By Alister Doyle and Tommy Wilkes
PARIS/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's hardline position in global climate talks has made it a potential villain for Western nations as it warns that its greenhouse emissions, mostly from burning dirty coal, may keep rising past the middle of the century.
Its little-known team came to Paris with a mission to force rich nations to lead the way in curbing emissions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the summit that "climate justice" meant poor nations needed "room to grow".
Such positions may have prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to say that India would be a "challenge" to deal with in Paris but, in the corridors of the U.N. climate summit, it is winning the support of other developing nations.
These see India - already the number three greenhouse emitter behind China and the United States, and likely to be number two by 2040 - as the main champion of the rights of the global poor to burn more energy to grow.
Others, too, concede it is a just cause for India - far poorer than China and with 300 million of its 1.25 billion people lacking access to electricity - and do not see signs of intransigence that could scupper a deal.
Jennifer Morgan, of the independent U.S.-based World Resources Institute, said the idea of India as a spoiler was "a storm in a teacup". "In the meeting rooms, India is defending its interests, and proposing solutions," she said.
And a source at the French presidency said India was contributing constructively, "not standing on the sidelines and just watching".
In Paris, almost 200 governments are seeking an agreement that will bind both rich and poor to limit greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 to try to stave off the worst effects of global warming on the Earth's climate.
At the last, failed summit in Copenhagen six years ago, India stood with China in demanding more action by the rich. But Beijing, buoyed by strong economic growth since 2009, now works more closely with the United States, leaving New Delhi as the standard-bearer.
India is in some ways a more fitting champion for the poor.
Its carbon emissions were just 1.7 tonnes per capita in 2011, according to World Bank data, level with countries such as Belize or Armenia, far below China's 6.7 tonnes and just a 10th of those of the United States.
"It's fair for India to try to protect the hundreds of millions of poor people in India," said Pa Ousman Jarju, Environment and Climate Minister of Gambia.
Still, India is opening a coal mine a month and is set to double output by 2020, putting it at the forefront of a pan-Asian dash to burn more of the most polluting fossil fuel, which also happens to its most affordable and abundant.
This means that, although it is promoting solar power and other renewables, India's overall emissions will soar.
Ajay Mathur, Director General of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency and a senior member of the Indian delegation in Paris, said India's greenhouse gas emissions may grow until 2050, unless new technologies are developed.
"Projections ... that go out until 2050 are still showing an increase," he said.
While China has pledged that its emissions will peak no later than 2030, India's national plan promises only to slow the rise relative to its economic growth by then.
India's carbon dioxide emissions grew by almost 8 percent last year, according to the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, making it the biggest contributor to global emissions growth of 0.5 percent.
By 2040, they could roughly double, according to projections by U.S. scientists at Climate Interactive, overtaking the United States.
But India's tough position is popular at home. When Kerry made his comment to the Financial Times last month, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar angrily shot back that he was "not doing justice to India".
"Sometimes the India team does get preoccupied by having to fend off all these attacks. But they will not buckle under finger pointing from a small group of Western countries," Shyam Saran, India's chief negotiator at the 2009 Copenhagen talks, told Reuters.
This time round, Ravi Shankar Prasad, a low-profile mid-level official in the environment ministry, has led the negotiating team but, unlike some of his counterparts, he has avoided the limelight.
"No one man is in charge. It’s a negotiating team," said Saran.
Some delegates say India picked a fight in Paris by dismissing a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that suggested rich nations were on track to deliver a promised $100 billion a year in finance by 2020.
India said the numbers were riddled with double counting, and that it could only clearly identify a mere $2.2 billion.
But many developing nations are backing India's stance. "They are doing it for all of us," said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.
India can also argue that it is doing its bit to promote renewable energy.
Prime Minister Modi and French President Francois Hollande on Monday unveiled an alliance of over 100 nations that seeks to mobilize more than a trillion dollars by 2030 to harness the abundant solar power in the tropics.
(The story is refiled to remove repetitive paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Bate Felix and Barbara Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)