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All Eyes Turn to India as UN Climate Talks Begin in Lima, Peru

After the world's three largest economies — China, United States, and the European Union — made new pledges to curb their emissions, the spotlight is now on other leading polluters.
Image via AP/Bikas Das

Over three weeks in late October to early November, the world's three largest economies made new commitments to tackle climate change. The European Union announced it would drastically cut its carbon dioxide pollution by 2020 and, in a joint statement, the United States and China both said they would reign in their emissions by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

Together, these three economies produce over half of the world's heat-trapping gases, and their pledges elicited guarded optimism among diplomats and long-time climate change observers, who noted that the two-decade-long negotiations over an international climate change pact might finally be bearing fruit.


US climate change envoy Todd Stern summed up the mood, telling a Washington DC forum: "I think the notion that the US and China — who have been these two big players on opposite sides of the fence and viewed as the biggest antagonists — were able to stand up together, that's a big thing."

Now, as diplomats from 194 nations begin to meet on Monday in Lima, Peru for the annual UN climate negotiations, pressure has moved from the US and China to India — the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases — to step up and pledge to curb its fossil fuel consumption.

"With the reduction targets from the three largest emitters on the table there will be increasing pressure on other large emitters to step up their ambition and communicate their national contributions," said Frank Melum, Senior Analyst at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, which researches energy markets.

UN — Oxfam International (@Oxfam)December 1, 2014

India has low per capita levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but boosting its economy and getting power to the estimated 300 million people living without electricity have been top priorities for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The International Energy Agency estimates that India's emissions will increase by 34 percent by 2020 and double by 2030. India, along with China, will account for half of the greenhouse gas emissions increase in the next 25 years.

Like China, India is suffering the effects of simultaneously seeking to grow its economy, while also relying on coal burning to power its factories and electric plants. The World Health Organization found that India's capital, Delhi, had the dirtiest air of 1,600 cities around the world — worse, even, than Beijing's "airpocalypse," which has attracted international attention.


Modi has signaled that he views climate change as a serious threat. After taking office in May, the Prime Minister changed the name of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change. He also pledged to generate enough solar electricity to power at least one light bulb in each household by 2019.

"We, too, are facing the searing impact of climate change," Modi said during a mid-November speech. "I have a deep personal commitment to it. But, it is also equally important that the global community accepts its responsibility and implements its commitment."

The expectation is that since leading economies have pledged to cut their emissions, Modi might soon make an announcement as well.

Here's why China's climate pledge might not be such a great leap forward. Read more here.

"There have been a slew of announcements related to renewable energy in the last six months by the government, and the new ambition for renewable is indeed exciting," Abhishek Pratap, a senior campaigner for renewable energy at Greenpeace India, told VICE News. "Unfortunately the Indian economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuel-based energy and there is as much interest in expanding coal power, even at the cost of India's largest contiguous tiger habitats."

Pratap said that India produces 12 percent of its electricity from renewables, but in last few years has seen massive growth in clean energy production, particularly in solar power.


"As the prime minister said a few days back, India is looking to set a target of 100 gigawatts of solar energy in the next 10 years, while also enhancing its wind energy target to 100 gigawatts," Pratap told VICE News. "This target is very much achievable, and puts India in league with leading renewable energy countries."

To put that into perspective, India's current total installed energy generation is 250 gigawatts.

Pratap told VICE News that a commitment from India to curb its greenhouse gas emissions would be "immense," and even greater than the US-China agreement.

"India's commitment will have far more impact on moving the world toward a climate agreement," she said.

Here's how the US could pretty much eliminate carbon dioxide pollution. Read more here.

Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman