One of the wickedest questions of our time is: should we remove carbon from the atmosphere at scale? Pretty much everyone agrees that we should lower and eventually stop emissions, i.e., what’s called NetZero in climate parlance. But slowing the train may not be enough if
- The rate of slowing isn’t fast enough
- The existing emissions are already too much for the Earth system to handle
Which then presents us with the challenge of removing carbon from the atmosphere, i.e., a form of geoengineering. At some point, people will start saying that it’s not enough to apply the brakes on the train; we should attach an engine pointing backwards to the end of the moving train. Not only that: India and other developing countries are now saying that we need to run our train hard, and it’s only fair you (i.e., the rich world) have to run your train backwards in order for us to run it faster forwards. Underlying this claim is an assumption that everyone seems to be believe: the only way to prosper is to burn baby burn.
Removing carbon is like recycling at a planetary scale; if it fails, there’s trash all around and if it succeeds, people might think the problem has been solved, and therefore consume even more. Even a feel good version of doing so - like planting trillions of trees - will lead to monocropped forests rather than thriving ecosystems. It’s an even bigger challenge for India - we might think we are demanding our fair share of carbon prosperity, but:
- We have already destroyed much of our environment in the post-liberalization era. Why would we want to dial that model to 11?
- Instead of investing in future technologies and social institutions, we would be banking upon the past, and then
- Be even more dependent on the first world when the need for alternatives becomes glaringly obvious.
The poverty of our imagination might be the greatest impoverishment. Leaving that aside, it’s also clear that climate change has now entered India’s political as well as geopolitical calculations. First the political:
India continues to play both sides of the table by ramping up solar energy and ramping up coal mining and power plant construction. Mining licenses and permits are an easy source of slush funds that can be used by political parties (every party is guilty in this regard) come election time.
Among other complications, let’s note that bribes and kickbacks are harder with decentralized energy - much easier to demand a suitcase full of cash from one centralized producer than from a million farmers with a solar panel in their paddy field.
Now for geopolitics: climate change is front and centre in the Biden administration’s cold war with China.
In doing so, it could seek to position itself at the forefront of a new bloc of nations caught in what increasingly looks like a cold war between the U.S. and China. The world’s two largest national emitters and biggest economies joined together in 2014 in what was known as the Group of Two carbon superpowers to agree to cut emissions, setting the stage for the Paris agreement the next year. But so-called G-2 talks sidelined India, which, despite being the world’s third-largest emitter, has grown at a much slower pace than China and occupied a different role in foreign policy circles as a closer ally of the U.S.
Singh did not call out China by name in his speech. But he referred at one point to a 2060 net-zero target ― the deadline by which China agreed to zero out its emissions, a decade later than most countries in the West. That signaled he could be lumping China in alongside other developed countries and is seeking to place India as the largest and most powerful advocate for the rest of the world.
“The U.S.-China conflict is going to continue to intensify for years to come, and other countries, particularly in the Global South, are going to be under pressure from both sides to choose who they are with,” said Tobita Chow, an advocate for progressive U.S. engagement toward China and the director of the nonprofit Justice Is Global. “You’re going to have a set of countries trying to carve out a space that’s independent of that pressure to choose a side. Whether or not that’s what India is after right now is something to look out for.”
India was one of the founders and leading players in the Non-Aligned Movement, distancing itself both from the US and the Soviet Union. NAM is comatose but it’s possible that climate change and the new cold war might revive its fortunes.
John Kerry will be in Delhi this week, and looks like the Indian Prime Minister will be addressing the Leaders’ Summit on Climate hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden. It’s the first major international event hosted by the recently elected president, which gives us a clue about how important climate change is to his view of the world.