The Indian problem

I was just reading a Grist article about India wanting a global agreement on combatting climate change, while at the same time opposing binding emissions limits [LINK]. This has been, and I think will remain, a key issue for international agreements and negotiations concerning climate change. India and China have a couple of billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty. Both countries are making long strides in their development, becoming global powerhouses in terms of manufacturing and providing low-cost services to the "developed world." In this dash to bring the standard of living in China and India into alignment with the developed countries, the fossil-fuel use in these nations has increased tremendously. Of course, at the same time most Indians still burn biomass for cooking and heating [LINK, see also video].

So on the face of it, this seems to be a dilemma. India and China want to lift their populations out of poverty, expand their economies, and become global leaders. Doing this requires dramatic increases in infrastructure, and includes expanding electricity and water resources. The apparent consequence is increased carbon emissions. So, from the perspective of these developing nations, to improve the standard of living for their populations requires intensive use of fossil fuels and increased emissions, and from their perspective it's not fair that just when they are making progress the "West" tells them that they can't use the cheap (and dirty) energy that will accelerate their endeavors. From the outsider's point of view, though, ramping up the carbon emissions is bad for the whole world.

The only solution that I see to this dilemma is actually exactly what India says it doesn't want: binding emissions restrictions. Such restrictions could be quite complicated in their details, but the point is to prevent the infrastructure in developing nations from building in a dependence on fossil fuels. The world's developed nations are now addicted to fossil fuel, and it is obvious that this has become an impediment to combatting climate change. Introducing the same addiction for another 30% of the world's population doesn't seem useful. Instead, by introducing binding emissions cuts for everyone (and that is key!), the developing nations will be able to practically leap-frog the fossil-fuel phase that the west has been stuck in for a century. It'll be cost efficient, too, since all the western nations are transitioning away from fossil fuels, driving the prices of renewable energy technology down. So while all the developing nations are spending gads of money to deconstruct their antiquated systems while building up entirely new infrastructure for a low-carbon future, India and China should be able to simply begin with renewable systems (for much of their countries at least). This strategy would actually accelerate China and India's progress in catching up with developed countries because they'd avoid what will undoubtedly be a painful transition away from fossil fuels, while pioneering the large-scale use of renewable energy technologies.

Of course, this has all been about energy and money. There are a host of issues related to the impacts of climate change that will disproportionately hurt developing nations, so avoiding those impacts should be a very high priority for those countries. Maybe we should review some of those issues in a future post.

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