Addressing parliament, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said India needed to show leadership to its people and the world and even invoked the country's environment-minded independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to bolster his arguments.
Reiterating the country's rejection of binding emissions targets or a peak year by which its emissions would have to fall, he committed instead to reducing the carbon intensity of the national economy. "We will on our own cut emissions intensity by 20% to 25% if we get support from the international community," the minister told lawmakers.
Ramesh will head to Copenhagen next week and stay for the bulk of negotiations, his office said.
He explained that the cut in carbon intensity meant the creation of each unit of gross domestic product would produce 20%-25% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to a 2005 baseline. The target will be voluntary and non-binding, but the statement marks a major shift for India, which had refused to quantify its commitment to cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
"At Copenhagen, if we have a successful agreement, if we have an equitable agreement, if we are satisfied with this agreement, we are prepared to do even more," he told lawmakers.
Saleemul Huq, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), called the announcement a "welcome sign that the Indians are prepared to take action".
"Larger developing countries are now coming forward with domestic actions but they should also be prepared to take further actions and those costs need to be reimbursed," Huq said.
India was seen as under pressure to make a gesture after the world's top two polluters, China and the U.S., put numbers on the table last month. India's carbon intensity is lower than China's, the biggest emitter, which last month declared it would cut the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40% to 45% from 2005 levels.
A reduction in carbon intensity means India's and China's carbon emissions would continue to rise in the long term but at a slower pace, leading critics to label such plans "smokescreens".
Huq disagreed, saying: "Cutting carbon intensity is a good first step. Ultimately what matters is total emissions and all countries have to plan for a post fossil-fuel economy."
The United States, the world's second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, will also head to Copenhagen with an offer to cut U.S. emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and larger amounts in the future.
The December 7-18 talks in the Danish capital are aimed at forging a new pact to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and their impact after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
Ramesh said India's carbon intensity had declined by 17.6% between 1990 and 2005, and further cuts could be achieved through a host of measures, including stricter vehicle emissions targets, improved building standards and "clean coal" technology in power stations.
Coal is the source for a majority of India's electricity generation.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009