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opinion | Bina Venkataraman

Climate change talks offer India new opportunity

Commuters wait for a bus on a polluted morning in New Delhi on Jan. 31, 2013.
Commuters wait for a bus on a polluted morning in New Delhi on Jan. 31, 2013.PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

The air in Delhi is getting thicker. As winter nears, the smog in India’s capital city stifles and suffocates. It grounds airplanes. And it kills. Outdoor air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India, according to a study showing it led to 627,000 premature deaths in 2010 alone.

There is some hope for a path through the smog, however.

A new round of global climate talks begins today in Lima, Peru. The ideal end game is an agreement in 2015 to take bold action on climate change. The droughts, floods, and extreme weather scourging the planet from California to Calcutta make an urgent case. With the recent agreement between the United States and China on climate change, there is growing pressure for India, as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after those two countries, to set a timeline to curb its emissions.

India is one of the most scientifically and technologically rich countries in the world, though the riches are not well distributed across its 1.2 billion people. It’s a marvel to witness its technical prowess: The rapid rise of Bangalore as a thriving entrepreneurial hub and the Indian Space and Research Organization’s successful mission to propel a satellite into the orbit of Mars are sources of pride for Indians and the diaspora. India’s growth trajectory even appears to be more resilient than other emerging markets.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he took office earlier this year, made economic growth a priority and pledged to alleviate poverty. Around 300 million Indians lack access to electricity. The question now is how to bring energy to the poor without condemning them to a perilous climate. India faces a crossroads: Grasp a role as global leader in energy innovation or cower in a corner puffing coal cigarettes.

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Countries that have not had the benefit the United States had of spewing pollutants for generations are focused on how fast and far they can grow. In global talks on climate change, India has insisted it be considered among these developing countries, which argue that their emissions cuts, if any, should be relative to their economic and population growth. China’s recent announcement to set a hard overall emissions cap stands out.

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India is projected to grow to 1.6 billion people by 2050 — and will continue to expand its middle class and its emissions. Indians now emit only two tons of carbon dioxide per person compared to the United States’s 16 tons per capita, and less than a third of the global average. But over time, this will add up to catastrophic effect. Even if India’s emissions per person were capped at current levels, in 35 years they would equal two-thirds of what the United States currently emits. India recently announced it would open up its nationalized coal industry to foreign firms to rapidly mine coal to address energy supply shortfalls.

Climate action should not thwart efforts to address poverty — but growth at the expense of people’s health and survival is not growth at all. The impacts of climate change are already disproportionately imperiling the world’s poor. Tens of millions of Indians could be displaced by sea-level rise; heat waves, floods, and infectious disease will take a profound toll.

India has the chance to lead. With its highly trained engineers and scientists, affordable labor, and still-emergent infrastructure, India should be the prime testing ground for inventing and scaling technologies that leapfrog dirty fossil fuel infrastructure as the model for growth. Just as broad swaths of Africa experienced the mobile phone revolution without ever getting landlines, India could wield next-generation solutions to surpass the inefficiency and dangers to public health posed by driving millions more cars on congested roads, standing up scores of retro buildings, and powering rural areas by unearthing the toxic ash of remaining mines. This leap requires undercutting the cost difference between cheap fossil fuels and clean energy innovation.

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Modi has pledged to add solar and wind capacity and is recruiting $250 billion in investment to make it happen. After the US-China announcement, India appears less resistant to phasing out hydroflourocarbons, the potent greenhouse gases found in refrigerants and air conditioners. The Indian government recently launched an air quality index and started a fund to clean up the iconic and contaminated Ganges River.

As India shifts to a more market-oriented rather than government-run energy sector, much more can be done. Breakthrough innovations in energy storage to make wind and solar power more reliable, in smart grid technologies enabled by sensors, in carbon capture, in distributed grids for rural areas, and in smart buildings and transit systems for megacities are possible if the intellectual capital of India’s people coincides with incentives for and investment in energy progress.

The United States, China, and Europe have the obligation and opportunity, through climate finance and exchange of expertise and technologies, to place bets on this potential and to share in its profits. These countries can urge India to cut emissions, but they will be more persuasive if they invest to make it possible.

Bina Venkataraman is director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute, a lecturer at MIT, and former senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @binajv.