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'India needs carbon space to grow'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 4, 2015

With climate talks underway in Paris, DW talks to expert Samir Saran about the role New Delhi can play in the success of a global deal. Saran says that India's concerns need to be addressed to yield positive results.

An Indian bystander watches as smoke rises from a cast iron factory at Howrah on the outskirts of Kolkata on July 9, 2008 (Photo: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Chowdury

DW: What role can India play in the ongoing UN climate summit in Paris (COP21)?

Samir Saran: India is the world's third largest emitter and those emissions are only likely to grow over the coming decades. India's population size means that unless a global agreement takes into account India's concerns, it is destined to end in failure. The success of a global agreement is contingent on Indian participation and engagement.

India is also in the unique position of relating to both the developed and developing world and acting as a bridge between the two. Its arguments of common but differentiated responsibility strike a chord with poor countries vulnerable to climate change and its own poor, who comprise one-third of the global poverty stricken populace.

On the other hand, its entrepreneurial and industrial classes are throwing their weight behind ambitious action and leadership on climate change, which is increasingly matching that of developed nations, and in some cases even outstripping them.

Samir Saran
Saran: 'The success of a global agreement is contingent on Indian participation and engagement'Image: Observer Research Foundation

For example, India spends more of its GDP on renewable power than US, China or Japan. India's role at the COP21 is critical for these reasons.

How can India ensure that its economic development does not have a negative impact on the environment?

This is a false debate. The dichotomy of development and environmental impact is an orientalist concept. India needs its own fair share of carbon space to grow. There are two ways that can happen: either the west can provide the necessary scale of finance and clean technology that will enable India to rapidly deploy renewable energy to power its development, or, the West needs to drastically cut its emissions to allow for rising Indian emissions in the coming years.

As for what is at stake, we live climate change realities every day in India, whether it is rising air pollution levels in Delhi or floods in Chennai. We are acutely aware of human impact on the environment and its consequences. You won't find any climate change deniers in India.

Climate impacts are inequitable and India's poor are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters that are linked to climate change. In India there are three types of victims, those who are victims of poverty, those who are victims of climate change, and those who are victims of both. Developmental plans and economic prosperity has to be safeguarded through adequate adaptation measures and ambitious climate action in the country.

On a global level, if India's renewable energy industry takes off and we are able to scale up our clean energy capacity in line with the ambitious targets outlined by the government, it will be an example to the world.

We would be the first country in the world to transition to a middle income economy without having burnt its fair share of coal. That is an example that we can then export to other countries in Africa and Asia and help them along that same path, the benefits of which will be global. So the success of climate action in India is something the world has a stake in, not just Indian citizens. Which is why, receiving adequate support is crucial.

What is New Delhi's position in the summit? What can government offer, and what does it demand from richer nations?

New Delhi's position at COP21 is progressive, ambitious and forward looking. For its part, India is undertaking a massive, ambitious program of clean energy expansion, with a target of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. To put that number in perspective, India is basically planning to add more renewable energy capacity in the next seven years than Germany has added energy capacity in the previous 200 years of industrialization.

It has launched the Solar Coalition along with France to further push the solar agenda among countries receiving abundant sunshine. India has also committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its economy and to support its adaptation needs through domestic finance. These are significant commitments and arguably we have been more ambitious than is required by the principles of historical responsibility and national capability.

Indian joggers exercise on a smoggy morning near the India Gate monument in New Delhi (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Schmidt

For a climate agreement to be truly effective however, developed nations need to support finance and technology flows to developing countries such as India. We need support for our clean energy targets and we need support for nuclear power.

Over the next 20 years, India also needs to borrow roughly $1.8 – 1.9 trillion for infrastructure projects. But global financial institutions increasingly don't want to invest in India's infrastructure. The West is directing finance away from development to climate. That's what we have to fight for. We need the West to not stop the 20th Century financing - roads, bridges, power plants - that are badly needed here.

Samir Saran is Senior Research Fellow and also Vice President responsible for Development and Outreach at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. He specializes in climate policy.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.