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Six charts that show how India should approach carbon emission cuts

 Mint, Delhi, 4th December, 2014

India needs to reduce economic dependence on energy

 Prabhat Singh

In the face of the much-touted US-China climate deal, India’s strategy of piggybacking on China to avoid taking compulsory carbon emission cuts has backfired.


At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, India joined hands with China to stave off pressure from the developed world to introduce binding emission cuts. Since then, even as China publicly rejected any cuts, it entered into negotiations with the US to help reduce the pace of climate change, which eventually resulted in the latest deal. While the merits of the deal itself are much doubted, with most commentators accusing China of doing too little by agreeing to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, it is clear that the international pressure is now firmly on India—the third largest polluter in the world—to act decisively against climate change. However, a closer look at climate data shows that while population and steep economic growth are the two reasons why India has become a major carbon emitter, it is much less responsible for climate change than many other comparable nations. Here are six charts that show how India should juggle the trinity of international pressure, its own development concerns and the need for a clean environment for its own sake.


Chart 1: The average Indian emits less than 25% carbon-dioxide (CO2) of what an average Chinese does, and barely 8% when compared with the average American. Even between 1990 and 2011, Indians were much less guilty of waging war against the environment than others. While India’s per capita emissions have doubled over this period, China’s have tripled. France and Sweden—which derive the bulk of their energy from nuclear and renewable resources, respectively—have the lowest per capita emissions in the developed world. Their figures are even lower than China’s, and have seen a 20% drop since 1990.



Chart 2: Despite the drastically low per capita emissions, India’s massive population means the country stands third in the list of carbon emitters. However, even this doesn’t nearly put India in the same bracket as China, whose 25% share in global CO2 emissions is five times that of India. Since 1990, the share of the US in global emissions has come down by 6 percentage points, though it continues to be very high at 17%. It is noteworthy that France and Sweden combined have only a 2% share in global emissions.



Chart 3: India’s figure for CO2 emitted per unit energy produced is below global average, and nearly 20% below China’s. That’s somewhat surprising given India’s heavy reliance on coal to produce electricity. In fact, despite much superior technology, US emits more CO2 per unit energy than India. This is a crucial parameter which captures the main reason for global warming. The global average for emissions per unit energy has remained constant since 1990, while constantly expanding energy production has meant that the amount of CO2 has gone up unabated. Again, France and Sweden show the way. Owing to usage of clean fuels, the CO2 emitted by them per unit energy is less than half the global average.



Chart 4: Energy intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) should be of most concern to India, if it is to continue on the path to development without wreaking havoc on the environment like China has done. For every tonne of CO2 emitted, India generates $0.76 worth of GDP, much better than China’s $0.55, but well below the global average of $1.67. According to the International Energy Agency, or IEA, better and cleaner technology has reduced the reliance of economic growth on energy usage by 23% between 1990 and 2011. However, India’s progress on this front has been tardy.



Chart 5: Clean energy sources are the only way to ensure meeting energy demands without irreversible climate change. On this parameter, non-fossil fuels such as hydro (water), nuclear and wind beat fossil fuels such as coal and gas so much so that energy generated from water is 250 times cleaner than that generated from coal. No wonder then that France and Sweden are models worthy of emulation. Unfortunately, India is showing an insatiable appetite for coal to meet its need for industrialization. The 12th Five-Year Plan estimates coal demand at 980 million tonnes, as opposed to 554 million tonnes for the 11th Plan. While there has been an increased emphasis on solar and wind energy in recent times, much more needs to be done.



Chart 6: The intergovernmental panel on climate change has warned that human migration owing to climate change will be one of the most difficult global problems to deal with. This is especially important to India since 98% of the 120 million climate migrants between 2008 and 2012 came from developing countries. That includes 9 million from India in 2012 alone, mostly within the country. In addition, low-lying island nations face an existential crisis from rising sea levels for which global warming is majorly responsible. Kiribati in the Pacific has already started buying land in Fiji to gradually move its entire population to safety. Similarly, major Indian coastal cities are imperilled by rising sea levels. Agricultural productivity is being impacted as well. Keeping the above in mind, the only way forward seems to be usage of cleaner fuels, so that India can continue to cater to its developmental needs, while at the same time doing its bit to preserve the environment. However, hyphenating India with China, which has turned into an economic powerhouse and has traversed this long journey without a hint of concern for the environment, and expecting India to accept compulsory emission cuts might be unwarranted.