Q&A with Shyam Saran

Congressional efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill are only part of the push to address global warming, as the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy meeting this week at the State Department attests. In fact, the success of the international effort could affect the success of the effort on Capitol Hill, with members from industrial states indicating their yes votes depend on an international climate agreement as assurance American jobs don’t move to countries without carbon caps.

In an interview with Business & Lobbying Editor Jim Snyder, Shyam Saran, special envoy to the Indian prime minister on climate, explained that his government’s recent declaration that it would not agree to cap overall emissions at the Copenhagen summit later this year does not mean his country is ignoring the problem. The government has adopted a National Action Plan on Climate Change as a way to mitigate rapid emissions increases even as it tackles another priority: providing electricity to the estimated 400 million Indians who don’t have it. Saran said the government plans to implement its plan irrespective of international agreement. Further carbon curbs, however, depend on financial and technical support from the United States and Western Europe, he said.

Q: What has been the reaction to the announcement that India will go to Copenhagen without pledging to cap overall emissions?

We have 400 to 500 million Indians without electricity. What we are looking at, from a developing-country perspective, is how do you avoid having large emissions? ... We have a national action plan which is essentially based on our own resources. It is an ambitious plan. We are not conditioning that plan on what developed countries can give us in terms of financial resources or in terms of technology. … But obviously, our ability to do more will be dependent upon whether or not there is a supporting global regime that emerges out of Copenhagen.

Q: How much help are you looking for from the United States?

I don’t think we are putting numbers on this because they will be determined in the negotiations that are taking place. ... We are all saying this is an elemental challenge to humanity. Our response needs to be equal to that challenge.

Q: People may not vote for a bill in Congress without some assurance that China and India will make emissions reductions as well. Do Obama administration officials make that point to you?

[Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton] mentioned that it was not the intention of the United States to undermine the prospects of growth in developing countries. That to us is a very reassuring thing because as I mentioned to you, we look upon mitigation responsibility on the part of developing countries as emerging from sustainable development. I cannot say I will not provide electricity to so many hundreds of millions of Indians because there is a climate change issue. I cannot say I will put a cap on my development because there is climate change. That is something which is not possible in any democracy.

Q: Is India between a rock and a hard place? You have the threat of global warming and, as you say, the 400 million to 500 million Indians who would like to have electricity.

This is not, “We have a national action plan which [we] will not implement unless someone give us money or technology.” We are going to do this irrespective of whether you give us something or not. But obviously what we can do is within the limits of our own resources.

If you are finding it difficult to raise the resources which are required for you to make an adjustment, despite being a very rich country, think of how much more difficult it is for a poorer country to find the resources. It is not that making the adjustment is not a cost for us. In real terms, the cost is much greater for us than it is for you.

Q: You can’t provide electricity to 400 million people and not have your emissions grow. What are your projections as to what that growth will be?

Our total emissions are not more than 4 to 4.5 percent of total global emissions. China is 20. The U.S. is 20. The gap between where we are and the United States is huge. … Our per capita is 1.7 tons per capita, while the U.S. is 20-plus.

If you are looking at the equity argument, there is a huge gap between where we are and where the United States and other developed countries are. Despite this, the prime minister of India has said as our emissions rise, as they inevitably would, we are prepared to give an assurance that at no point of time will our per capita emissions exceed the average per capita of the developed countries.

It’s not that we are trying to escape responsibility. Nor should there be a sense that we are reserving the right to spew as much carbon into the atmosphere as we want. We will try to keep our emissions at the lowest level consistent with the need for us to eradicate poverty.

Q: What’s the bigger challenge? Eradicating poverty or addressing global warming?

To put these goals in contradiction to one another is not really fair. We do not see achievement of growth objectives in India as in contradiction to global climate initiatives. …

Politically, in India, what is extremely important is, how equitable is the regime we are going to come up with? Anything that smacks of being discriminatory — to say that we have achieved a certain level of development, a certain standard of living, but, you know, you must not aspire to this standard of living — how can I sell this?

Q: What about efforts in Congress to minimize the impact of carbon leakage through a carbon tariff on imports?

We have difficulty understanding this business of a level playing field. What is the comparison in the starting point that we have and the starting point that you have? … Look at the level of development that we have. Look at the capacities. Look at the skills. Look at the infrastructure of what we have and what you have. It is not as if we are starting at the same level and therefore there is a need to somehow equalize.

If we are going to start talking about disabilities which are caused by your taking on certain responsibilities or certain commitments, where does the argument end? Because someone in India will say, “Why are you cherry-picking?” … The developed country has an advantage in terms of the technology they have. You know, they have a mobile phone technology which is very advanced, but we are at a very low level, so we must try to equalize by putting a tariff on what is coming in. Where do you stop that argument? That opens the door to a developing country saying, “I need to protect my industry here.” ...

We have to be very careful not to get into some kind of protectionist trend simply by putting a green label on it.

Q: I understand the issue of fairness, and that it wouldn’t be fair to ask India to do as much as the United States would do in reducing emissions. But the fact is that if you don’t do something to address global warming, India may be more affected by global warming than the United States. What is your country sacrificing over the next two or three decades to address global warming?

In addressing climate change, we are already spending 2 or 2.5 percent of our GDP on adaptation. If we did not have this burden of adaptation, that 2 or 2.5 percent would be available for improving the living standards of the people. Is that a sacrifice or is that not a sacrifice?

Secondly, there has to be recognition that what effort we are able to put in is obviously going to be within the parameters of the resources that are available to us. If we were saying, “I will not do anything on climate change unless you give me money, unless you give me technology,” OK, you have a fair point. But I have in fact said I am going to do a lot of things on my own. And nobody can say that the kind of effort we are putting in under the national action plan is insignificant.