Indian Climate Treaty Negotiator 'We Have Accepted a Limit on our Emissions'

With its enormous population and booming industrial economy, India is set to become one of the planet's chief polluters. India's chief climate treaty negotiator, Shyam Saran, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE his country's role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Saran, when will India oblige itself to start restricting its own CO2 emissions?

Saran: Even though there is no legal obligation on India in this respect, the Prime Minister of India made a commitment that India's per capita emissions will at no time exceed the average of the per capita emissions of developed, industrialized countries. We have thus accepted a limit on our emissions and at the same time provided an incentive to our partners in developed countries to be more ambitious. The more significant their reductions of emissions, the lower the limit we would need to accept for our own.

A Greenpeace protest in India: "Stop Climate Change"

A Greenpeace protest in India: "Stop Climate Change"

Foto: AP

SPIEGEL ONLINE: India is expected, as a rising industrial power, to sign on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change -- especially now that the US under Barack Obama will likely begin reducing its own emissions.

Saran: We see no link between what the United States, as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, does and India assuming legal commitments for emission reductions. The volume of US emissions today constitutes over 20 percent of the global total and 20 tons annually per person. Despite our much larger population, India produces only 4 percent of those emissions -- 1.1 tons per person. Therefore, while we would welcome a positive and forthcoming attitude on the part of a new administration to significantly reduce US emissions -- as President-elect Obama has promised -- this has no bearing on India. It will not lead India to accept rules that go beyond the current UN climate treaty, which does not stipulate legally binding reductions for developing nations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will that mean for India's CO2 emissions?

Saran: We have been able to deliver 8 to 9 percent economic growth with only a 3.7 percent increase in our energy consumption. It is our national goal to reduce, as quickly as possible, the use of fossil fuels per dollar of GDP by 25 percent. If India's plans to expand its nuclear power generation are realized, we could eliminate 140 million tons of CO2 emissions annually -- and that alone constitutes virtually the entire European Union target for CO2 reductions under the Kyoto Protocol.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you explain the fact that EU leaders are having such a hard time coming to an agreement on climate policy?

Saran: India certainly hopes that the leadership role that the EU has demonstrated on climate change issues will not only continue, but that it will also be enhanced. However, there is concern that, due to the global economic and financial crisis, there will be a dilution of the emission reduction targets announced by the EU -- the well-known 20 percent fewer emissions, 20 percent greater energy efficiency and 20 percent more renewable energy sources objective. We hope Europe will look upon investment in tackling climate change as an effective instrument to combat the economic crisis, rather than letting it become a casualty. Germany has a critical leadership role to play in this respect.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are you expecting from the visits of the German Foreign Minister and German Environment Minister this week?

Saran: The visits will enable us to review how our two countries could together contribute to a meaningful engagement at the UN Climate Conference in Poznan, Poland later in December. But we really want to talk about how India can work more closely with Germany to develop climate-friendly technologies. India would like to learn from your solar power experience and we will propose to Germany that we start a solar initiative together in order to start down the path towards a carbon-free economy. There are still 400 to 500 million Indians who currently do not have access to commercial energy services. If their requirements could be met by solar power instead of carbon-based fuels, think of the contribution this would make in dealing with climate change. Germany's solar technology know-how would be a real aid to India.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does India's suggestion that global emissions negotiations be handled on a per-capita basis have a chance?

Saran: India's view is that the atmosphere is a common resource for all humanity and every citizen of the globe should have equal entitlement to this resource. Long-term convergence in per capita emissions follows from this principle. We have been encouraged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's positive response to this proposal. There is now growing support for this idea. We are in touch with Germany and other key players to further elaborate this principle into a practical benchmark.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Chancellor Merkel took Prime Minister Singh's suggestion and developed it further, suggesting that by 2050 every person on Earth should be allotted 2 tons of CO2 emissions. Is that realistic?

Saran: The science of climate change is still somewhat imprecise, and we need to conduct further studies to determine what a safe level of CO2 emissions we should be aiming at by 2050. But as a benchmark, Chancellor Merkel's proposition is certainly worth examining. To achieve this, very drastic emission reductions may be required among industrialized countries. For developing countries, their ability to undertake significant mitigation efforts would also require large financial and technological resource transfers. This is a tall order and is already under a cloud as a consequence of the global economic and financial crisis.

Interview conducted by Christian Schwägerl.

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