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Why No Country Matters More Than India at the Paris Climate Talks

5 minute read

Negotiators from India came to international climate talks in Paris this month walking a tightrope. On the one hand, officials wanted to show that the world’s fourth-biggest carbon emitter was ready to play a constructive role in international climate negotiations. On the other hand, negotiators need to show citizens back home that addressing climate change would not detract from development goals—particularly the need to bring power to the quarter of the population that goes without it.

Now, with just hours remaining before negotiators hopes to close a deal addressing climate change, India has emerged as a key player in shaping the agreement, leaving observers to hope that it will not play the same role slowing negotiations at the last minute that other key developing countries have played in past conferences.

“The presentation is just really different from what we saw earlier,” said Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, of the country’s negotiating stance at Paris. Their message has become: “We can be flexible, we just need help getting where we want to go.”

India needs to sign onto whatever deal negotiators reach in Paris for the agreement to have legitimacy, given its importance in the global economy and its sheer size. Analysts expect the country of 1.2 billion people to continue to rise in the rankings of top emitters as its economy grows and as a greater share of its population gains access to electricity. “India is sometimes the man in the middle,” said Anjali ‪Jaiswal, director of the India Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “India’s role here at the [conference] is often bridging the many nations across the world and also bridging development with climate action.”

Read More: Feeling of Optimism at Paris Climate Talks Despite Disagreement

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly said that the country needs to address climate change, not because of pressure from Western countries but because of the potential damage warming could cause worldwide and in India especially. The country set an ambitious goal of receiving 40% of its power from renewable resources by 2030 and in recent weeks launched a solar power alliance aimed at growing solar power production in the developing world. The country also recently set a target to develop 100 GW of solar power capacity by 2022, a huge ramp up from current capacity.

Yet country’s leaders have publicly struck a hard line on many of the most divisive issues in climate policy. Modi defended a principle that developed countries should have more stringent responsibilities than their developing counterparts—a concept known as “differentiation”—and suggested that the principle should be a bedrock part of nearly every provision of the agreement. “Climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,” he said at a speech at the beginning of the Paris summit.

Part of what underlies India’s position on differentiation is the belief that the efforts taken by the country so far outweighs its contribution to climate change. (India’s per-capita carbon emissions add up to just 1.7 metric tons, 10 times less than America’s per-capita emissions.) Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister, told TIME in an interview that his country had done four times their fair share to address climate change, based on past carbon emissions, while the developed countries have done far less. “The developed world has done much less than their fair share,” said Javadekar. “Everyone must at least do what their fair share demands. Then it will be a collective action. Then it will be more robust.”

Read More: The U.S. Doubles Down on Climate Financing and Ambition at Paris

The notion that developed and developing countries should have different responsibilities has been a key principle of climate negotiations since countries first gathered in a large-scale conference to address global warming in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A gathering that year divided countries into two groupings based on their development status and required vastly different efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from each group.

But as officially “developing” nations like China grew rapidly—with accompanying carbon emissions—the U.S. and other developed countries have not asked to do away with the notion of different responsibilities entirely, but they have called for a less stringent system that takes into account economic growth and other factors that affect their capabilities. Such a system would take into account the evolving capabilities of developing countries.

India’s position has made it a key player in the effort come to an agreement, which as of Friday evening was still underway. The U.S. in particular has lobbied hard with Secretary of State John Kerry holding at least two bilateral meetings with Javadekar and Obama speaking by phone with Modi.

If recent drafts of the text are any sign, that determined wooing seems to have worked to a degree. The latest draft version of the text, which is intended to represent the consensus view of negotiating positions, includes a provision that would require countries to consider how to submit international reports on how to improve carbon emissions reductions every five years. India had previously argued that such a measure should be voluntary. Other provisions in the draft have gone in India’s favor, namely strong language surrounding a commitment by developed countries to send more than $100 billion a year to the developing world for efforts aimed at addressing climate change.

“I don’t see anything as a sticking point,” said Javadekar. “There are different views, but always different views can be converged.” On Saturday, when conference leaders reveal a new draft agreement, people around the world will be able to see for themselves.

Read More: How Climate Change Became the Central Development Issue

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Write to Justin Worland / Paris at justin.worland@time.com