Rhein on Energy and Climate

China and India have signed a five-year agreement for strengthening their cooperation on energy conservation and efficiency and also taking the lead of developing countries in the run-up to Copenhagen.

This is excellent news. Developing countries should put their hand together in Copenhagen for obtaining maximum concessions from developed countries for both emission cuts and financial support. Indeed, the US commitments on both fronts are likely to be extremely disappointing, as the Congress is unable to agree on deep emission cuts at the 2020 horizon. Developing countries are right to underline the prime responsibility of the West for the gigantic accumulation of green house gases in the atmosphere in the 20th century, which is at the origin of accelerating climate change.

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But hopefully, China and India will also beef up their long-term energy cooperation:

  • They will be among the countries most threatened by climate change. The Himalaya glaciers are melting at a rapid pace. Climatologists anticipate that most of them might have molten in less than 20 years! That would be nightmare for both countries as well as for their neighbours. The Himalaya glaciers constitute the earth’s third most important fresh water reserve after the Antarctic and Greenland. Without this huge water storage the risk of insufficient water supply for agriculture in China and the Indian subcontinent will rise immensely. Both countries are already suffering from floods, drought and desertification. One quarter of China is desert land!
  • At present levels and the rate of increase of their green house emissions China and India will largely determine the deterioration of the global climate in the next 50 years. In the interest of their own survival they should reverse the trend of the last 25 years as soon as possible. Lowering the pace of increase is no longer good enough.
  • Both countries should be able to successfully reconcile economic development and effective climate action. China possesses the financial and technical means for a massive push towards energy efficiency and renewable energies, in particular improved insulation of buildings and wind. Alternative energies and energy efficiency should become the driving forces for rising incomes, exports and above all sustainable prosperity. The government should therefore have the courage to tax fossil energy at rising rates and thus induce its citizens to go for energy efficiency and alternative sources…
  • Combined China and India have the strength to set an example for other developing countries to follow suit.
  • China and India should exchange their experience with optimal regulatory frameworks and push their industries to collaborate on appropriate technologies. Both countries have already acquired the leadership among developing countries for wind and solar PV technologies, and both have also a vital interest in developing simple carbon capture and storage technologies.

But there is a more contentious area on which China and India should also urgently collaborate. That is water. The Brahmaputra, on which both India and Bangladesh vitally depend, flows 1.600 km through Chinese territory. China might be tempted to divert rising shares of the Brahmaputra water for its own needs, which would imperil Indian and Bangladeshi water supplies.

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Such an action might constitute a “casus belli” for India. Whatever the sensitivity, it is necessary to tackle the issue of water supply from the Himalaya and prevent the outbreak of open conflict. China will most likely resist unilateral demands from India and Bangladesh. As we have to do with a regional issue, the UN should take the initiative to bring all the regional parties to the table to become aware of the looming dangers and agree on a few simple basic principles for water sharing in times of melting glaciers and lower water supply.

Brussels 23.10.09 Eberhard Rhein

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