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Pivotal Power

September 18, 2009
China and India? No — just China

Pollution in northern China. Photo courtesy of Flickr user AdamCohn underCreative Commons license.

It’s good to be back. Some recent bits of news on China and climate caught my attention. First was Todd Stern’s admonition in Tuesday’s FT that China and India risk protectionist measures in the U.S. Congress if they do not agree to bind themselves in Copenhagen to curb carbon emissions.

Politically, this is certainly true. But it made me wonder whether tactically we should decouple China and India on climate in the run up to the negotiations in Copenhagen. Todd Stern has forgotten more about these issues than I will ever know, and, of course, in the long run we absolutely need all the major economies on board. Emissions from India and Russia could potentially catch up to China’s one day.

But, today, the real problem (other than us) is China. That fact is reinforced by a two-year study conducted by Chinese government thinktanks, released Wednesday, that said if China’s energy usage structure remains unchanged, its emissions of greenhouse gases would represent 60 percent of total global emissions and three times China’s current production. Of course, China’s usage IS changing, and that’s the encouraging news. China is massively investing in clean and efficient technologies.

That said, China is the largest emitter in the world and will be for some time to come. The U.S. and China account for about 20 percent each of global emissions and India is currently only at 5 percent. A 2006 study [PDF] from the Department of Energy has that disparity continuing until 2030. Even if India catches up, much faster, or China slows its emissions growth dramatically, China will still a much bigger part of the problem well into the future.

Moreover, the critical political point for today is that the largest emitter, China, has refused to commit to binding targets at Copenhagen for reducing its emissions. Without that commitment, the international community can’t forge a deal. Lumping India and China together offers China political cover in the negotiations. It reinforces China’s strategy of aligning itself with truly poor developing countries, like, say, Chad, that really cannot be asked to bear the costs of climate change. Further, while the Chinese government can likely deliver on an international commitment, its not clear that the Indian government currently has the capacity.

Right now, it may make sense to isolate China as a unique case. Particularly when by China’s own measure this week, it is no longer a low-income country, but a middle income one. I am not suggesting bilateral negotiations — the current set of mechanisms is fine. And we need the other emerging economies signed onto any treaty with as good a commitment as possible. But pressure where pressure is due — the real challenge of the coming months is the PRC.

– Nina Hachigian




Good comment David Cohen-Tanugi. Leonard could not have said it better. By the way, [Human beings must be cautious from now on. They must restructure their thoughts, plans and activities in acordance with the dictates of ecology. There is no alternative.]


You’re quite right that there’s a lot of work to help green the growths of China and India, and that we should consider the two countries separately when thinking about tackling climate change.
Two important things to keep in mind, though, are that (1) the United States remains the developed country with the lowest commitment of all (0% reduction of 1990 emissions by 2020) and that it’ll be exceedingly difficult to encourage China to take stronger commitments at Copenhagen if we don’t have anything substantial to offer (which is the case at the moment); and that (2) China has committed to a 20% energy intensity cut and to 15% alternative energy by 2020. And that’s not even counting whatever stronger commitments China might announce next Tuesday at the U.N. Summit. Meanwhile, India hasn’t made specific commitments for renewables, energy/carbon intensity, emissions, or any other precise metric. With its extremely low per-capita emissions (which you judiciously point out), Indians are outraged at the United States’ demands for absolute emissions cuts while the US itself (which emits 20 times more carbon per person) has failed to make any such commitments. The priority, it seems, will be to encourage both India and China to become more proactive on the climate front. We need their help, and for that we will need to show some good will.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking until Copenhagen…


Very insightful. However, it may be a mistake to assume that it is up to anyone but China for them to even show up at Copenhagen. As I recall China walked out on a G20 summit with Obama earlier this year to squash race riots at home. China has long claimed this ‘developing country’ cover since before Mao Zedong. Historically the chinese are master manipulators when it comes to factious political dealings. They have their own agreements with India and other satellites. It is certain that the ‘developing country’ moniker is part of China’s terms of diplomacy. Never mind that they possess the most intensive industrial cluster in the world.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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