The politics and hypocrisy of carbon emissions: Behind charges of India being third biggest polluter lurks West’s evasion

India is one country, but its 28 states are as diverse as the 27 nations of the European Union in language, culture, cuisine and economic development. The 27 nations together put out almost as much emissions as India at 3.1 million kilotonnes with only a population of 448 million, a third of India’s, for a per capita output of 5.5 tonnes.

Arul Louis Nov 20, 2023
Representational Photo

 “The world’s third worst polluter”. “The third biggest emitter of greenhouse gas”. These are the common refrains about India from the media, politicians and activists in the industrialised countries – and sometimes echoed in India.

US President Joe Biden and his global warming commissar John Kerry want India to do something about its carbon emissions. The contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley, wants to “confront” India – and China – about saving the environment, echoing former President Donald Trump who used harsher words.

Writers, journalists and activists excoriate India over its rank as the world’s third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that they predict will roast the world and engulf vast stretches of it in a tide of melting icebergs.

The cacophony of finger-pointing at India is but a cover for the hypocrisy in not wanting to face their own levels of pollution: Using the overall emissions data of the country and avoiding talking about their own far greater per capita output because that will hit them personally.

Even without going to historical data for the last three centuries when the industrialised countries floated up on swells of damaging greenhouse gases, a look at the contemporary data will do.

Real data behind emission rhetoric 

Hidden in the hot air over greenhouse gases is the fact that an Indian is responsible for only 1.6 tonnes of greenhouse emissions per capita each year (according to World Bank data), while an American is an eight times worse polluter of the environment puffing out 13 tonnes of the gases.

Even a person in China, billed as the world’s worst polluter, is responsible for only 7.8 tonnes, far less than an American.

The convenient cover for the headline-grabbing rhetoric is the total greenhouse gas output by each nation - 12.9 million kilotonnes for China, 5.5 million kilotonnes for the US, and 3.2 million kilotonnes for India, without regard to the size of the population, nearly 1.5 billion for India and China compared to the US’s 333 million.

To put some context to India’s greenhouse gas emissions, compare it with the economically integrated European Union.

India is one country, but its 28 states are as diverse as the 27 nations of the European Union in language, culture, cuisine and economic development. The 27 nations together put out almost as much emissions as India at 3.1 million kilotonnes with only a population of 448 million, a third of India’s, for a per capita output of 5.5 tonnes.

But the European Union, despite its economic integration – and political integration short of fully surrendering national sovereignty – gets a pass and its nations are treated separately in the greenhouse gas rhetoric rather than in the collective.

The per capita emissions in the EU at 5.5 tonnes is more than three times India’s – and tellingly less than half of the US.

The World Population Review using European Union data ranks India 110th for per capita greenhouse gas emissions placing it in the lower half of the rankings with many struggling nations of the Global South.

And China labelled the worst polluter ranks 28th.

The US gets a reprieve in the Review’s rankings coming in at 13th behind many of the big energy producers.

(The attempts at absoluteness in the ranking games sometimes can be absurd: The Review ranks the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, a chain of about 340 islands with a total population of about 18,000, No. 1 in per capita terms because each person there puts out 55.29 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission. Eight of the following spots are taken by the Gulf countries, with Trinidad and Tobago, a producer of gas and oil thrown in.)

Even cutting down the per capita consumption in the US to the level of Germany at 7.3 tonnes – an industrialised country where the people have a comfortable life – would make a huge difference in fighting climate change.

That would require lifestyle changes on a great order of magnitude that the US will not accept.

That was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice at his news conference in June with Biden: Adopting “Mission LiFE”.

“When I say ‘LiFE,’ I mean ‘Lifestyle for the Environment’”, he said. “Therefore, every individual must live his life in a pro-environment, pro-development way. And we are working towards this”.

For example, the world requires cutting back on beef – according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s data for 2010 cited by the World Resources Institute beef production accounted for 3 million kilotonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ironically, many in the Western media and sections of activists and politicians attack India for the ban on beef in most states.

Or take transportation, which would have to be radically transformed.

When petrol prices shot up fuelling politically dicey domestic discontent, Biden approved more drilling for oil in Alaska and offshore oil drilling leases.

Biden called climate change” the existential threat to humanity”.Yet he and Kerry travel on gas-guzzling private aircraft.

Biden flies from the Washington area in the Boeing 747 Air Force 1 for weekends at his home in Delaware, 130 km by air when a road trip with far less emissions would be only 200 km.

In contrast, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres does not have a “UN Peacekeeping 1”, and travels by commercial aircraft as he did to India in September and to Nepal last month.

Biden’s citizens are unlikely to give up on flying or travelling long distances by car for relaxation and he’s not going to do anything drastic to force them to.

When The New York Times recently ran an article on the airport building boom in India, some writers in the comments section self-righteously scolded India for harming the environment by expanding air travel, yet every day 2.9 million air passengers are recorded – a little less than 1 per cent of its population.

Cutting down on electricity consumption, for example, by controlling climate control, would be another lifestyle challenge.

India is criticised for using 620 million tonnes of coal for electricity generation, but the US is not too far behind consuming 432 million tonnes for producing electricity.

All this is not to say that India does not have to do anything and can continue to emit greenhouse gases or increase them.

Increasing emissions is essential for pulling millions more out of poverty and developing the nation. Biden has also conceded that his country developed into a wealthy superpower on the back of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have caused damage in the United States the way we developed over the last 300 years”, he said with Modi at his side in June.

India will continue to increase emissions as required for development – building schools, medical centres or even latrines which will increase the output of greenhouse gases.

But it can also bring in efficiency, for example, switching to less polluting technologies to reduce emissions, but also adopting green infrastructure on a massive scale while reaching new heights of development.

It can reap the late-mover advantage benefits when building or expanding infrastructure, especially in energy, by taking advantage of the latest technologies at the start.

That happened with telephones: The industrialised nations built massive networks of wires to provide phones for most of its people, but India mostly skipped that by using wireless technology to service 1.2 billion mobile phones.

That leap can be replicated in many areas, from aviation to agriculture.


(The author is a Nonresident Fellow, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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