Who will be the biggest obstacle to climate action in the next decade — China, Russia, India, or us?

Certainly, the biggest obstacle to climate action in this decade has been us, the good old U.S. of A, thanks to the Climate Progress Person of the Year and his de facto boss, the Real Decider on Global Warming. That was a repeat win for us, since we were also the biggest obstacle in the 1990s.

Now, I’d be the last one to rule out an America three-peat — since we’ll still have mostly the same Congress (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us,” the same conservatives (see “The Deniers are winning, but only with the GOP“), the same media (see “Media enable denier spin 2: What if the MSM simply can’t cover humanity’s self-destruction?“), and the same climate advocates (see “Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 1“).

Yet just as the United States is losing its leadership in so many areas, such as clean energy and the global economy, I still think we are poised to lose our leadership of the climate delayers once we get a new president. So which country might rise up to replace us?

One obvious possibility is China (see “Bush-like doubletalk from Chinese foreign minister” and “The immorality of China’s coal policy is breathtaking (literally) — Part I“). Yet everyone tells me the Chinese leaders understand global warming will be catastrophic for them — even if those leaders mistakenly believe they can “go back and solve climate change after they get rich,” which has been the standard procedure for how Western countries dealt with traditional environmental problems. Also, the Chinese are capitalists and are already poised to become the leading producer of both solar PV and wind turbines. I believe Chinese could be brought around if their customers all applied enough pressure to them.

Russia may be even more problematic, as discussed here. They are more self-destructively nationalistic than China (or us), and they have a lot of coal and oil. And they may (very mistakenly) think global warming is good for them. Since it will create a navigable Arctic and open up “currently inaccessible energy resources,” no less an authority than The Economist has written, “warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer.” Still, it is hard for me to see many countries wanting to be led by Vladimir Putin.

India, however, could take over leadership of the developing world Delayers, should China abandon that role. The International Herald Tribune expalins where the subcontinent stands in a recent article, “Climate talk is tough sell in India“:

India’s raucous democracy, endemic poverty and soaring economic ambition make curbs on greenhouse gas emissions a hard sell, even as global pressure mounts on the government to do more on climate change.

New Delhi says its priority must be economic growth to lift millions out of poverty, while shifting, under a national action plan, to clean energy led by solar power. The government sets no greenhouse gas caps, but says India’s per-capita carbon emissions will never exceed those of developed nations.

Talk about your suicidal non-stretch goals — Indians won’t be more polluting than Americans. It is a sad fact of life that as poor as India is today, their country will be hit more brutally by catastrophic climate change than ours, and they will have far less wealth to adapt with. The loss of the Himalayan glaciers, coupled with desertification, more brutal monsoons, and rapid sea level rise, will hit the subcontinent with the full force of Hell and High Water (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction“).

India’s per-capita annual emissions are about 1.2 metric tons, compared with China’s 4 metric tons and Australia’s 28 metric tons.

Such arguments, Western leaders say, are just a fig leaf for India’s apparent reluctance to act. Critics say New Delhi lacks the political will to implement stringent laws.

The truth, say analysts, lies somewhere in between.

India is the world’s fourth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and some studies suggest it could soon overtake Russia to become No.3, after China and the United States.

”India lacks political will, simply because climate is not a popular issue with Indians at large,” K. Srinivas of Greenpeace’s climate change campaign said recently. ”In most cases tough decision-making is put off, not because of economic growth concerns, but populist politics.”

In that regard, Indians are not so dissimilar to us.

Free electricity is a good example. It often forms part of political parties’ election agenda, even though power regulators oppose it as wasteful and mostly benefiting rich farmers.

Likewise, tougher emissions laws for vehicles haven’t been implemented, with pressure coming from users and the automobile lobby. Power equipment companies have resisted switching to energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.

Policy implementation has also been hindered by inter-ministry competition. ”Many times people work at cross purposes,” said a climate change official on condition of anonymity. ”Unlike China, politics here is disparate.”

Again, sounds like us.

Analysts said that while China’s single-party government can implement tough decisions – it aims to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent by 2010 – India’s disparate democracy hinders setting targets.

Globally, China is seen as doing more than India to fight climate change. ”They often quote their efficiency policies and also renewable energy policy,” Srinivas said.

Actually, China is doing far less than India to fight climate change by the only objective standard that matters — emissions growth. I guess the Chinese have better climate PR than India.

By comparison, India stresses growth for poverty alleviation. ”By citing China’s example and asking India to set emission targets, the West wants to block our economic growth and see to it we stay poor,” said Bhure Lal, chairman of the government’s environmental pollution prevention committee.

Lal is confused. What “example” of China’s is there to site? China has rejected all climate targets (like us) and has had explosive growth in coal and carbon emissions.

India and China, though, are united in criticizing rich nations for not committing to deeper cuts and failing to follow through on funding pledges and technology transfers for cleaner energy.

At a summit meeting in Japan in July, Group of Eight leaders agreed to the goal of halving emissions by 2050. But some balked at the idea of fixed midterm targets for emissions cuts by 2020 or 2030, something developing nations say wealthy states must agree to before they are willing to commit to curbs themselves.

Rich nations, in turn, say big developing nations must step up and join the fight against climate change. Studies show the developing world now contributes more than half of all mankind’s greenhouse gas pollution.

India, whose economy has grown by 8 to 9 percent annually in recent years, contributes around 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is not yet required to cut emissions – said to be rising by 2 to 3 percent a year – under the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto’s first phase ends in 2012, and UN-led talks seek to agree on a broader replacement for Kyoto from 2013 that binds all participating nations to emissions curbs.

The talks reach a climax at the end of next year in Copenhagen, but already there are doubts that a tough ”Kyoto II” pact would be agreed upon by then.

In June, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India was not unyielding on the issue and would try to make a gradual shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar.

”Look,” Lal said, ”there are problems of implementation because of the nature of politics in India, but there is no fundamental fault with India’s stance. Our position is not indefensible.”

Aren’t double negatives like “not unyielding” and “not indefensible” just so reassuring?

I think the world could make a large move to solve the climate problem if the next president embraces strong, immediate domestic reductions while working with Europe to get China to commit to serious climate constraints soon that kick in around 2020. But India could still destroy a global deal if they rally the delayers. Unfortunately, the world has dawdled so long, thanks in large part to us, that we can’t actually afford any rich countries refusing to take strong action — or any developing countries refusing to agree to take action.

The time to act is yesterday, now, November 4, January 20, pretty damn soon.

16 Responses to Who will be the biggest obstacle to climate action in the next decade — China, Russia, India, or us?

  1. Rick says:

    Asia needs some negative population growth – too many people

  2. Modesty says:

    Or none of the above?

    “Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said attempts to water down a year-old deal to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020 would damage the 27-nation bloc’s international credibility and could jeopardize U.N. talks on climate change.”

    If not even the EU will lead, then where are we? Obama really does have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

  3. Ashwin says:

    Here in India, climate change doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern at all. Not for the people, not for the government. Even a village that knows that floods are an annual thing doesn’t take action until the flood has actually hit it.
    Let the rivers dry up and the seas submerge cities, even then there would be political blame-games and no action. Maybe 25 years from now, when much of the Ganga river has dried up and much of our coastal cities are gone, climate change would be some political issue.
    The fact really hurts.

  4. crf says:

    The possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan is not insignificant, and is likely to increase. Both countries are likely to try to massively militarise, both to prepare for war and to quell internal dissent stemming from a lack of food and water. There is no possibility, absent a war or an outside intervention, of India lowering its GHG emmissions for the next 20 years.

    The only way India might lower its GHG emmissions is if the west speedily develops technology (like CCS or nuclear reactors) and gives it to India for free in massive quantities, to a degree far greater than Bush’s recent desicion allowing transfer of nuclear tech. But maybe Bush’s move is the first step?

  5. John Mashey says:

    But, in light of:
    a) Recent events in Georgia (Caucasus one)
    b) October 1 full operation of AFRICOM, first new US military command in decades

    It may well be worth reading Michael Klare’s book described by Joe here, not so much for solutions, but for the concern:

    How much of the US budget will get consumed in expanding military operations in {mid-East, Caucasus, Africa} in protection of oil+gas operations?

    I heard Prof. Klare talk last week at Stanford, and I thought he raised legitimate issues.

  6. anon says:

    Can someone provide a link to an authoritative current ranking of the top greenhouse gas emitters – including through deforestation?

    I have looked on google, and I haven’t been able to find one.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    John Mashey —- Briefly, what did Prof. Klare say?

  8. Rick says:

    anon – I didn’t find any list but forestry in the tropics is big for CO2 (Brazil and Indonesia)

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Joe Romm — All of the above.

  10. rpauli says:

    This is the diplomatic version of the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory.

    Will all states co-operate for the good of all, or betray to gain momentary economic advantage?

  11. David B. Benson says:

    rpaull — Also The Tragedy of the Commons:

  12. John Mashey says:

    Prof.Klare discussed:

    – some history of oil & WW II (Japan ->Dutch East Indies for oil, with preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor; Germany -> southern attack in USSR for oil; US provided 7/8 of the oil used by Allies; US Saudi agreement via FDR, as it was clear US would not be able to be top producer forever)

    – mid-East, Caucasus, Africa

    – Rapidly-rising demand from India and China

    – Russian determination to use oil/gas as major political weapon (in his book, Klare notes, p 92-93, that during the 1990s, Putin got a PhD from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, and argues strongly that the government should set priorities for the oil industry (i.e., not privatization).

    – General concern over the number and complexity of potential flashpoints over energy supplies, and investment in military resources as opposed to sustainable energy supplies + climate issues.

    – I.e., this is primarily a political science/history view about the dangers from that side, but ends with positive actions that should taken for both security and climate.

  13. Joerg Haas says:

    two things are clear:
    a) there are important emission reduction opportunities in India, and we’ll need to seize them if we are to limit global warming to tolerable levels.\
    b) India is still very poor and by and large not responsible for the problem. Its development priorities are justifiably very immediate.

    The way out of this dilemma is a generous offer from the North to pay for emission reductions in India. Otherwise we would prove Lomborg right. This is the avenue that the Bali Action Plan indicates and that we must now vigorously pursue.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    John Mashey — Thank you. :-)

  15. Cyril R. says:

    If I know anything about the Chinese government, then they will look intensively at other countries’ CO2 regulation programmes, see what appears to work and what doesn’t, then implement it small scale (perhaps in some major cities first), learn from that, then go to the national level.

    In the meanwhile, no-brainer win-wins are being implemented quickly, like demand side energy efficiency, much more efficient coal plants etc. The big stuff, though, like carbon trading/taxing will have to wait till major consumers of China – like the US and Europe – have their mind clearly set on something. Then, my guess is China will follow suit, one of the main reasons being to please (or not to upset) their Western consumers.

    That may be not good enough, you might say, but better than the US which is doing close to nothing in the grand scheme of things, and the Chinese can implement any program really FAST.

    It is why I have argued before, that the US and Europe have to set hard targets and decide quickly on programmes and their implementation. Otherwise, we’ll all get caught in a global game of accusations, wasting our precious time pointing the finger. This snowball requires a rather big push to get rolling, but get rolling it must, even though it may cost those with initiative a bit in errors that may be pricey. In all fairness, this is the risk we need to take.

    End of rant.