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Where do China, India and Brazil stand on climate pledges?


World leaders are gathering in Scotland for the next two weeks. And for the 26th time, they will try to chart a course on climate change and the fate of the planet. It's the U.N. Climate Summit. Scientists say to avoid catastrophe, countries need to set much more aggressive goals for limiting carbon emissions. And we're going to talk now with our correspondents in three different countries that are major emitters about what's happening in China, India and Brazil. Emily Feng is in Beijing. Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai. And Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro.

Good to have all three of you here.




SHAPIRO: So to set the scene, 20 countries produce 80% of the world's carbon. So while everyone has a role to play, some countries have much bigger roles than others. And China is at the top of the list the world's No. 1 carbon emitter. So, Emily, what kind of commitment has China made going into this summit?

FENG: It has been hedging. It just released its pledges for COP26, and it's pretty much just a summary of its past pledges, which has really disappointed environmental advocates who were hoping China would come and make a big new commitment at Glasgow. Instead, China is sticking to its previously announced goals. It's going to hopefully reach peak emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060, which is ambitious. But analysts were hoping that China would be even more ambitious, that it could maybe even reach peak emissions by, say, 2025.

SHAPIRO: China is getting hit by climate change even now. Why wouldn't they be more ambitious in their goals?

FENG: Because its economy is slowing down. So Beijing does not want to make daring new commitments which could cost more money.

SHAPIRO: Well, India is the third-biggest emitter of carbon, and this is a country of more than a billion people, where many don't own cars or refrigerators or air conditioners. So, Lauren Frayer, how is India hoping to improve the standard of living for its people while also shrinking its carbon footprint?

FRAYER: Yeah, so that's just a really tough question. India is modernizing really fast. So every year, tens of millions of people here are buying their first cars, their first refrigerators, their first AC units. And they're emerging from poverty, and that's great. That's a success story. Per capita energy consumption here in India is still a fraction of what it is in the U.S., but it's skyrocketing, and energy demand in India is growing faster than any other country in the world. And so carbon emissions are going up, too, driven primarily by coal.

So India doesn't have a lot of oil and gas of its own, but it does have coal reserves, and so it relies on coal for 70% of its electricity. India is building solar and wind farms, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also opening up new areas of land to coal mining because, basically, India needs all the energy it can get. And so that's why we probably will not hear Modi swearing off coal altogether in Glasgow despite, you know, a lot of peer pressure from other global leaders to do so.

SHAPIRO: So another country that is not being as ambitious as scientists say is necessary. And then let's look at Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is a major issue, and destruction of the rainforest is speeding up. That's a big, big problem since trees absorb carbon. Phil, what kind of commitment is Jair Bolsonaro making on climate change?

REEVES: Well, so far, nothing new. Brazil hasn't yet updated its pledge from 2015. In fact, it recently watered it down, much to the disgust of environmentalists. Experts here reckon Brazil might announce that it's bringing forward target dates for reducing deforestation. But Brazil goes into this summit with very low credibility. And there'll be questions over whether it will keep its promises. The government's mounting a big PR campaign advertising various green projects, but this does not disguise the fact that Amazon deforestation has surged on Bolsonaro's watch, and he's enabled that.

SHAPIRO: Why wouldn't Brazil be more ambitious, be more aggressive?

REEVES: Well, it's partly to do with politics. Bolsonaro is a far-right populist. He's repeatedly said Brazil isn't going to be told by outsiders how to manage its rainforest. And that view's shared by many in his support base, some of them cattle farmers whose activities are a big part of the problem. So Bolsonaro has weakened government environmental enforcement agencies since coming into power. Last month, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit the highest monthly level in a decade. An area the size of this city where I am now, Rio, was lost. However, Bolsonaro is under a lot of pressure over this, especially from big business interests worried that this damages exports. And they're pushing for a change. So Brazil's public message in Glasgow will likely be one of cooperation.

SHAPIRO: OK, so there is this divide between the kind of PR push and the actual policies. And recently, there was a document leak where officials from India were seen lobbying to continue using coal. This was not supposed to have been made public. Lauren, do you get the sense that countries agree that the problem is as serious as scientists say it is?

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, it - climate change denialism is not an issue here. I mean, just look out the window. Climate change is messing with the monsoon rains. That has huge consequences for the food supply here in India. Extreme heat is already hurting Indian productivity. Mumbai, where I'm sitting right now, like, may literally be underwater in decades, so there is no climate change denial here. But, you know, I went to a coal depot last week. Workers were in abysmal conditions. India has the world's worst air pollution. These workers would love a clean energy job, but coal remains cheaper in India than renewables are. And poor countries like India are price-sensitive.

SHAPIRO: Let me bring in the U.S. role here because the United States was the top carbon emitter for the 20th century. And so from where you sit in China, India and Brazil, do you get a sense that other countries feel they should have a chance to do what the U.S. did before pivoting to a zero-carbon future, even if scientists say, you've got to make the pivot now?

FRAYER: Yeah. So in India, there is a perception that the West wants to deny India and other low- and middle-income countries the right to develop quickly. But actually, India might be able to develop more sustainably than the U.S. did. I mean, Indians went, for example, from no phones to cell phones - so skipped the landlines. And it's something that economists call leapfrogging. So theoretically, Indians could go from no car to an electric car. India's not asking for decades to run, you know, gas-guzzling cars. They're just asking for a bit more time to make this incredible transition for nearly 1.4 billion people.

SHAPIRO: What about China, Emily?

FENG: China is struggling with a really complicated situation because it's one of the biggest carbon emitters because it manufactures so much of the world's goods. And that has not changed during a global coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, there has been building pressure domestically, not just internationally, on China to clean up its act. Its own citizens want cleaner soil and safer food. And so the sense here in China is China needs to do more. But it also might need to take even more initiative internationally because it can't count on countries like the U.S. anymore to do more in terms of carbon emissions because of the political gridlock in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: And Brazil?

REEVES: Well, you do hear that argument Lauren just mentioned in India, you know, that you in the West got rich by exploiting your forests, and now you're trying to stop us doing the same. You particularly hear that on the right. But, you know, despite Bolsonaro's dismal environmental record, I think key institutions in Brazil understand that the world has changed. Also, you know, Brazilians are actually suffering firsthand from climate change. We have the worst drought in nearly a century here and an energy crisis because hydropower reservoirs are at very low levels. So Brazil's position ahead of the summit might be partly to do just with negotiation tactics. After all, it's pushing for international funding to support emissions reductions, which were promised in the past but far from fully delivered.

SHAPIRO: That's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro, Emily Feng in Beijing and Lauren Frayer in Mumbai.

Thanks to all three of you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

FENG: Thanks, Ari.

FRAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.