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China puts India in a hot spot on emission targets

Nov 27, 2009

China’s announcement of ‘voluntary’ and ‘binding’ energy-efficiency targets has put India in a spot before the crucial climate change talks to be held in Copenhagen next month. Before his visit to Beijing, minister of environment and forest, feeling the pressure, talked of flexibility in approach.

New Delhi: Environment minister Jairam Ramesh left for Beijing on Thursday night as China –  the world’s biggest carbon emitter – revealed its first energy-efficiency targets ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit on December 7.

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Ramesh will meet Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on Friday, a day after Beijing announced a “voluntary” and “binding” national goal of a 40-45% cut in carbon intensity below 2005 levels by 2020. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic growth or GDP.

“China has given a wake-up call to us,” Ramesh said before leaving for Beijing.

“We’ve to think hard about our climate strategy now and look for flexibility, as I’ve been saying for the past two months, to avoid being isolated at the Copenhagen conference. The flexibility can be achieved without taking binding emission cuts.”

China and India, the world’s fourth-biggest polluter, are coordinating a strategy for the Copenhagen conference where nations will negotiate a global plan to curb man-made emissions that cause global warming.

Wen will be attending the climate summit. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is yet to decide whether or not he will go.

Beijing’s announcement came a day after the US said President Barack Obama would attend the climate summit and present a plan to cut emissions by about 17% below 2005 level by 2020.

“The US commitment to specific, mid-term emission cut targets and China’s commitment to specific action on energy efficiency can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement,” he said.

“Biggest step forward,” said R.K. Pachauri, head of the UN’s panel on climate change. “Now rich countries should declare a financial commitment for saving the planet so that we can have a treaty at Copenhagen.”

China’s declaration will put pressure on India to consider announcing a target to cut emissions by 2020, like most other advanced nations, before the Copenhagen conference. “Now the pressure is even from the advanced developing countries on us (India) to declare targets on emissions which are not legally binding,” said Ramesh. “We’re studying these developments.”

India can achieve 15 to 18% emissions reduction from the projected 2020 levels with steps contemplated in the National Action Plan on Climate Change, but has not officially announced a figure.

China’s new goal does not mean its emissions will reduce. With the new carbon-intensity cuts, Chinese emissions will keep growing with the economy, and faster than India, till 2020 or 2030 when emissions are expected to peak. Chinese officials have avoided announcing a year when emissions will peak before they start to decline.

India has already said its emissions will peak by 2030 with an average economic growth of 8.5%.

Both China and India still oppose binding emission reductions and vouch for “common but differentiated responsibilities” for developed and developing countries.

Earlier Jairam Ramesh told Parliament on Tuesday that he was not deviating from India’s stated position on climate change.

On the contrary, he had tried his best to ensure that India negotiates from a position of strength and did not “earn the reputation of being a deal breaker” at climate negotiations, Ramesh said.

“I have not deviated from the stated position of the country... But my point is that India should not be isolated like Brazil, South Korea and Indonesia that have already announced cuts in emission reduction.”

A whiff of fresh air

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions could save at least 2 million Indian lives, in addition to preventing the ecological damages associated with a warmer planet, says a team of international researchers. Their study is one of the first ever to look at the effects of climate change on public health.

The public health “co-benefits” of black carbon reduction are higher in India than in any other country, with the potential to save 2 million lives in just the next few years, said the authors. The study appeared Wednesday in the Lancet, a medical journal.

“Policymakers need to know that if they exert their efforts in certain directions, they can obtain public health benefits as well as climate benefits,” said Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California-Berkeley, and the principal investigator on the study. Smith said the monetary costs of reducing emissions would be more than offset by the reduction in pollution-related deaths.

The researchers found that many greenhouse gases – in particular, ozone and black carbon, or soot – can damage the heart and lungs.

In India, most black carbon is produced by wood-burning stoves and by the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel, which occurs in electricity generation and transport. The study estimates that indoor air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Researchers have long known that black carbon can damage health, but in India, recognising black carbon as a greenhouse gas – which would require emissions reduction – has been a controversial proposition.

"The numbers are staggering," said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a leading climate change scientist. Ramanathan says black carbon causes up to 18% of global warming, and that reducing emissions is “feasible” and will have immediate benefits. Black carbon, which accumulates on glaciers, has also been suggested as one of the key drivers of recent Himalayan glacier melt.

Much of the world’s black carbon is produced in India and China. Western nations have put pressure on India to discuss the issue at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, to take place next month. Jairam Ramesh has categorically refused, saying the scientific link is still too new.

R.K. Pachauri, head of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said last week that black carbon could not be linked to climate change – yet. The IPCC will conclude its own black carbon study by 2013.

The Indian government recently approved its own three-year study of black carbon’s contribution to climate change.

The study will involve researchers from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), as well as leaders like Ramanathan, said Ramesh.

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