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India and China for a news Leadership on the Climate?

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The world is changing rapidly. Until not long ago, the United States of Barack Obama, in the role of the virtuoses, pressed on India and China, the “big polluters”, to renew their environmental policies and join the ranks of countries engaged in combating climate change. The Paris COP 21 agreement, which was signed in 2015 by all the major players in the game, had, despite the many downward compromises, represented a favorable outcome for environmental issues and a success of the American democratic administration.

Less than two years later, Trump is ready to get out of the agreement, and India and China are willing to lead the fight against pollution, without saving sharp criticism to the new presidency’ choices.

None of the two countries, however, seems to be ready to assume a real leadership in the fight against global warming and fill the void that will inevitably be left by USA discharge.

The two Asian governments are gradually taking on more strong positions, on the public level as well, against fossil fuels, as their respective populations are going to directly suffer, more and more, from the adverse effects of climate change and poisoning of natural resources. Beyond reassuring positions, China and India are, at least for now, unable to offset the strong weakening of the economic incentive system the US offered to developing countries in exchange for a greater control over their levels of pollution.

The change of route in Asia is, however, evident and should not be underestimated. For decades, the governments of India and China had looked with suspicion and annoyance at the appeals of the first world countries for a reduction in polluting emissions. The countries which have based their development on wild industrialization without posing too much doubts about the climatic consequences, asked the poorer countries to limit their growth capabilities to preserve the health of the planet. What pulp came from the sermon?

Today, however, both Indian President Modi and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping seem to have adopted a different vision of the world. Modi called a “morally criminal act” to not stick to the commitments assumed on the climate front. Jinping addressed all signatories to the COP 21, recalling that it represents “a responsibility we must assume for future generations”.

Trump’s choice could have dramatic consequences for that same future. In addition to the reduction in economic incentives and technological equipment supplies (the US alone would have to contribute for about 20% of the total), American withdrawal could entice other countries to do the same. The Paris agreement, moreover, had been considered by many to be a downward result, unable to effectively contain global warming in the coming years. There would be much more substantial emissions cutbacks in order to reverse the route, but the American turnaround may also weaken the current deal, encouraging more hesitant states to loosen the ties of their engagement.

The United States is also the second most polluting country in the world, and with the Paris agreement they pledged to reduce 26 to 28% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Without their contribution, experts are asking, will it be possible to meet the objective of limiting the rise in temperature, compared to the pre-industrial era, below the two degrees, as established by the Paris Agreement?

It’s hard to say, but things are neverthless moving. If India is committed to meeting its objectives, despite the fact that 240 million people in the sub-continent still have no access to electricity, China seems to have rapidly traveled to its commitments and started a financing project on the renewable energies ($ 360 million by 2020) that makes the Asian giant the new industry leader, globally.

New environmental policies, according to scholars, have already begun to have some tangible consequences in the two countries. China has slowed down its consumption of carbon and India is about to reduce its construction projects for new coal-fired power plants. New Deli then accelerated investments in wind and solar energy, moving to the target set for 2022: to bring its capacity from renewable sources to 175 gigawatts.

The words of Indian Energy Minister Piyush Goya sound clear and strong: “We are not addressing climate change because somebody told us to do it, it is an article of faith for this government .”

The jibe for the most industrialized countries is also a paradigm shift: “Sadly the developed world does not show the same commitment to fulfill their promises, which could help speed up the clean energy revolution .”

Will the Asian powers therefore be able to fill in the American shortages and load this revolution on their shoulders? The commitment is evident but the economic problem remains. American leadership on the environmental front, in the Obama era, was expressed through a $ 3 billion loan in favor of the poorest countries to support them in the development of alternative energies. This fund has been reduced by two-thirds by Trump and neither Beijing nor New Delhi intend to put all this money on the table. Rather, the two giants seem willing to play a coordinating and addressing role, strengthening the sharing of technology-based knowledge among the nations involved.

Using the words of Varad Pande, an ex-consultant at the Indian Ministry of Energy, the one that is being built todaywill be a different flavor of leadership“.

Intense and spicy, hopefully, like curry.

The Spleen of Beijing

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To understand what is happening in China we can start from a grotesque news that comes from North America. The Canadian company Vitality Air had recently launched, a bit as a joke, a new product: bottles filled with the crystal clear air of the Rocky Mountains. Within a few days the stocks went sold out and all orders came from China. The country is in fact experiencing in recent weeks a real environmental emergency, because of the very high levels of smog and particulates recorded in major cities.


After the “red alert” declared by the authorities last week, which paralyzed the capital Beijing with the closure of schools, construction sites and public offices, the health of Chinese citizens continue to be threatened. The problem is determined by the huge consumption of coal and other fossil fuels that pushes the economic growth of the Asian giant. The exhaust fumes of cars, despite popular belief, only partially contribute to the formation of smelling clouds that wrap Beijing and other big cities of the most industrialized regions. In fact, the country is experiencing its industrial revolution and the coal, like what happened in Europe in the nineteenth century, is feeding the motor of development. Making the due proportions, the consequences on environmental scale are dramatic and affect the entire planet.

After Beijing, Shanghai also has been enveloped by a thick smog, last Tuesday. In the economic capital of the country the air quality index value reached 300, which is considered “hazardous” to human health with possible long-term repercussions. Not much, compared to the values ​​recorded in the capital and in the northern cities last week, but still enough to encourage the local authorities to declare a “yellow alert” and intervene to limit construction activities and prohibit students to get out of school buildings during the morning, when the smog level are higher.

The difficulties on the environmental front that the country daily faces are even more striking, after the approval of the agreement on the climate conference Cop21 of Paris, which ended last week. Also the Chinese delegation joined the agreement, whose real effectiveness has been questioned by many in recent days, with judgments often far apart. For Chinese representatives, the final document is an acceptable compromise between the needs of the country’s development and the commitments to reduce greenhouse gases in the medium term. Certainly, the delegation headed by Xie Zhenhua pushed for a limitation of the legally binding commitments, but the non-subscription by the most polluting country in the world would have decreed the failure of the summit.

What does the Paris Agreement envisage? In short, the signatories undertake to reach the peak of emissions as soon as possible, then move on to a significant reduction of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century. The common objective, which is considered vital by the experts, is to limit the average increase in global temperatures “well below” the two degrees and focusing, if possible, to the maximum limit of 1.5 C. The progress of the plan will be monitored every five years and, by 2020, $ 100 billion a year will be allocated in favour of developing countries for the implementation of environmental projects. After 2020, the funding is expected to increase to an extent yet to be determined.

According to some observers, the limit of two degrees will be difficult to comply with, but for the first time China and other great polluting countries of the developing world have decided to formally join the common effort. The change of direction, according to Naomi Klein, is also determined by the fact that the living conditions of the Chinese are getting really worse, because of pollution, and that the children of the elites of the country are beginning to directly suffer its effects. It may not be necessary to slow the train of industrial development, but a gradual conversion from coal to other forms of more sustainable energy is already an unavoidable prospect.

And the same might be valid for India.


In China the pollution emergency continues

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The Paris summit Cop21 climate finished and delegates feverishly worked to find a final agreement that does not result in a mere declaration of intent. China was heavily involved in the debate, since it was suspended between the requirements of industrial development and the need to cut emissions and greenhouse gases, for the good of the planet and of its own citizens.


China, despite some slowing, is still growing at a fast pace and feeds its industrial development with a high consumption of coal and other polluting fuels. December 2nd, at the Paris summit, Beijing has announced its plans to cut the main pollutant emissions over 4 years. By 2020 they will be cut by 60% and, at the same time, it should be a reduction, for industry, of 180 million tons of CO2 each year. It remains to understand what China means by “major pollutants” and if, among them, will be considered greenhouse gases.

Beyond the skepticism expressed by some, it seems that Beijing wants to redesign its growth model, reducing the use of coal and betting on forms of clean and renewable energy. The environmental issue is not only about the near future of the country. Even the present is heavily involved, because air pollution has reached alarming levels both in Beijing and in other major cities in China. Earlier this week, in the capital has been proclaimed the red alert, after that smog levels far in excess of the permitted range have been recorded, with harmful consequences for the health of citizens.

The emergency measures, which included the closure of schools and construction sites and a sharp reduction in private circulation, have proved effective, and the sun has returned to make its appearance in the skies long obscured of the megalopolis. The red alert now ceased, but the problem was just postponed. The warning pollution does not afflict only Beijing. In the big cities of northern China the authorities did not adopt measures whatsoever and tens of millions of people continue to breathe extremely toxic air, with values ​​of harmfulness even higher than those that led to the paralysis of the capital.

As reported by The New York Times, in Anyang, Henan Province, the air quality index showed a value of 999, three times higher than that registered in Beijing earlier this week. In the city of Handan, Hebei Province, it has been slightly better, with the indicator stopped at 822. For instance, a value of 300, the United States, is already considered dangerous to human health. Much of the pollution that grips Beijing is not produced from the drainpipes of cars, but comes from the north where, to meet industrial needs, are burned every day huge quantities of coal.

The central government and the provincial governments are therefore called upon to take prompt action to protect the health of their citizens, requiring the adoption of emergency procedures standardized in all regions of the country, involving also construction sites and factories. Once past the emergency, it will be necessaire to quickly understand how to balance the demands of industrial development which led China’s GDP to exceed the American one, with the imperatives of public health, in China and elsewhere. The commitments announced by the Chinese delegation to the climate conference in Paris seem a step in the right direction, but the claims will have to be followed by concrete action. In a very short time.


Luca Marchesini


Luca Marchesini
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