China, India, and the Copenhagen Climate Impasse

By Toufiq Siddiqi

(Note: A shorter version of this article originally appeared in The Honolulu Advertiser on January 10, 2010).

Even before the Copenhagen Conference on climate change began, the finger-pointing over the anticipated lack of agreement had started. Some blamed the United States for its inability to offer acceptable reduction targets, while others argued that China, India, and the developing countries were refusing to do much to help address a threat that affects the entire world. While the discussions focused on cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, there are a number of fundamental problems that make it so difficult to get agreement on a climate change treaty. Some of the questions that have to be addressed are:

These can be summarized as issues of equity between countries, within countries, and between generations. They lie at the heart of the difficulties in climate change negotiations.

There was a tendency during the Copenhagen discussions to lump together China and India, since they are the largest of the developing countries that were unwilling to accept current limits on emissions of greenhouse gases. While there are similarities, there are also differences in the situations of China and India. They are the two most populous countries in the world, and both rely largely on coal, the commercial energy source with the highest emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced. Both countries rank among the top four emitters of carbon dioxide from energy use, China having overtaken the United States in this measure last year, and India now ranking fourth.

Total emissions are, however, an imperfect indicator of development. It is individuals, and not countries that need jobs, education, shelter, health care, and mobility, among other items. It is the Gross National Income (GNI), or its cousin the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), per capita that are considered basic indicators of the economic well being of the people of a country, and not the total GNI. Although the correlation is not strictly one to one, higher per capita GNI is associated with higher per capita energy use and carbon emissions.

The GNI per capita of the larger European countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom is about $34,000 in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), and for the United States, it is $46,000. For China and India, these are $5,420 and $2,740 respectively. (All data are from the World Development Indicators for 2007.)

These large developing countries would like to reach the standard of living of the European countries, and are unlikely to agree to limit emissions in a time frame that would prevent them from reaching their economic development goals.

At recent growth rates, China's income per capita would double in about seven years, and reach the current level of the larger European countries in about 25 years. China has explicitly stated that its emission intensity would be reduced by 40-45% from its current levels by 2020. To achieve this goal, China has launched a massive renewable energy program, and another to improve energy efficiency. It is likely that China's emissions would keep growing at a smaller rate until about 2025, and then stabilize or decline in concert with those of the major industrialized countries once large-scale use of green technologies becomes widespread.

In spite of the similarities mentioned above, India's situation is different from China's in several ways. Its income per capita is only half of China's, and its carbon dioxide emissions are only about 30% of those of China. According to the World Development Indicators, India has about 300 million people living below the poverty line, a much larger number than in China. At current growth rates, it may thus take India about 40 years to reach Europe's income per capita, about 15 years longer than China.

From the perspective of limiting carbon emissions, India's task is somewhat easier – it is giving special emphasis on developing information technology, pharmaceuticals, and the service sector, which are less energy and carbon intensive than the manufacturing and heavy industry sectors that have been the backbone of China's rapid development. India also has access to the large undeveloped hydropower potential in areas adjacent to the Himalayas, within its own borders and in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal, which could be tapped for mutual benefits of those countries.

Whatever the differences in the situations of China, India, and other large developing countries, for them to even consider some longer term limits it is imperative that the United States, with its high average per capita income and historically large contribution to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, first set its own emission limits. President Obama has suggested a modest reduction of 17% from 2005 emissions by 2020, and substantially larger reductions by 2050. The rest of the world is watching to see what limits will be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Major policy changes are usually advantageous for some states and adversely affect others in the short term. The reality is that few politicians in any country, including the U.S., are willing to sacrifice jobs for climate protection measures, even if those measures benefit the country or the world as a whole. One option to help legislators get past such concerns might be to provide special incentives for job creation in green industries such as energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy technologies.

Many states, including Hawaii, have set or are setting goals to obtain specific percentages of their electricity from renewable energy, and this trend should be accelerated. Not only would this help the United States in meeting its emission targets, but it would help keep the country at the leading edge of technology, and develop the expertise to supplement the efforts that China, India, and other developing countries are making to meet their development goals in more environment- and climate- friendly ways.

Toufiq Siddiqi is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the East-West Center and President of Global Environment and Energy in the 21st Century. He has been a principal consultant for several internationally sponsored projects addressing climate change options for China and other Asian countries, and was a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.


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