Most of the debate over whether international action can control climate change has centered on China, a huge country that has industrialized rapidly and leads the world in emissions. But India will surpass China in population within a decade and eventually will matter just as much. Conservatives have backstopped their dismissal of climate science with confident assertions that neither China nor India will ever cooperate with emissions reductions (e.g., Marco Rubio: “As far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on.”) China has taken a series of aggressive emissions-reductions steps. Now India is out with a plan, too, and it’s highly encouraging.
India’s commitment is to dramatically reduce the “carbon intensity” of its economy. Carbon intensity refers to the relationship between the size of your economy and your emissions. Lifting people out of poverty gives them more resources, which leads to more energy use. India’s plan is for that energy use to rely more and more on zero-emissions sources. India’s economy is slated to grow sevenfold between now and 2030. If India maintained the same carbon intensity, its emissions would also grow sevenfold. Its plan is to triple that emissions growth.
Obviously, any growth in emissions poses a problem. But there is no political or economically realistic way to stop a country like India, whose population emits a fraction of the greenhouse gasses per person as the United States, from increasing its emissions at all. The previous Indian position held that the developed countries had caused global warming (which was true) and therefore had all of the responsibility for reducing emissions, and that India would only control its own emissions if the West furnished it with financial aid. It has dropped that stance and is now putting its economy on a path where it can increase its prosperity without a one-to-one increase in emissions.
Even with India’s pledge now in hand, the Paris talks are not going to produce enough emissions control to keep the world out of the global-warming danger zone. But the clear direction of the negotiations is to establish a framework that can be built upon. As I argued in my magazine story, technology and political willpower operate as cycles that reinforce each other. A political commitment to reduce emissions will spur innovation into green energy. Innovations will bring down the cost of green energy, which, in turn, makes it easier for politicians to promise deeper reductions. If more countries signal their support for emissions reductions, innovations will continue to bring down the cost of green energy, allowing political leaders to go farther.
SolarCity’s announcement today of a new, higher-efficiency solar panel is the latest example of a wave of green-energy innovation that is both the product and the cause of the belief shared by leaders across the world (with the notable exception of American conservatives) that something can and must be done to stop the horrors of unchecked climate change.