Climate Games: India and China

Photo credit: rajkumar1220 (CC-BY)

By Anna Isaac

Far from the pandemonium of the main plenary at the Bella Centre in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, twenty five of the world’s top leaders and officials are gathered at a small room named ‘Arne Jacobsen’.

It’s December 18, 2009 – the last day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15). There’s a sense of unease in the air. Ten days of back and forth negotiations among 192 countries have boiled down to this.

French President, Nicolas Sarkozy is the first to crack under pressure of the climate talks in disarray. “This is utterly unacceptable. This is about the essentials and one has to react to this hypocrisy,” says Sarkozy, venting out his frustration.

After a few minutes of controlled silence, China’s top climate change negotiator, He Yafei counters the French President. In a tone that hides any emotion, Yafei states, “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”

China is not alone in this room full of Western heads of state. China’s arguments are backed by its Asian neighbour – India. Together with his Chinese counterpart, Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment Minister is quick to block any suggestion of global targets for reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

India’s stance in the climate change negotiations is both clear and similar to that of China’s. Ramesh asks the West “not to prejudge options” for developing countries like India and China.

India and China are accused of ‘sabotaging’ the climate change negotiations after an audio clip of this 90 minute meeting was released months later.

These accusations are also fuelled by the fact that just hours after this meeting, another one took place not far from the Arne Jacobsen room.  This one saw French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Britain’s Gordon Brown forced to sit out.  What transpired between Brazil, South Africa, India, China (BASIC countries) and the United States went on to be recognised as the Copenhagen Accord.

Copenhagen has become a sign of the shift in the global balance of powers from the West to the East. The mini-summits at Bella Centre demonstrated the emergence of the BASIC countries. It was at the Arne Jacobsen room that rivals China and India forged closer ties, pushed on by the West to strike a climate deal.

Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, India and China have moved in-step with each other. The two Asian giants speak in a unified voice on issues like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) principle of common but differentiated responsibility, historical responsibility and the Kyoto Protocol. The two governments refuse to accept binding emission reduction targets claiming doing so would harm their economy and prevent it from lifting millions out of poverty.

In Cancun (COP16) last December, India and China both agreed to international verification of domestic climate change mitigation efforts. The two countries also formally agreed last year to continue their cooperation in green technologies and their consultation on climate change negotiations. The warming of ties between the two neighbours has also gone a long way in promoting trade between them. China is India’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade moving up to $60 billion in 2010.

But their relationship is not all that rosy. Rivals for several decades now, the two countries went to war in 1962 over a border dispute in the Himalayan region, to the north of India. Issues over the border continue to weigh down upon the Sino-Indian alliance.  New Delhi’s support for the Dalai Lama, and China’s political nearness to Pakistan, India’s arch-rival have also strained their relationship in the past.

The making of Chindia

Much has changed since the Copenhagen summit. The coming together of these former rivals has shaken up the global architecture so much so the Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh refers to India and China together as ‘Chindia’.

There are some key questions however that need answering from the marriage of these two neighbours. Is this alliance one for the long-run? Do India and China have the same shared destiny both on the climate change front and otherwise?

The answer lies in scratching beyond the surface of this relationship. China and India’s alliance grew stronger only after the formation of the BASIC group of countries. Brazil, South Africa, India and China formally agreed to cooperate on the climate change negotiations prior to the Copenhagen Summit in November 2009.

Jorgen Pedersen, an Associate Professor at the Aarhus University in Denmark notes that the BASIC group of countries was created in assertion against the West’s dominance in the climate change negotiations. “What they have in common is in trying to negotiate the strong western culture in the international negotiations. It is hard if you are isolated, it’s better if you are in a group. And they do seem to value that collaboration quite highly,” argues Pedersen.

The dynamics within the group however are entirely different. “India and China have more in common with each other than they do with Brazil and South Africa. The most Brazil and South Africa have in common with India and China are their ratio of rich and poor are largely the same. They also all happen to be major developing economies,” says Pierre Fitter, an Indian journalist who covers climate change for a private television news channel in New Delhi.

With similar population sizes, geopolitical and economic ambitions, as well as a similar energy demand India and China appear to be natural allies.  Fitter points out that Brazil and South Africa are however more willing to take on binding emission targets during climate change negotiations than their Asian counterparts. And it is this diverging interest that has brought India and China closer still.

For India posturing behind a giant like China is beneficial. While both India and China were at the receiving end of much criticism for failing to come up with a legally binding agreement on emission targets at Copenhagen, most of the blame was pinned on Beijing.

Mark Lynas, a climate change advisor to the President of Maldives who was present during negotiations at COP15 says, “Certainly in Copenhagen I got the feeling that China was in the driving seat and India was a passenger.”

Despite New Delhi toeing the same line as Beijing during the negotiations, China attracted more blame given that its total carbon dioxide emissions outpace all the developed countries. Hiding behind China, helps India not only deflect attention from its own emissions but also prevents it from getting isolated.

But what is in it for China to team up with India? Pedersen calls the relationship between the two neighbours “a marriage of convenience.” He says, “you might say India is hiding behind China, but China is also hiding behind India, in the sense, China is using – ‘we are also a developing country’ argument. And that is easier for them if they go together with India and Brazil for that matter.”

According to World Bank figures, one-third of global poverty is located in India. Although China continues to have a large number of poor people, World Bank estimates that the Chinese helped reduce poverty by 475 million people between 1990 and 2005. And this has been achieved through rapid economic progress. In grouping with India, China uses the ‘developing country’ tag to shed much of its global responsibility in tackling climate change.

Both India and China have however become more fearful of the effects of climate change on their countries in recent years. The long summer months of drought together with the floods during the monsoon have pressed the Indian and Chinese leadership to act swiftly on the climate front.

As the world’s fourth largest economy and the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, India came out with an eight-point national action plan on climate change in 2008. The plan includes specific targets for solar energy, expanding forest cover and improving energy efficiency among others.

There has been criticism however that the plans have not been reviewed or monitored. Promode Kant, Director of New Delhi based Institute of Green Economy, a Non-Profit Organisation says, “By nature we (Indians) are not good reviewers of our plans. Our plan of action is always very mysterious.”

Promising to voluntarily cut emissions by 20-25% by 2020 from 2005 levels, Indian journalist Fitter argues that despite its weak efforts, the country is on track to meet its targets. “India charges a very high price for electricity from industries. And industries are anyway on a mission to reduce their energy consumption, thereby it saves costs for themselves – making it more efficient and reducing the emissions of carbon.  And that is the main driver that India has realized to reduce its intensity in the past,” says Fitter.

Contrary to popular opinion, China has devoted much time and money on efforts to mitigate climate change. As China is the world’s largest energy consumer according to the International Energy Agency, its main emphasis has been on reducing energy intensity.

Reports suggest China fell just short of achieving its energy intensity target of 20% by 2010. In its 12th Five Year Plan released this March, China hopes to increase non-fossil energy to 11.4% of its total energy use.

A leader in green technology, a Pew report indicates China outspent the United States in terms of investments in renewable energy in 2010. China spent $54.4 billion dollars on wind energy, solar power and other forms of renewable energy last year. In comparison India spent $4 billion.

Fitter says, “India has not realized it’s an economic opportunity. India has been improving energy efficiency and reducing waste. But it’s not comparable to China. China is in the race to win it and India is in to compete.”

The End Game?

So will India and China’s new bonhomie withstand both time and pressure? It appears this new convergence of interest may not last forever. Lynas suggests, “As the renewable workshop of the world, a time will come I think when the Chinese leadership realizes it is in the interest of both China and the rest of the world to take on much stronger emissions targets and then for the Chinese to sell their technologies to enable to meet them. So it’s possible the Chinese are playing on a game and India will be left at the backwater because it has been less aggressive in terms of how it meets its climate change challenge.”

Kant however argues that the two countries never had a common climate change destiny to begin with. “China and India’s interests are far apart. China is a middle income country and has ambitions of a higher developed country which means it is set on the course of development both economically and strategically,” he says. Kant also points out that while nearly half of India’s population has no access to electricity, China’s energy demands are for reasons beyond alleviating poverty.

So if indeed the Chinese are playing a game and have one-upped India, what then happens to New Delhi’s climate change position? India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has hinted at taking on binding targets in the future. But with India’s per capita emissions negligible in comparison to countries like the United States, New Delhi may not give in to pressures of a binding agreement anytime soon.

Those like Lynas fear there is danger of India being isolated both from its BASIC partners and the developed world if China takes the lead in climate change efforts. Whether India has painted itself into a corner by playing for the wrong team is something its leaders need to ask themselves. For now, it appears that India and China have the same interests but whether or not they have a common climate change destiny is something only the future can tell.

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One thought on “Climate Games: India and China”

  1. Veysel Bagci says:

    Climate change is a big lie. Only one has been instrumental in creating new economic opportunities.

    The same as bird flu. Similarly, recently the Gulf War, the lies, there have also been the invasion of Iraq.

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