'We Can't Afford For India To Wait For Emission Cuts'

The top environmental advisor to US President, on climate change and India’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
'We Can't Afford For India To Wait For Emission Cuts'
As chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, James L. Connaughton serves as the top environmental advisor to President George W. Bush. In an interview with Ashish Kumar Sen, he spoke on climate change and India’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.Excerpts:

What is the US willing to do to ensure that India is not at an economic disadvantage when it cuts down on emissions?

It's very important that the climate strategy we share assures continued economic growth. We also recognise that a new agreement internationally must reflect important differences between developed countries and countries such as India, which are at a very different stage of development. What the US is seeking is that the large economies of the world—and that would include India—find a common expression of our responsibility in an internationally binding agreement recognising that the implementation of that responsibility will be highly differentiated depending on a country's national circumstances.

Have you detected a growing realisation among decision-makers in New Delhi that India needs to do more to fight global warming?

Yes. New Delhi is struggling with a group of issues that we all struggle with to different degrees. Energy security is of utmost importance. Second most important is the pollution associated with the use of fossil fuels. The third priority is addressing climate change over the long term. What we have done in our work with India is recognised that all three are important issues that need to be considered together.

How well is the technology exchange progressing under the aegis of the Asia Pacific Partnership (APP) in Clean Development and Climate?

In key sectors such as power generation, steel, aluminium, cement, we see real steps forward for shared action among the APP countries. Of course, we have differentiated approaches depending on each country's national circumstances. So we can look inside the APP for a model of how to create a constructive public-private set of agreements in key sectors. We think that can help inform part of the United Nations discussions. The leaders of the major economies will be meeting this summer to give some further thought on how to make progress in the UN.

We think we should find a way to reach an agreement on a shared long-term vision and goal for reducing emissions. But one of the most important things that we need to agree on is—agree in principle that the major economies will have national goals and have these national goals implemented through nationally defined plans and have those reflected in an internationally binding agreement.

I think there has been some confusion on this point: the importance of a shared commitment to see our actions reflected in an internationally binding mechanism but to (also) recognise that each country will have a different set of strategies and a different set of goals from each other.

Is the US doing anything to share clean-coal technology with India?

Yes. We want to significantly increase the opportunities for India to both join with us as we develop our research agenda, and join with us as we do large-scale demonstration projects to prove its feasibility. The US will put in nearly a billion dollars of public and private money for research, and we will provide up to $9 billion in publicly financed loan guarantees to build a new generation of lower emitting power plants. It will be very important for countries like India to pursue a parallel path in accordance with its own national circumstances in the development of this effort at the same time.

We are prepared to provide financing through a new clean energy technology fund to help finance some of these projects. The most immediate thing we can do is to agree to the elimination of tariffs on clean energy technologies.

What has been New Delhi's response to such plans?

I've found that invariably when I'm dealing with entities other than the trade ministries, there is not just strong but vociferous support for this in concept. But the trade ministries fold this into their broader agenda that includes more controversial items and so they are naturally reluctant. This should not be an impediment.

What kind of international pressure do you see India coming under in a few years if it doesn't budge from its current position?

We all now understand that we have to be ambitious in our long-term goals for reducing emissions. The only way to make progress in achieving such a goal requires firm commitments from each of the major economies, including the major developing economies, and even though the developed world will be starting in a different place and do more initially, we cannot afford for the major developing countries to wait.

How difficult is it for the US to convince other countries it is serious about fighting global warming, given that the US administration hasn't ratified the Kyoto Protocol? Has this complicated your task in any way?

It has complicated it in terms of a lot of the misperception and a fundamental misunderstanding of what America is actually achieving. It has clouded the areas of truly dramatic progress and it has clouded it for reasons that are somewhat unfortunate.

The Kyoto Protocol imposed a technically and economically impossible target on the United States. We can't sign a treaty that we cannot comply with. The only means of compliance is that we move our emissions to another part of the world without solving the environmental problem. Instead, we have pursued a much more comprehensive and a much more flexible approach that rivals what any other country in the world is doing.

Contrary to popular mythology, America now has major mandatory programmes in every major emitting category.

What's a reasonable percentage reduction in emissions you'd like to see for India, and what's the deadline?

It's not the US's role to tell India what it should do. What we have been able to see is that in some key areas like aluminium production, or steel production, or even the efficiency of fossil power generation, we have been able to help India identify some real opportunities for more aggressive action than they might have first imagined. At the same time, India is building cement plants that are state of the art. So there are also some things we can learn from India. India has experience with one of the world's largest fleets of natural gas-powered vehicles. So there again India is a global leader and we can learn from it.
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