India wrong-footed the United States and other rich nations yesterday by agreeing for the first time to set numerical targets for curbing its greenhouse gas emissions.
The move added to pressure on the Obama Administration to deliver on its own climate change pledges even as senior Democrats warned that US legislation may face severe delays.
Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Environment Minister, told The Times that legislation was being drafted in Delhi to limit India's carbon footprint and in the process repair his country's reputation for intransigence on climate change before the crucial UN conference in Copenhagen in December.
The announcement marks a breakthough in international talks, which have stalled over whether emissions curbs in a new UN climate treaty should apply to developing nations as well as to the developed countries covered by the Kyoto Protocol.
It came as Gordon Brown sought to goad the US into tougher action on climate change, and as environmental groups reacted with alarm to a Senate forecast that there would be no US carbon "cap-and-trade" Bill until 2010 - if at all. Harry Reid, the Senate's Democratic Majority Leader, indicated on Wednesday that bitter congressional wrangling over healthcare reform could delay climate change legislation for months.
Sources close to the Administration have said that the White House considers climate change "a much harder poll" than healthcare. Alternatives being considered to Mr Obama's preferred option of tradable carbon permits include scrapping the cap-and-trade Bill in favour of an energy Bill that would cover only power stations, and abandoning the climate change fight in Congress altogether. In that event, curbing emissions could be left to the US Environmental Protection Agency, an option that many business leaders favour. However, restricting new curbs to the energy sector "would be worse than no Bill at all", Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defence Fund, said yesterday.
India has long refused to commit itself to any cuts on the ground that its per capita emissions are far lower than developed countries' and any caps would hamper its economic development.
Mr Ramesh said that in Copenhagen, India would stick to its long-standing commitment to keep per capita emissions below those of developed nations - and would not agree to any internationally binding cuts.
He added, however, that India was drafting legislation that would set its own targets for mitigating carbon emissions through various domestic initiatives, such as a massive plan to promote solar energy. Carbon emissions in India are set to soar as its economy expands rapidly and industrialisation gathers pace. The new targets would be consistent with an annual growth rate of 8 to 9 per cent for India's GDP, Mr Ramesh said.
The announcement was designed to improve India's image in the West as an obstacle to climate change talks and to put the onus on the developed world to commit to deeper emissions cuts.
Mr Brown yesterday backed plans for a €100 billion-a-year commitment by 2020 to help developing countries to move to a low-carbon economy, with much of that coming from an international emissions trading scheme. The EU has said that it will provide between €2 billion and €15 billion and that it expects the US to find up to €13 billion a year.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels last night before the Pittsburgh summit of the world's 20 leading economies, called on the G20 leaders to inject much needed urgency into the climate change talks.
In Delhi, Mr Ramesh said: "This notion that India is intransigent on mitigation is crap. We are mitigating and mitigating considerably to save our forests and our rivers. But for an international agreement, the developed world has to demonstrate its seriousness much more credibly than it has done so far."
A coalition of Indian experts is urging the Government to reduce the country's projected emissions by 25 per cent by 2030. The Delhi Science Forum, which meets today, also recommends making that commitment conditional on developed countries adopting emissions targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"Such a position could be a game-changer for Copenhagen and propel India into a leadership role on the climate issue," said D. Raghunandan, secretary of the Delhi Science Forum.