The world’s two most populous countries may hold the key to creating an emissions reduction agreement in Copenhagen this December. But convincing these still-developing nations to curb their burgeoning economies for an essentially environmental cause may prove impossible. And a working solution — if one can be reached at all — may need to avoid demands altogether. Suggestions seem more likely, much to the chagrin of the many in the West.

China and India currently stand as the most imposing roadblocks to accord in Copenhagen. China now emits more carbon than any other country in the world. India currently ranks fourth. Clearly, real emissions reduction requires the active involvement of both countries. Ideally, China and India would each commit to significant and verifiable emissions cuts. Trouble is, economics takes a stout precedence to eco-reform in both countries — even more so than in the West. China and India have stated, flatly and repeatedly, that any commitments they make must indulge their economic need to continue developing with breakneck speed.

As Beijing has pointed out a number of times, China’s economy is burgeoning. And the government remains hyper-focused on development. This is equally true of India. This economic reality firmly grounds both countries in a belief that industrialized nations should bear most of the burden for reducing worldwide emissions, while also bearing the cost of cleaner technologies largely beneficial to developing nations — a stance based on the plan for G-77 bloc developing nations.

The demographic facts paint a vivid picture: Electricity demand in China, which is already skyrocketing, will almost double by 2020, demanding ever more energy, and producing ever more carbon emissions. If coal remains a significant part of China's energy portfolio, many projections show the country accounting for nearly half of the world's total CO2 emissions growth up to 2030.

The same is largely true of India, where continued economic growth of 9 percent to 10 percent over the next few decades will be necessary just to bring electricity to all households. Indians consider access to electricity a basic right. And it’s the central requirement in bringing a modest living standard to the nation as a whole. But so much electrification cannot be achieved without a significant increase in aggregate emissions.

The reality is that regardless of the pressure put on China and India by the international community, reducing carbon emissions in these countries is all but impossible. And reliance on carbon-intensive coal for a significant majority of national energy is unlikely to change anytime soon. The simple equation is that more development means more energy; and more development is nonnegotiable. And as things stand – especially with respect to technology – more energy means more emissions.

The Chinese and Indian governments will simply not accede to mandatory cuts in emissions without corresponding financial and technological commitments by industrialized countries. But here is where negotiation could be productive. Specifically, India wants help in developing and implementing new, greener technologies and in expanding its use of solar power. It’s also interested in research co-operation, especially regarding new “carbon capture” technologies to trap and bury greenhouse gases from power plants. China has shown interest in similar measures.

This brings us to a possible key to Copenhagen: Moving an agreement forward will most likely require a shift in focus, from overall emissions reduction to improvements in “energy intensity.”

India, for example, is already set to introduce a domestic cap-and-trade program with a ceiling on energy intensity, not carbon. This would limit how much carbon is emitted for each unit of energy produced. A well-functioning plan would slow the rise of emissions rather than cut them back overall, allowing the Indian economy to continue its needed growth.

And a recent agreement of cooperation signed with China, as well as recent statements by Chinese President Hu Jintao, indicate that what is true in India (with regard to focusing on energy intensity) will prove true in China as well.

Officials in America and the European Union believe a workable agreement in Copenhagen could build on this idea, and also build on existing plans in India and China for intensity improvements.

In fact, a deal along these lines has already been proposed by South Korea, which has offered a compromise in which developing nations would commit to domestic actions to slow emissions growth while the developed, international community commits to overall emissions reductions. Targets for developing economies would not be internationally binding, but they would be subject to outside verification.

But more than a shift in focus will be required for real success in Copenhagen. For real and productive reconciliation between developed and developing nations, rich countries will likely need to commit a great deal of new money. Something in the range of $160 billion a year between 2010 and 2020 will be required from developed nations to help ensure low-carbon economic growth in developing countries. Thankfully, this type of contribution isn’t far-fetched — just last week the E.U. proposed that rich countries give $75 billion a year.

This is clearly a positive start — a solid monetary offer, largely unsolicited. More difficult to wrangle from jealous wealthy economies will be the bold emissions cuts needed to bring greenhouse gases 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. It will be a tough fight, but there’s an abundance of goodwill the world over, and Copenhagen can still produce something lasting and effective — something more than cheap political statements.

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MNN homepage photo: daumiu/iStockPhoto

Troubled emission: India, China and Copenhagen
It may be impossible to convince these still-developing nations to curb their burgeoning economies for what is essentially an environmental cause.