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Can the U.S. and India Play Nice on Climate Change?

A number of unresolved issues—China, Kashmir, etc.—will be swirling around Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first state visit this Monday, but on none are the two hesitant allies more at odds than the conditions for a global climate treaty. Much of the news in the lead up to Copenhagen has centered on the possibility of some sort of deal between the two largest emitters, the U.S. and China. India, however, could very well be a more important (and elusive) partner in those talks. That’s because over the last year India has adopted the not-so-quiet role as unofficial spokesperson for the developing world and staunch opponent of mandatory caps on carbon. And if the U.S. and China are still working out some unresolved differences, their negotiations have been downright rosy compared to the headway the U.S. has made with India thus far. 

First indications of the disconnect between U.S. and Indian climate demands came during Secretary Clinton’s visit to India in July. At what was supposed to be a friendly photo up—Clinton was taking a tour of an innovative, energy efficient building in New Delhi—the country’s environment minister decided to blast the U.S. for putting pressure on India to take steps to cut its emissions, arguing that there was “no case” for India to do anything when its per capita emissions were among the lowest in the world. The New York Times suggested that the brusque exchange could have simply been a “negotiating tactic,” but things haven’t gotten much better since. Indeed, just a little while after, the Indian government announced that the West would have to shell out around $200 billion a year for a climate change fund in exchange for cooperation in reducing greenhouse gasses. To be fair, the number represents about .5 per cent of industrialized countries’ GDP, but it’s a far larger sum than U.S. officials would agree to contemplate. 

Earlier this month in Barcelona, in the last formal round of negotiations before Copenhagen, India again caused sparks by threatening to walk out on the Copenhagen talks along with the rest of the developing nations unless rich countries (cough, cough, the U.S.) agreed to deeper cuts and more money. There are now only two weeks before COP15 and this will be the last chance for Obama and Singh’s diplomats to get on the same page, or at least learn to be a little more polite. With the U.S. climate bill resting on ice in the Senate, no one still expects a formal treaty to emerge from Copenhagen, but talks that end in acrimony would still represent a major setback. Even largely symbolic gestures, like agreeing to collaborate on energy efficiency and carbon capture technology sharing, as the U.S. has done with China, would be a good way to set the mood during Singh’s upcoming visit. Hopefully nobody’s scheduled any LEED-certified building tours.