At a time when environmental degradation was hardly an issue, Mahatma Gandhi had famously said that earth provided enough to satisfy every man's need, but not his greed. India has therefore rightly chosen the birth anniversary of the Mahatma to announce its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to combat climate change. The INDCs will form a part of the discussions and negotiations at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to be held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) during 30 November to 11 December 2015 in Paris.
Under the INDCs, India would cut its emissions per-unit of GDP by 33% to 35% by 2030 over those in 2005. Additionally, it would raise its installed electric capacity from non-fossil-fuel-based energy sources to 40% and create new carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through expansion of the forest cover by 2030. For comparison, the United States today derives only 20% of its energy from non-fossil fuels.
Are India's commitments generous, just right or fall short of the due? Answering this question requires a metric against which the commitments can be evaluated. Central to such a metric in the environmental literature is the Polluter Pay Principle, which says that the costs of clean up of pollution must be borne by those who cause it. Today, this principle is accepted as a fundamental principle of environmental policy of both the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Community. Therefore, India’s INDCs may be legitimately evaluated against its CO2 emissions relative to other countries.
Because atmosphere is a complex system, we do not know with precision how long CO2 remains in it after being released. It is commonly stated that the gas remains in the atmosphere for 100 years. But in reality, the process is continuous and much longer. Different reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have provided different answers to this question with the fourth one putting the matter thus, "About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years." Whatever the true period, one thing is certain: In assigning countries responsibility for the damage to the environment, we must take into account not just current but also past emissions.
According to available estimates, between 1850 and 2011, the United States and member countries of the European Union contributed 21.2% and 18.4% of the total cumulative CO2 emissions. Russia, Japan and Canada jointly accounted for 12.9% and China for 10.7% of the emissions. Therefore, the rich countries and China are jointly responsible for 63.3% of the current stock of carbon in atmosphere. In comparison, the share of India is just 2.8%.
What about the current flows of emissions? The United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada jointly contributed 40.6% of the flow emissions in 2012. At 25.1%, China was the biggest contributor that year. It follows that the rich countries plus China accounted for 65.7% of the total flow emissions in 2012. The contribution of India during this year was 5.7%.
Therefore, the rich countries plus China account for approximately two thirds of stock as well as flow emissions. India remains small in terms of both stock and flow emissions. This picture is greatly reinforced when we bring into consideration the relative size of India. Going by emissions between 1850 and 2011, the country currently occupies less than 3% of the global carbon space while accounting for 17% of the world’s population. In comparison the United States, European Union, Russia, Japan and Canada occupy 52.5% of the carbon space while accounting for 16.2% of the world’s population. It is difficult to think of any reasonable fairness criterion that would not characterize this distribution of carbon space as tilted heavily in favour of the developed countries.
An examination of per-capita flow emissions leads to the same conclusion. In 2012, annual per capita carbon emissions stood at 17.6 tons in Canada, 16.5 tons in the United States, 12 tons in Russia, 10 tons in Japan, 7.2 tons in the European Union, 6.8 tons in China and just 1.7 tons in India. Indian per-capita emissions remain substantially below even the worldwide average per-capita carbon emission of 5.3 tons in 2012.
When we consider these relative shares of countries in the stock and flow emissions of CO2 in the light of the Polluter Pay Principle, almost any commitments by India to regulate its emissions without compensation from developed countries constitute a generous gesture. But that has not been India’s approach to INDCs. Instead, we have voluntarily made commitments going well beyond our contribution to emissions without any promise of compensation by the developed countries. Looked one way, commitments by India are more ambitious than even much publicized offers by China. Today, emission intensity of India’s GDP is approximately half that of China. And yet we have offered to cut this intensity by a third by 2030 relative to the level prevailing in 2005. It is against this background that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that though India did not create the climate change problem, it would not shy away from contributing to its solution.
India's commitment stands in sharp contrast to that by the United States. The UNFCCC had been signed in 1994 and under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 rich countries were to bring global emissions down by 5.2 per cent relative to their 1990 level. Yet, the United States annual emissions continued to rise steadily throughout the 1990s and until the late 2000s. It was only the global financial crisis of 2008 that finally broke this trend by interrupting the GDP growth in a major way. The United States has now committed to cutting its flow emissions by 26 to 28% by 2030 relative to the significantly higher level in 2005 instead of the original, much lower benchmark in 1990. Such a cut would make at best minimal dent in the proportion of the carbon space it currently occupies.
Indeed, with the economy recovering from the 2008 crisis, for now, emissions by the United Sates have turned upwards. The country saw its CO2 emissions rise by 2.5% in 2013 over those in 2012. A 4.4% increase in the use of coal was the principal source of this rise. Lower price allowed coal to regain some of the share it had lost to natural gas in the previous years. The increase in coal consumption sits rather awkwardly with the exhortations by the United States to other countries to cut their use of coal.
Influential Harvard economist Richard Cooper rejects any liability of the rich countries for the damage done by past emissions on the ground that these countries did not know the harmful consequences of their actions at the time they undertook those actions. But this argument is contradicted even by the existing practice within the United State. Its Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 allows the Environmental protection Agency to compel parties responsible for dumping toxic waste in the 1970s in rivers, canals, and other sites to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for cleanups. It does not matter whether the offending parties were aware of the consequences of their actions or not at the time of such actions.
In sum, under established and accepted principles, the responsibility for arresting the climate change phenomenon rests principally with the developed countries. If they want the developing countries such as India to aggressively join hands, they must minimally stand ready to provide financing through grants for the purchase of costly technologies for mitigation. So far they have fallen well short of their obligation in this dimension. Despite this fact, India has not shied away from coming forward with generous commitments to combat climate change.
Disclaimer: NITI blogs do not represent the views of either the Government of India or NITI Aayog. They are intended to stimulate healthy debate and deliberation.