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India says it won't cut emissions for 30 years. What's that mean for global warming?

A foundry in Hyderabad, India.
A foundry in Hyderabad, India.
Rajesh_India/Flickr

India's new environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, told The New York Times this week that his country's carbon-dioxide emissions would likely keep rising for the next 30 years.

"What cuts?" he said about international efforts to curtail emissions and slow the pace of global warming. "That's for more developed countries."

Some observers have interpreted Javadekar's comments to mean that India doesn't take climate change seriously at all. But it's a bit more complicated than that.

India's position has long been that it's willing to voluntarily slow the growth of its emissions (compared with current trends) but it won't make absolute cuts while it's still climbing out of poverty. And in theory, India's stance could be compatible with global efforts to reduce emissions and avoid drastic warming — though it certainly won't be easy. Here's a rundown:

India's climate stance: This mostly isn't our fault

India has long insisted that wealthier countries like the United States and Europe (and even China) should bear most of the burden for tackling climate change. After all, those nations got to enjoy the growth benefits that come with burning fossil fuels for their cars, power plants, and factories for many decades. Now it's India's turn.

The chart below shows the basic thinking here. India's per-person emissions are still one-tenth that of the United States and one-fourth that of China.  India is still very poor, has 1 billion people, and, its officials say, deserves some leeway on this:

china's per capita emissions

(Global Carbon Project)

That doesn't mean India is totally ignoring climate change. In the Times interview, Javadekar said the country is looking at plans to slow the future growth of emissions (which are otherwise on pace to rise 60 percent between 2020 and 2040).

On top of that, India has a goal of doubling wind and solar generation this decade. And prime minister Narendra Modi has suggested that solar power could play a helpful role in electrifying the country's rural areas.

Even so, fossil fuels are expected to keep growing. India's government has emphasized the need to supply electricity to the 300 million people who don't already have it — and in places where solar can't do the job, officials have been clear that coal and natural gas will expand. The current government is also focused on streamlining India's coal sector in order to allow more reliable access to cheap fuel and to reduce chronic shortages. What's more, as more people enter the middle class and buy cars, India's oil consumption has been soaring.

Add it up, and India's emissions are likely keep rising. The big question is by how much.

The world can still cut emissions even if India's rise

So does that mean the planet is cooked? Not necessarily. It's worth noting that there are various scenarios out there in which 1) the world reduces emissions by enough to avoid more than 2°C of global warming but also 2) India's emissions keep rising indefinitely.

Check out this recent UN report on "deep decarbonization" for an example:

deep decarbonization

(UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network)

The authors tried to model a technologically feasible path for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions sharply by mid-century. Under this plan, wealthy countries would make drastic cuts — but China's emissions don't peak until 2030 and India's emissions keep growing indefinitely (albeit at a slower rate). The idea is that it's only fair to let those poor, populous countries catch up on growth.

Is that specific scenario realistic? Maybe, maybe not. It would entail a radical clean-energy push from all countries — the United States, Europe, China, India. For its part, India would need to ramp up its use of wind, solar, and nuclear power far beyond what it's now planning. It would have to revamp its transportation policies to become less car-centric. India's city planners would have to rein in accelerating suburban sprawl. The country would also likely need outside help to develop carbon capture and other advanced technologies.

What's more, because there's not much room to maneuver in the "deep decarbonization" scenario, there are lots of opportunities for bickering among countries. If India wants even more leeway on emissions, then other countries would have to cut back even more deeply — or else the world will face even more global warming.

That's a real and genuine tension in ongoing climate negotiations. And in past UN climate talks, India has shown a tendency to thwart various proposals — particularly anything that would legally commit developing countries into making specific reductions. That obstinacy has left other countries extremely frustrated at times.

At the same time, none of the major emitters have currently laid out a clear path to making the emissions cuts illustrated above. Many of the hoped-for clean-energy technologies, like carbon capture for coal plants, are still struggling to gain a footing. There are lots of reasons why global warming will be extremely difficult to address. But India's unwillingness to make absolute emission cuts right now isn't, on its own, a deal-breaker.

Further reading:

National Geographic has an excellent look at Najendra Modi's plan on energy and renewables in India. William Antholis at Brookings also gives a great overview of the energy issues facing India.

John Upton had a good rundown in Slate back in 2013 on how India was thwarting various climate proposals at the UN talks.

7 charts that show why global climate talks keep breaking down

Why rich countries worry about climate change more than poor countries?