08/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Business as Radical, Not Business as Usual

New Delhi, India -- I'm borrowing my title today from Raj Chengappa, managing editor of India's biggest newsmagazine, India Today. Chengappa was describing what he thought was needed when the world gathers in Copenhagen -- and certainly what I am seeing here in India is not business as usual. Since I was last here, 18 months ago, a burgeoning youth climate movement has arrived on the scene, and they have invited Bill McKibben to come address them tomorrow. At their conference there's a new documentary, made by a couple of young filmmakers, called Why New Coal? (The answers didn't seem very convincing to either the filmmakers or the audience -- and the scenes of open-pit mining and underground fires in the Indian coal fields at Dhanbad show that, no matter where you mine it, coal is not clean!)

And in spite of the news headlines suggesting that conversations between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Indian Environmental Secretary Jairam Ramesh were a "clash," I actually think that the outlines of a deal, either at Copenhagen or after, are emerging here -- if the U.S. will listen and if India will frame its concerns as an offer, not a rebuttal.

The Post is right when it says that Ramesh is saying, "India would not commit to a deal that would require it to meet targets to reduce emissions." But that doesn't mean that Ramesh was not also right in saying "It is not true that India is running away from mitigation." India has an approach, if not yet a commitment -- and I think it's worth our considering it -- and encouraging India to really develop this as a proposal. There are four ingredients:

  1. India agreed at the G-8 to a 2-degree limit on climate change as a global target -- and India understands that such a 2-degree target likely translates to no more than two tons of CO2 per person by 2050. (The U.S. is currently at about 16 tons per person, India at 1.2 tons.)
  2. India has publicly and firmly committed that as emissions from industrial nations come down, India will not allow its emissions to exceed those reduced levels. So while India expects, and should expect, its emissions to go up for a while, it is guaranteeing that it will never allow its emissions to exceed the industrial world's level, which needs to come down rapidly. So the faster we lower our emissions, the lower India's emission ceiling will be. We get to choose India's binding cap -- by bringing down our emissions. (That seems fair to me.)
  3. India wants to make sure that the technology needed for rapid, low-carbon development is not monopolized by the first world. Some kind of "share the knowledge" program is needed so that the current technology gaps between the West and the South are not exacerbated by the clean-energy revolution. How this should be done has not, I think, been worked out by any of the parties. But we keep pretending it's not a big deal. It is. Ramesh suggested informally that we might want to have a couple of joint global-technology ventures in some potential breakthrough areas such as energy storage and photovoltaic efficiency.
  4. Finally, we face the challenge that we all need to cut emissions even faster than the pathway I described above. And it would be cheaper and more efficient to enable India (and the rest of the Third World) to truly leapfrog carbon-based development so that they never even get close to our emission levels. The key to such a rapid low-carbon, high-development pathway is finance -- if installing 10,000 megawatts of clean power is going to cost 25 percent more than installing 10,000 megawatts of dirty coal, then India's poor cannot be expected to pay the entire difference -- the global-climate agreement ought to move us beyond this argument about who is going to stop doing bad things to the climate first, and on to how many good things can we do for the climate and the poor together.

I suspect one challenging aspect of the negotiations in Copenhagen is that India probably wants to discuss these points in reverse of the order I've listed them: finance and technology first, pathway second, and ultimate target last. The U.S. and Europe probably want to go in the opposite order. But that's what diplomats are for -- so let's not panic about this question.

A more serious question is this: Are the U.S. and the other industrial nations prepared to take responsibility for bringing their emissions down really fast?

Not if the U.S. Congress has to lead, based on its performance so far.

However good President Obama may be, and however much progress we have made, we are still the world's biggest atmospheric thief.