U.S.-India Energy Summit Addresses Climate Equity

U.S.-India Energy Summit
Addresses Climate Equity

As the United Nations climate change conference slated for Copenhagen in December approaches, world leaders still confront a quandary they’ve faced since first grappling with global warming. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have made it clear: to avoid calamity for the most vulnerable nations, and a serious threat to all, the world needs a new treaty to dramatically improve on the weak emissions reductions targets of the Kyoto Protocol. How to assure equity between wealthy nations and those that are poor but developing at often unprecedented speed?

Consider the world’s two largest democracies—the United States and India. Per capita, the United States emits almost 20 times more greenhouse gas. Effects on world climate could be catastrophic if India, with its population of over 1 billion, approached individual U.S. per capita rates.

Cheap fossil fuels that allowed the United States to rise to affluence also have made it the top per capita carbon emitter. Now that it has befouled the planet’s nest, how much can it ask of a nation where 400 million people still don’t have electric lights?

“Can you ask someone to eat less food if he’s starving?” says Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC.

Pachauri, who also directs both Yale’s Climate and Energy Institute and the India-based Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), joined Yale President Richard Levin in convening a first-ever U.S.-India Energy Partnership Summit in Washington, D.C., in October. Co-sponsored by TERI and Yale, the summit addressed questions of emissions, energy, equity, technologyand collaboration between the two nations. The more than 200 participants included cabinet members from both countries, other government leaders and experts from academia, business and the nonprofit world, and featured frank debate, calls for bilateral partnerships and, by the end of the day, glimmers of hope in the face of daunting planetary challenges.

Pachauri began with a blunt assessment: “The developed world really has not lived up to the expectations of the developing world.”

Not only did the United States, in particular, refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which would have required a 7 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions over 1990 levels, but its emissions have continued to rise.

Political winds in 2009 may have shifted in the United States, but at the summit Jairam Ramesh, Indian Minister for Environment and Forests, called the carbon reductions proposed in pending bills in Congress “measly.” A proposed reduction of up to 20 percent by 2020 might be contentious in the United States, but Ramesh noted that it would still be only 5 percent below 1990 levels.

Meanwhile, India, along with China, insists that developing nations should remain exempt from any of the treaty’s emissions targets, as they were under Kyoto. Fears that the exemption harms the ability of nonexempt industrial nations to compete in global trade have been a major sticking point in Washington and have helped raise the specter that December’s Copenhagen treaty talks will lead to naught.

Ramesh, however, had arrived with something to offer. He described an evolving plan for a domestically based “per-capita-plus” policy for India. Even without treaty targets, India would adopt tactics that affluent nations had no access to, or perception of any need for, at their own early development stages: India would commit to clean technologies and impose regulations to improve building and vehicle efficiencies, for example.

Yale’s Levin praised the move, pointing out that the university wants to “lead in establishing international partnerships” to help such efforts along. Already, he noted, Yale and TERI collaborate to provide fellowships to senior executives in the Indian Forest Service, and he pointed to continuing research at the university in areas such as clean fuels that can be produced locally.

India’s Minister for New and Renewable Energy, Farooq Abdullah, noted that India is well aware of the climate risks it faces. He spoke of his personal concerns for the rivers of his youth in Kashmir, now threatened by glacial decline at their Himalayan headwaters. Ramesh added that rising seas would threaten coastal India.  

Abdullah said the Indian government is pushing “aggressively” to develop domestic wind and solar industries and plans to build a smart electric grid “managed more like a computer network.” 

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested that the United States could help India and other developed nations “leapfrog past our mistakes.”

Chu pointed to one transferable U.S. lesson learned: heating and cooling efficiencies for buildings can be improved by 50 percent or more, with energy savings paying for the improvements. India can build in efficiencies up front; by 2030, some 80 percent of India’s buildings will be new. 

Ira Magaziner, chair of the William J. Clinton Foundation Policy Board, spoke of a new collaboration with India’s Gujarat state to build up to 5 gigawatts of solar electric generation capacity, about the peak capacity of five large coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, he noted, part of Delhi had switched to a system that converts collected garbage to energy, a program spreading to six more cities.

Scott Strobel, a Yale biochemist, outlined prospects for locally produced biofuels from woody waste. His laboratory is working with fungi, called endophytes, which break down cellulose and can “make gasoline as a byproduct of their metabolism.”

Alessandro Gomez, director of Yale’s Center for Combustion Studies, described how replacing wood or dung-burning cook stoves in poor villages with more efficient versions could dramatically reduce soot. This “black carbon,” already a major health problem in the developing world, has also rapidly emerged as a major climate change concern.

Other participants discussed novel ideas to improve financing for clean energy in developing nations. Long and reliable paybacks would be a perfect investment fit, for example, for U.S. pension funds.

As the conference wound down, there was talk of this being the first of many such energy summits between the two nations.  

Pachauri concluded: “If the United States and India were able to launch a number of initiatives jointly, it would establish an atmosphere by which to defuse the conflict between developed and developing countries.”

“The mutual benefits,” he added, “could be incalculable.”


Top of Page | Fall 2009 | environment:YALE

“The developed world really has not lived up to the expectations of the developing world.”
Rajendra Pachauri


“If the United States and India were able to launch a number of initiatives jointly, it would establish an atmosphere by which to defuse the conflict between developed and developing countries.”
Rajendra Pachauri