India and China set aside differences to resist carbon imperialism

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

India and China have come together to resist the common enemy of carbon imperialism despite a sour relationship that has included a deadly border skirmish.

At the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow, leaders from the developed West were hellbent on imposing on developing nations harsher measures to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. However, India and China, with the support of few other lower-to-middle-income countries like Iran, successfully resisted the pressure. The reason for their dissociation is simple: The energy reality of the countries demands more, not less, burning of fossil fuels.

While the COVID-19 pandemic dominated global headlines during 2020-21, the 2.6 billion people of India and China were engrossed in border news. In June 2020, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese troops. China revealed that four of its soldiers died during this medieval-style fight between 500 soldiers involving traditional gear like spiked clubs, iron rods, and batons wrapped in barbed wire.

For billions following the border tensions, it was a huge surprise that both countries agreed to cooperate on an international platform. It could very well be that India and China understand that climate policies proposed at COP26 posed a bigger threat to their economies than any squabble — lethal as it was — over a boundary. 

The reaction to the pressure of the West came in the last moments of the conference as the two Asian countries made sure that key words in the COP26 final agreement were toned down. The original text calling for a coal “phase-out” was revised to “coal phase-down,” thus rendering a major blow to the dreams of the anti-fossil fuel lobby. 

Addressing the last-minute revision, COP26 president Alok Sharma said, “In terms of China and India, they will on this particular issue have to explain themselves.”

Explain ourselves? I am sorry, but since when did the use of fossil fuels become an exclusive right of the developed West’s wealthy politicians? 

The Industrial Revolution and the 20th century economic growth in Europe and the U.S were dependent on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil. Sharma and others enjoy the fruits of fossil fuel-driven development whilst forcing developing countries to forgo opportunities to raise billions out of poverty. This attitude of Western leaders is nothing but a modern form of earlier imperialism that exploited Asian countries for the political ends of affluent countries.

“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies when developing countries still have to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication?” asked India’s Minister for Environment and Climate Bhupender Yadav of COP26 President Sharma. To date, Sharma has not responded.India alone has approximately 300 million in poverty and more than 600 million without access to uninterrupted electricity. Around 600,000 without access to fossil fuels for cooking die every year from the indoor pollution of burning wood and animal dung. In other words, a population the size of U.S. is in poverty and many millions more without access to affordable and reliable energy sources. 

China, which is in a similar situation, also made clear its reservations about ending coal use. With more than 16 provinces in the midst of an unprecedented energy crisis, China said that it will not accept COP26 proposals to ban coal. “To demonize fossil fuel will only hurt ourselves,” said Chinese COP26 Delegate Li Zheng.

No one in their right mind would deny fossil fuel access to developing countries, which are heavily reliant on affordable, abundant, and reliable energy from coal, oil, and natural gas. More than 70% of all electricity for the 2.3 billion in the Indo-China region comes from coal and more than 80% of all energy needs are met by fossil fuels. A disruption to fossil fuel access or affordability will have an immediate negative effect on the livelihoods of millions along with the certain deaths of some within a short span.

India and China were right in defending their energy priorities. They have done a favor for other developing countries by standing up against the carbon imperialism of Western leaders who have no idea what it is to have a home in darkness or a hospital or factory with intermittent power — if any at all. 

Mr. Sharma was reported to have been “close to tears” over the flaccidness of COP26 results. He should shed a few for the deprivations of the world’s impoverished.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Va., and holds a Master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, England. He resides in Bengaluru, India.


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