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India Disdains a Global Approach to Mitigating Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Before the Industrial Revolution the lives of people all around the globe were more or less similar.  The economic basis was largely agrarian; a large fraction of people lived off the land or close to it.  Importantly, the main sources of energy to help power farming, much other economic activity and transportation were living beasts, and movement of people, goods and information was no faster than animals or ships could carry them.  Candles and oil lamps helped push back the shadow of darkness.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  Harnessing the energy contained in fossil fuels vastly multiplied the work that could be done.  Economic activity and lifestyles grew accordingly.  These effects have been felt primarily in the industrialized, or “developed”, countries, and radically changed our expectations and habits over the past 150 or so years.  The rest of the world, commonly called “developing countries”, largely remained unchanged agrarian societies, and did not benefit from the new-found energy.

Global Warming.  By the time global warming drew worldwide attention in the last decades of the 20th century, developing countries were beginning intensive energy-dependent expansions of their economies, seeking to move from agrarian to industrialized societies.  They rely primarily on fossil fuels to drive that growth.  These countries coalesced around a policy that no matter what harms global warming brought about, they were not to blame, and furthermore, that they had the right to surge forward using those energy sources in order to attain economic growth for their own citizens.

India and China are prime examples of this growth surge.  Here we focus on India.  In contrast to China since the Communist Revolution, India has faced not only an economic challenge to development, it also has an expanding population.  India’s development must not only improve standards of living for its people, it must do so for more people as time passes.  (China’s one-child policy has held its population growth lower over this time.)

An impression of the economic growth of India and China in recent years can be seen in the following comparison of selected data. 
Population, million
Average population growth,
2010-2015 projected
Gross Domestic Product, billion US$
Avg. annual growth in GDP, 2004-9
Per capita GDP in purchasing power
parity, US$
Per capita energy consumption,
kg of oil equivalent

Source: The Economist’s Pocket World in Figures, 2012 Ed

The disparity in GDP growth rates between the two countries is also shown in the graphic below.


As may be supposed from the introductory paragraphs above, the growth in India’s GDP and energy use track each other quite closely.  This is seen in the graphic below.
Growth in India’s economy from 2003 to 2011.  BROWN, total energy consumption (right side axis; 1 quadrillion = 1 billion million; Btu is British thermal unit); AQUA, gross domestic product (left side axis). Source:
India’s energy consumption doubled between 1990 and 2011; it is the fourth largest consumer of energy in the world.  Almost half of its energy is obtained by its expanding numbers of coal-fired generating plants.   Unfortunately, coal produces almost twice as much CO2 per unit of energy yielded as natural gas.  The actual annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emission rates produced by India are compared with data for China and the U. S. in the following graphic.

Annual rates of CO2emission attributed to the burning of fossil fuels from 1980-2011, for China, India and the U. S.  The numbers on the left of each panel show the lowest and highest values on the vertical axis, enlarged for legibility.  Note that the vertical axes are not comparable across the panels.

Global climate treaties have distinguished between developed and developing countries since the time that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) entered into force in 1994.  The Kyoto Protocol (Kyoto), negotiated in 1997, adopted the same wording as appears in the Convention, namely, that nations of the world address climate change “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.   This phrasing reflects the concerns of developing countries that “the developed countr[ies] should take the lead in combating climate change” because they contributed the most to atmospheric CO2 from their industrialization, and that the “specific needs and special circumstances of developing countr[ies]…should be given full consideration”.  As a result, the final terms of Kyoto applied only to developed (i.e., already industrialized) countries such as the U. S. (the U. S. did not ratify Kyoto, however), nations of Western Europe, Japan and Australia; developing countries were excused from coverage.

India still harbors this distinction in global warming objectives even though the global greenhouse gas environment has changed radically.  The energy use and economies of many developing countries, including India, have grown dramatically in the 20 years since the UNFCCC was established.  India’s energy policy strongly emphasizes its need to promote economic growth at a rapid pace. 

In 2013 coal provided 54.5% of India’s energy .  About 35% of India’s population, mostly in rural areas, lacks access to electricity.  Evidently India intends to produce the energy it needs primarily from fossil fuels, thus adding to the world’s burden of atmospheric CO2.  It currently derives very small percentages of its energy from wind, solar and hydroelectric resources.

At the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in September 2014 the Indian representative forcefully expressed his nation’s policy, appearing to rely strongly on the “specific needs and special circumstances of developing countr[ies]”.  India rejected the notion of constraining its growth and reducing its emission rate, according to Prakash Javadekar, its minister of environment, forests and climate change.  India’s first responsibility, he stated, is to reduce poverty and expand the country’s economy, rather than reduce GHG emissions.  In his view, a principal culprit of emissions is the U. S.

The U. S. and China agreed to a bilateral commitment on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a meeting in Beijing in November, 2014.  China’s emission rates, which continue growing because it is adding new fossil fuel-driven electric generating plants to power its expanding economy, are to reach a maximum annual rate by 2030 and possibly sooner, according to its commitment.  As part of this initiative China expects to increase the share of energy derived from renewable sources (solar power, wind, nuclear and hydroelectric) to 20% by the target date of 2030.

According to India Climate Dialogue a negotiator for India, remaining anonymous, stated in response to the U. S.-China pronouncement “We cannot make the same commitment, or even a similar one. India and China are not in the same stage of economic development. If developed countries are willing to listen to us in the matter of providing finance and … technology transfer to help us transition to a greener economy, we may be able to peak sometime in the 2030s, perhaps by 2040”, i.e. about ten years later than China.  Additionally, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment, concluded that the terms of the bilateral pronouncement were sufficiently lax that India “need not do anything till 2040 and beyond.”

It is clear from these official pronouncements that India does not feel compelled to limit the growth of its greenhouse gas emissions in the near future.


India is the nation with the fourth highest use of energy in the world.  As the table above shows, even though its population is almost as large as that of China its per capita energy use and GDP are far lower than its neighbor, indicating that a large fraction of India’s people do not benefit significantly from industrialization.  The country is seeking to correct this imbalance by aggressively providing more energy, primarily derived from fossil fuels, and developing its economy.  Judging from the attitudes expressed by some of its government officials, India is justifying in its own “collective mind”, i.e., in policy-making circles, continuation of “business-as-usual”, the expansion of fossil fuel-driven energy.

Such policies ignore the role that each nation of our planet plays today in protecting our atmospheric “commons”.  By acting in this way India rejects responsibility for contributing to future worsening of global warming and its consequences, even though it may suffer from those consequences.

A UNFCCC-sponsored meeting of climate representatives from all U. N. member states is currently convened (first two weeks of December 2014) in Lima, Peru. They are to lay the groundwork for a global climate treaty to be signed in December 2015.  It is generally agreed among climate scientists that major reductions in the annual rate of emission of greenhouse gases by 2050 have to be a critical feature of such an agreement.  (Many developed countries have already embarked on programs to meet that goal.)  Attitudes of countries such as India that repudiate the need for aggressive reductions in rates of emission constitute a serious threat to a successful outcome to those negotiations.  It must be hoped that such intransigence can be overcome.
Henry Auer's picture

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Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on December 9, 2014


1. If you were in charge of India’s energy policy, what exactly would you have them do instead of building coal plants?

2. Why aren’t the Indian’s already doing what you propose in your answer to the first question?

3. As a practical matter, do you think that a group of people who each emit 20 or 30 tons a year of CO2e (including emissions from all the stuff we buy from abroad) are likely to persuade another group of people who each emit 2 tons a year that they, the low emitters, need to get serious about reducing their carbon emissions?

You correctly observe that if India and other poor countries scale up their per capita fossil fuel use to match rich country averages, as they full well intend to do, it will be a climate disaster.

But we can’t very well tell the Indians to hold off joining the fossil fuel banquet when we are all sitting around that table stuffing ourselves like hogs, and have been doing so for a century or more. We need to get our own carbon emissions down to 1 or 2 tons per person if we are to be in a position to credibly tell others what to do.

Equally important, if rich countries want poor countries to forgo the huge immediate advantages afforded by cheap coal, they need to offer the poor countries realistic, affordable alternatives. Many self styled ‘environmental’ groups have, despite all evidence to the contrary, convinced themselves that the poor just need to install lots of solar panels and windmills and that will largely suffice. The evidence is clear however that even extremely wealthy countries like Germany, despite spending far more than a poor country could possibly afford, have not succeeded in displacing fossil fuels from their overwhelming dominance in their energy mix. The poor countries have certainly seen through this delusional propaganda as can be seen by the fact that they are going all out to build coal plants (as indeed have the Germans).

The only realistic alternative to coal is nuclear. India already has an active nuclear program and a number of nuclear plants. If we want India to forgo coal, we should be offering them cheap financing and technical support to allow them to build large numbers of Gen III nuclear plants. The financing would have to be structured so that it would be cheaper for India to build nuclear plants than coal plants. This would give them a strong financial incentive to choose nuclear over coal. India has the goal of providing 25% of its electrical power from nuclear by 2050. The international community should work with India to try to make that figure much higher, for example 75% similar to France, or ideally even higher with the idea of using nuclear power to provide energy outside of the electric sector. All of this would involve a financial transfer, but this is both fair, considering historical emissions, and also in the self interest of the rich countries, since they have the most to lose from catastrophic climate change.

Wealthy countries should also agree to strongly support India’s thorium program with both technical and financial assistance. The goal should be for India to start building in large scale commercial thorium reactors as soon as this technology is sufficiently developed. India is rich in thorium and already has a strong research program in this area. The international community should do all that it can to support these efforts.







Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on December 10, 2014

India has a lot of sunshine and already important PV-solar + batteries developments.

As PV-solar and batteries don’t require high tech knowledge, neither a sophicticated infra-structure, these two technologies have the potential to conquer the country fast and change the CO2 picture substantially.

For that, these technologies need to become ~ factor 4 cheaper. Then nearly everybody in India will install them (I saw them this summer when I biked through Kashmir).
Luckily, both technologies have that great development potential!
However the factor 4 price decrease will take few decades as little research now.

So the best method to help them and the climate and ourselves:
Governments start huge research projects in order to speed up the price decrease.

Standard PV-panels have now ~18% efficiency, Fraunhofer reached 46% claiming that 50% is possible without technology change. So ~40% efficiency is clearly possible, which implies PV-panels with a capacity of 400W/m².
Battery developments show similar potential.

Hence the research effort should concentrate on higher efficiency and lower production costs.
As it concerns >100million units, very cheap (automated) production methods should be possible.

The extra benefit is that the whole world (incl. western countries) will profit from such effort!

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on December 10, 2014

The message from India is clear and as expected. India needs to be helped materially and immaterially to combat its co2 emissions without crimping its economic growth. One way in which developed countries can help India is by helping to stamp out the international anti-nuclear movement.

The international anti-nuclear movement has already targetted India with its signature astroturf misinformation propaganda attacks organised by foreign anti-nuclear insurgents, which has already caused great damage to the Indian nuclear power program. The anti-nuclear movement has been using developed countries as a staging area for launching its propaganda insurgency campaigns in developing countries. Developed countries need to help degrade these operations, principally by fighting home-grown and long established anti-nuclearism to prevent it from spilling over into India and other developing countries which urgently need to choose affordable GHG-free energy technologies for their development.

Anti-nuclearists are always active in launching hate campaigns against nuclear power in order to recruit more anti-nuclearists. These activities should not be ignored. Wherever hate against nuclear power is being created, governments need to enable scientists and communications specialists to launch counter-propaganda information campaigns. Left to itself, anti-nuclearism is free to prosper and poison the intelligence of the population, which ultimately causes countries like India to choose highly damaging or expensive imported and ineffective energy technologies in favour of clean, safe, affordable and domestically developed nuclear technologies.


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on December 10, 2014


One quible though.

Pointing to whether a country has domestic reserves of uranium and/or thorium suggests that such a thing is a relevant consideration, and hence feeds the fire of anti-nuclear mythmaking “i.e. There Is Not Enough Uranium”. But breeder technology will be employed within decades if nuclear is to play the role it must to protect the climate. Whenever breeders are employed, the price of uranium becomes irrelevant, so reserves of uranium become inexhaustible. Hence, any country which goes nuclear will never be dependent on import for its energy again. Such couontries will always be able to extract their own uranium or thorium from their own earth if it needs to, and even if that cost is somewhat higher than importing uranium or thorium, this cost difference will have little or no impact on the price of the electricity produced.

Nuclear power is ‘power from technology’. In a practical sense the technology itself is the source of power, not the fuel which costs almost nothing and is found abundantly everywhere in the earth and sea.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on December 10, 2014

I agree.

Henry Auer's picture
Henry Auer on December 10, 2014

In response to several comments up to this time, it is important to note that the principal imperative of global climate policy is to limit emission rates, reducing them to near zero annual rates of emission sooner rather than later. (In the following, some simplifications are made but the essential points remain valid.) This is because, first, carbon dioxide, once it enters the atmosphere (and after depletion by about one-third from photosynthesis and absorption into the oceans), remains permanently in the air for centuries or longer; there is no effective man-made technology currently available to remove it on the scale required . Second, the increase in global average temperature from the greenhouse effect depends in a straight-line fashion on the total accumulated amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Since so far we can’t remove it, humanity must constrain its accumulation as aggressively as possible. The higher and longer that emission rates continue, the higher the accumulated level of greenhouse gases, and the higher the global temperature becomes. Lowering emission rates to near zero will stabilize the atmosphere at a new, higher level of greenhouse gases, leading to a new, higher average temperature. The world cannot go back, cannot reduce the accumulated level, and cannot backtrack to a lower temperature.


With regard to developing countries such as India, a choice could be made with each energy development project. New fossil fuel plants bake in new commitments of increased annual emission rates for the lifetimes of the plants, 40 years or more. Renewable energy development would generate the electricity required for growth without a decades-long commitment of new, higher emissions. No policy should constrain a nation’s growth. Developed countries should be willing adequately to fund the Green Climate Initiative to aid countries like India to limit their fossil fuel-driven energy and expand their renewable energy capacity.


Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 10, 2014

I up-voted you, but I must disagree with this sentence:

Lowering emission rates to near zero will stabilize the atmosphere at a new, higher level of greenhouse gases, leading to a new, higher average temperature. The world cannot go back, cannot reduce the accumulated level, and cannot backtrack to a lower temperature.

There have been some success stories in carbon sequestration, using ocean fertilization and accelerated weathering.  Propping up the bottom of the food chain in the oceans will have a multitude of positive effects, starting with helping to prevent loss of species.  Accelerated weathering pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere and reduces the setting of Earth’s GHG thermostat.

Bulk mining uses mostly electric machinery, like bucket wheels.  Even explosives can be made carbon-neutral; charcoal and liquid oxygen make a fine blasting combination, with the added virtue that it becomes inert again by simply letting it sit.  Mining ultramafic rocks like olivine and crushing it can be done with off-peak electricity.  Simply putting the crushed rock where it will either be weathered in place or worked by wave action puts it into play on human, not geologic, time-scales.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 12, 2014

Renewable energy development would generate the electricity required for growth without a decades-long commitment of new, higher emissions.”

This assumes the breakthroughs in cost for renewables and energy storage which Bas and others are assuming will occur.  With today’s technology, renewables like solar and wind actually lock-in fossil fuel for backup (with likely a mix of 3 parts renewable energy to 7 parts fossil fuel).  The first step of any renewables roll-out is always to build the fossil fuel infrastructure that is needed when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.  Once built, these fossil fuel plants last many decades as you mention, but they also make cheap power, so it will always increase electricity costs to throttle them down in order to buy solar and wind energy.

In contrast, every GWatt of nuclear power plant that gets built is a GWatt of coal plant that is avoided.  

India should be building nuclear plants with foreign money as fast as possible.  Russia for example has been doing deals in which they build and finance nuclear plants, then own and operate them for a few decades, then give the plant to the host country.  With the 80+ year life expectancy of modern nukes, the investors and host countries can benefit.

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