A coalition of Indian activists, academics and entrepreneurs is urging India's leaders to take a more aggressive stand on climate change.
In two days of talks with U.S. lawmakers and policy experts in Washington, D.C., the group said Indian society is starting a serious internal discussion about its role in addressing global warming.
"This is about recasting the debate," said Malini Mehra, founder of the Centre for Social Markets, a nonprofit based in India and the United Kingdom that promotes entrepreneurship and sustainable growth.
"The Indian government's agenda will not change until Indians want it to change," she told a U.N. Foundation forum. "I will not rest until we have a radically different position on the Indian government's side."
The United Nations is pushing for the creation of a new global emissions treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that may be determined in Copenhagen in December. U.S. lawmakers widely insist that America will only agree to a deal in which emerging nations like China and India also agree to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
India, meanwhile, argues that it is unfair to ask developing countries with historically low levels of emissions to take on a greenhouse gas reduction commitment. Instead, it has pushed for voluntary actions to boost renewable energy use and "decarbonize" its economy.
Fighting against a self-absolving 'orthodoxy'
In an interview with E&E earlier this year, India's climate change ambassador, Shyam Saran, said India already has pledged that it will not allow its per capita emissions -- about 1.7 tons per person annually -- to exceed the average per capita emissions of developed countries.
But Mehri -- along with Harish Hande, co-founder of SELCO India, a Bangalore-based solar home system business; author and columnist Prem Shankar Jha; and Arivudai Nambi, climate change director at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai -- said she wants to see more.
The group is pushing for India to put a price on carbon, take legally binding emissions commitments, and ultimately view its future growth from through a carbonless lens.
"I want to see a carbon tax, universal, including on India, including on China, including on the smallest country, to emphasize the fact that this is a global problem," Jha said.
The group members and others also criticized environmental groups for not pushing developing nations hard enough to take tougher international commitments, and accused nonprofit groups of adhering to an "orthodoxy" that absolves China, India and others from making tough decisions.
India is the world's fourth-largest economy, and its emissions have been rising rapidly -- about 65 percent between 1990 and 2005. That is expected to grow another 70 percent in the coming decade, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Yet while India accounts for about 4.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions -- making it the world's fifth-largest emitter -- it still has one of the world's smallest per capita emission levels. For every person in India, the country emits 1.7 tons of greenhouse gases each year -- compared to 23 tons in America, 10 tons in Japan and 5.5 tons in China.
Earlier this year, India released a climate change "action plan" that proposes eight new national ministries centered around solar energy, energy efficiency, sustainable habitat, water conservation, protecting the Himalayan glacier and mountain ecosystem, sustainable agriculture, forests and climate change research.
Leaders say they can't deny access to electricity
But Indian leaders also note that coal-based electricity generation is central to India's power sector and will be so for several decades, due in large part to the country's enormous domestic resources. Taking on emissions commitments, Saran argued in March, would stifle India's development.
"We have 400 million Indians who do not have any access to energy. I can't go to them in a democracy and say, 'I'm sorry, we have accepted a cut in our emissions, and we can't give you energy,'" he said.
Angela Anderson, international policy analyst for the Climate Action Network, agreed that developing countries need to act more aggressively on global warming. But, she noted, U.S.-based environmental groups, at least, feel they need to focus on ensuring that America makes stringent cuts and joins a global agreement.
"There's some hesitation from an [nonprofit] perspective to take our eyes off the ball, which is to get the U.S. to do what it needs to do," she said.
"The whole world needs to do more, and certainly the rapidly developing countries ought to do more. But until we get our own house in order, we can't exactly point the finger at them," she said.
Mehra said she feels India is at a "crossroads." The country, she maintains, is capable of taking and making good on emissions targets, but lacks important academic research and modeling to show how a low-carbon economy can be achieved. Already, she noted, India -- with its 3,500-mile coastline subject to cyclones and with 78 percent of its land mass drought-afflicted -- spends 2 percent of its annual budget on natural disasters.
"How much will we be spending when actually the effects of climate change begin to kick in?" she said. "I want the government to come out and say, 'We see this as an existential threat to our people, and we will do whatever it takes.'"