India Weighing Limits on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 24, 2009

NEW DELHI -- Trying to burnish its international reputation as it prepares for a major climate conference, India is considering adoption of curbs on carbon emissions that it has long resisted.

India had thus far rejected emission cuts, declaring that they would compromise the populous nation's economic growth, even as developed countries criticized its intransigence. But under a proposed national law, India may set limits on greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decade, focusing on energy efficiency, new building codes, clean energy and fuel economy standards.

India's leadership hopes that by acting on its own, rather than responding to what are likely to be tough demands from other countries during the December climate conference in Copenhagen, the measures will garner more domestic support.

"We have to take up bold new responsibilities that we have evaded so far," Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, said at a recent trade conference. "But if we want durable political consensus, then it has to be rooted in domestic legislation and not in an international agreement."

The cuts would be a national goal; they would be neither an internationally binding commitment nor open to international verification. Still, Ramesh said he hoped that the measures would portray India as a "positive player" in climate talks.

India's emerging economic might and global ambitions are nudging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-educated economist, to be more mindful of the nation's image. His aides say he wants India to engage with the world in a way that befits its aspiration to be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and have greater say in the running of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

"India does not want to be the global bad boy in international negotiations. We don't want to be blamed as the stumbling block anymore," said Tarun Das, head of the Confederation of Indian Industry, who works closely with the Indian government. "I believe the mandate from the prime minister is 'Deal, don't break,' whether it is international trade or climate change negotiations. He believes that India should not be locked up in the old-world fears any longer. What is there to be afraid of?"

The new resolve was visible last month when the Indian government convened a meeting of key trade officials from 30 countries to restart global talks that broke down in July 2008 over the issues of farm subsidies and import tariffs. Many Western nations blamed India for the collapse of the negotiations, upsetting Singh.

"He did not want India to become the lightning rod for international criticism," said Sanjaya Baru, a former spokesman for the prime minister.

Coal meets about 60 percent of India's power needs, and the country is ranked fifth in the production of greenhouse gas emissions. India, which has more than 1 billion people and a rapidly expanding economy, has argued that its per-capita emissions are a tenth of those in the United States and that the bigger polluters should cut first.

"The prime minister feels the arguments that worked two years ago may not work anymore," said an aide to Singh, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "We will not barter away our national interest, but we can afford to make marginal adjustments."

Singh's new confidence that he will win political support among Indians comes from the majorities his party won in recent elections, freeing his government of its five-year-old dependence on Communist allies who refused international concessions.

India took its first step toward more cooperation on carbon emissions two months ago, at the Major Economies Forum in Italy, when it signed on to a declaration to cap the average global temperature at 2 degrees above preindustrialization levels.

But India also has long said that richer nations must assist poorer ones with the cost of mitigating climate change. Not expecting any financial assistance to be offered at the Copenhagen summit, the New Delhi government is not prepared to have its new efforts at reducing emissions overseen by other countries.

"The goals we set will not be open to international verification, because there does not seem to be any money on the table for us at Copenhagen," said Ajay Mathur, director general of India's Bureau of Energy Efficiency. "But Copenhagen need not fail. We can still go for the low-hanging fruit by agreeing on joint development of new technologies. That builds goodwill between nations."

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