India’s climate future at stake

Updated - October 14, 2016 04:46 pm IST

Published - September 29, 2016 12:04 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses world leaders at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris. File photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses world leaders at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris. File photo

The announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kozhikode that India will now ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change as early as October 2 must surely occasion widespread surprise in India’s polity. The haste is particularly strange considering that the European Union and a number of other developed nations have not yet ratified the agreement.

A sudden U-turn

Less than three weeks earlier, Arvind Panagariya, NITI Aayog vice-chairman and the Prime Minister’s sherpa at the G20 summit in China, had indicated in a post-summit briefing on September 5 that India had resolutely opposed any reference in the final communiqué to a definite timeline of ratification of the agreement. The ostensible reason was that while India planned to ratify the agreement at the earliest, it also needed time because “we were not ready yet in terms of domestic actions that are required for us to ratify or at least commit to ratify within 2016”. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar was even more explicit in his press briefing on June 7 at the release of the joint communiqué of U.S. President Barack Obama and Mr. Modi in Washington. He emphasised, “We have to look at a range of issues, some of them are regulatory, and some of them are possibly legal. The concerned Ministries are examining that.”

Following such statements little has been done to inform Parliament, civil society or the people at large what these detailed considerations were that the government considered so relevant. As long as ratification was awaited, one could have hoped that a process of consultation would be initiated. But the abrupt volte-face by the government clearly needs some serious explanation. The suggestions made to an international audience that fulfilling India’s commitments based on its current Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) would require matching domestic legislation or changes in regulatory mechanisms clearly demand that the government at the Centre make clear domestically the implications for development that these commitments would have. It is also worth bearing in mind that developmental needs and people’s aspirations are not the sole concern or prerogative of the Central government — a substantial part of it is also borne by State governments and local self-government authorities in urban and rural areas. At the very least this would appear to call for widespread consultations and taking on board all, even if the constitutional prerogative for treaty-making rests with the Centre.

Need for an INDC relook

There can be little doubt that India will have to eventually ratify the Paris Agreement. But it is not bound to convert all of the INDCs that it has submitted to the final Nationally Determined Contributions that would be written into the treaty. This in fact provides India considerable room following Paris for a deeper look away from the pressures during the run-up to the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21). However, there is little or no evidence that the government plans any such reconsideration. That such a reconsideration is merited is clear from the emerging consensus among climate scientists that the 1.5°C “aspirational” target is well-nigh unachievable while even 2°C will be very difficult. Such goals can therefore only be achieved by turning the pressure on countries like India, since it is we (and several other smaller developing countries) who have yet to build for the future and erase our development deficits, and it is we who will need the flexibility of continued greenhouse gas to achieve these goals. Such a heavy burden is not faced by developed countries and China while at the same time the latter has safeguarded emissions linked to its current energy and industrial infrastructure. There is time therefore for India to reconsider what part of its INDCs to retain and whether to hedge India’s future by declaring a long-term budget for India’s cumulative emissions (or any other measure serving the same end). The latter would serve to safeguard against attempts to make India, as a result of accepting these temperature goals through ratification, bear the brunt of the burden of achieving them. However, instead of attending to this issue, the government has been keener to link the ratification of the Paris Agreement to membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). After the Seoul meeting of the NSG, India had stated that it had hoped for membership of the NSG to take forward the process of ratifying the agreement. The ham-handed attempt to leverage NSG membership using the ratification issue has not worked and the clarification by the United States, after Mr. Modi’s announcement, that there is no such linkage suggests that Washington had called Delhi’s bluff. Linking the ratification to the difficulties of NSG membership, arising as much from our strategic nuclear obsessions as from our need for energy, points to a deplorable lack of perspective in judging the long-term priorities for the Indian people.

India’s climate policy has been constantly hobbled by this and other strategic concerns, whatever the dispensation in New Delhi. Successive governments have all along declined to step forward with a proactive policy to protect India’s critical long-term interests. The honeymoon of the Kyoto Protocol, with emission targets only for developed nations, and seen by Delhi as the model for a long-term agreement, was obviously too good to last. Subsequently India’s policy has always been too little, too late, and at Paris, the Modi government only carried forward the accumulated legacy of the past in climate policy, without a new and sustainable approach at the critical juncture. One may even argue that at Paris the government was more sinned against than sinning. But its careless and compromising handling of the post-Paris scenario has taken away that indulgence, and handling that has resulted in pushing India to the point of seriously foreclosing its options within the emerging global climate policy regime.

T. Jayaraman is a Professor at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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