done at home.