Getting the climate story right

TRANSFORMING: “India’s emissions are a third of the global average but this will rapidly grow.” Picture shows traffic in Mumbai.  

In what has been a marathon year for climate talks, negotiators have been meeting for the last two weeks to prepare a ‘2015 Agreement’ to be signed at the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. But, in some ways, the international talks are the sideshow. In this round of negotiations, the focus lies on what each country places on the negotiating table in Paris as its national ‘contribution’ to addressing climate change. India has been correctly arguing that contributions should include measures to adapt to climate change and the provision of finance and technology to developing countries, but what will most closely be watched are efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

Contribution and justification

For each country to self-determine its national contribution is a curious approach. Currently, there is no international benchmark of what counts as sufficient climate action. Even if there was such a benchmark, whether country contributions will be reviewed at the international level is an open question, and the subject of heated negotiation. The obvious incentive then, for any country, is to place a limited and costless proposal on the table. There are two counter pressures: from strong domestic constituencies for aggressive climate action; and, more salient for India, international pressure through naming and shaming.

But without an agreed benchmark of adequate action, on what basis would naming and shaming occur? The answer is that each country not only puts out a contribution, but also justifies it. In other words, equally important will be the story of why a country’s contribution is adequate, ambitious and fair.

Other countries have been on this storytelling exercise for some time. The European Union has pledged at least 40 per cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, which it states is a substantial step up from its 2020 targets. The U.S. contribution appears far more modest — a reduction of 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025, and is justified by invoking the political risks the U.S. President took to push this action through in the face of opposition pressure. China has provided hints of its contribution, and is expected to announce it this month: it will peak emissions by 2030 at an unstated level. This seemingly weak statement is buttressed not only by Chinese arguments but by the likes of noted economist Lord Stern, who has declared that China will under-promise but over-deliver, because of domestic compulsions around its local environmental issues.

So, what story should India tell? It is in India’s interest to signal serious intent, both because it wishes to project itself as a responsible global actor and because, as a nation that is deeply vulnerable to climate impacts, an effective global climate agreement is firmly in its own interest. Fortunately, the ingredients for a convincing and substantive narrative are available.

The first element is an old story with a new twist: India is a rapidly growing economy, starting from a low economic base. Its per capita emissions are a third of the global average, and between a quarter and a sixth of those of other emerging economies; it needs carbon headroom to grow. But the twist is that because it is a rapidly transforming society and economy, it is near impossible to predict future emissions commensurate with its needs. India is in the early stage of three transformations: a demographic transition for which its needs to create jobs; a shift from a rural to an at least half-urban society; and vastly expanded infrastructure to support both transitions. None of these factors are true to the same extent in other emerging economies. Successfully negotiating all of these transformations requires energy, which, at least at the moment, means uncertain but higher future carbon emissions.

Given these factors, it would be foolhardy to place a cap on India’s carbon headroom. This point is validated by recent analyses from the Centre for Policy Research. The report found that seven recent Indian energy and climate models predict anywhere from a doubling to a tripling of India’s carbon dioxide emissions from now until 2030. While there may be some technical scope to narrow this range, there is a residual uncertainty about the future that leads to such a wide band. Thus, spelling out a peaking year or putting a firm number to future absolute emission levels would be irresponsible.

A three-step package

However, India will need to provide some pledges as an upgrade on its Copenhagen pledge, which was to reduce the economy’s carbon intensity 20-25 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. While intensity numbers are also hard to predict because they involve computing future carbon emissions and GDP growth, adding 10-15 per cent reduction in intensity by 2030 is a likely safe statement. But this is, at most, a relatively conservative starting point, as it is intended to be.

The second step, therefore, is to demonstrate how, despite these circumstances, India is willing to go much further and put on the table a more substantial contribution to global mitigation action. The key argument is that for a rapidly transforming economy like India, early and certain actions that ‘bend the curve’ of emissions downward, so that emissions increase at a slower rate, are a far more valuable climate contribution than uncertain future actions. In other words, India’s main contribution could be to avoid locking the economy into a high emissions path. However, to be consistent with its priority on sustainable development, and as a country with limited historical responsibility for climate change, India should amplify its stated ‘co-benefits’ approach to climate change: pursuing actions that achieve sustainable development while contributing to mitigation. This is a powerful idea. Our research shows that in areas such as local environmental control and enhancing energy security, there are strong complementarities with limiting carbon.

Third, this vision has to be given concrete shape through specific immediate actions that would, in fact, bend the emissions curve. To develop these actions requires careful sector-by-sector assessment of the scope for co-benefits. Here, too, India has a strong track record, particularly in areas such as energy efficiency, where several policy, legal, and institutional changes have reshaped investment incentives toward greater energy efficiency. In areas such as renewable energy, too, the emphasis should be on immediate changes, such as those under consideration in the amendment of the Electricity Act, 2003, rather than on long-term, uncertain and aspirational targets. India’s intended contribution should include actions already taken and actions under consideration in these sectors and others such as public transport, freight, and buildings.

Together, this three-step package provides a compelling story for Indian action that is both a strong contribution to the global effort, and rightly emphasises the country’s development needs. In 2015, the climate game is not just about numbers but also about the story. If India doesn’t frame the benchmarks by which it wishes to be judged, others will do it, and to its detriment.

(Navroz K. Dubash, Radhika Khosla and K. Rahul Sharma are senior fellow, fellow, and senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Research.)

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Printable version | Jul 20, 2021 3:19:58 PM |

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