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India's Dilemma: How to Continue Economic Growth While Reducing Carbon Emissions

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The United Nations wants its upcoming conference on climate change in Bali to devise a uniform strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. India, with a booming economy and a billion-plus population, is on track to become the third largest carbon emitter behind the United States and China. As VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi, India is looking at how to maintain domestic growth while stabilizing its greenhouse gas emissions.

In India's cities, sales of electric appliances are booming. This washing machine salesman touts the features on one of the latest imported washing machines.

As hundreds of millions of households in India move into the middle class and buy their first appliances and automobiles, the downside of economic growth is beginning to emerge.

Billions of appliances and cars consume huge amounts of energy. And nearly all that energy is derived from carbon-based sources, primarily coal and oil.

Leena Srivastava, executive director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), says India's long-term challenge is to meet rising energy demand and make electricity affordable while minimizing carbon emissions.

"We have about 400-plus million people in this country who today do not have access to electricity. And if we are to bring these people into the clean-energy mode, then we have to be able to provide low-cost energy options to them," she said.

Srivastava says with electrical demand forecast to grow as much as five-fold in the next quarter century, the government is planning to build more plants fired by coal, the dirtiest pollutant.

"Total power-generating capacity will probably be closer to a 1,000 gigawatts. This translates actually into a coal import requirement for this country [annually] of almost a billion tons of coal, which is huge," added Srivastava.

Still, India is resisting international calls for binding emissions cuts.

The director-general of the Power Ministry's Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Ajay Mathur, says India will be able to stabilize its carbon consumption, but achieving its self-imposed targets is going to take a long time.

"The prime minister has committed that the per-capita emissions of India will never exceed those of developed countries," said Mathur. "And assuming that all of us are moving towards a target of about two tons of carbon dioxide per person per year by 2050, 2060, 2070, we should be at that level."

Environmentalists are pressing for India to turn to alternate energy production instead of additional conventional power plants.

Greenpeace India executive director G. Ananthapadmanabhan believes both the Indian jet set and those hoping to trade in their hand fans for air conditioners can be part of the solution.

"We're not saying don't have air travel, don't have air conditioners. We are saying do it in such a way that two things happen: you pay the true price of it, which is common sense, which is good economics," said Ananthapadmanabhan. "The second thing, do it in such a way that you reduce the carbon footprint associated with it by changing the way you produce that energy."

Greenpeace also wants the government to impose mandatory efficiency standards and carbon taxes.

Nuclear power is another option. At present, nuclear power accounts for only about four percent of India's energy needs. If the country gets access to advanced technology and is allowed to import the needed fuel, something that would happen under a controversial civil nuclear deal with the United States, then India might achieve its goal of increasing nuclear power generation ten-fold over the next 25 years.

But many environmentalists do not want India relying more on nuclear because of the long-term environmental risks and hazards.

Greenpeace's Anathapadmanabhan says a partial solution could be as simple as changing to more efficient light bulbs.

"In one shot by changing all the lighting in India, five percent of India's emissions can be cut by changing simply the way we do household lighting - essentially, the single-point lighting in the form of incandescent bulbs," continued Anathapadmanabhan. "Replace them with efficient compact fluorescent lamps."

If the predicted results of climate change for India - flooding, drought, extreme weather, famine and disease - come true, the country could face a devastating human and financial toll.

Already, says Energy Efficiency Bureau boss Ajay Mathur, India spends 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product on alleviating the impact of natural disasters.

"You can imagine that as climate change impacts become more visible, this would only rise. So in a sense our greatest challenge is the adverse impacts of climate change," said Mathur. "We need to reduce the vulnerability of people and ensure the development that occurs is quote, unquote, 'climate proof.'"

And for that, contends Leena Srivastava of The Energy and Resources Institute, India needs help.

"To be able to contribute positively to the problem of climate change we will need financial and technical assistance," she said. "And that is something that we haven't been able to work out between all the countries in the world."

The dilemma facing India will be starkly apparent at the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Bali. The president of the host nation, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has warned that governments must answer the public demand for what he calls "concrete and bold action" on climate change.

But, the Indonesian leader says, that should not come at the cost of jeopardizing development.

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