In March, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order, ostensibly promoting U.S. energy independence and economic growth, but with potential collateral damage to global efforts to limit climate change. What exactly did he authorise, what are its implications, and what does it mean for India’s strategic interests in energy and climate change?
The executive order defines America’s interest narrowly in terms of developing the country’s energy resources. It establishes a time-bound process to review several Obama-era regulatory actions that might “burden” their development, and revokes certain actions. A centrepiece is a review of the U.S. Clean Power Plan, which aims at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the American electricity sector. This was a key element in President Barack Obama’s plans to meet America’s climate pledge under the Paris Agreement.
Other actions lift a moratorium on leasing federal land for coal mining, and revisit rules to limit methane emissions. Yet another withdraws estimates of the “social cost of carbon”, an economic approach that sets a dollar value to the gains from reducing carbon, providing a basis for further regulatory action. In brief, the aim is to invigorate domestic energy production but by setting the clock back to an era before any climate-focussed regulation, thereby giving a boost to coal, oil and gas production.
From a virtuous to vicious cycle
Despite green advocates in the U.S. putting on a brave face, the cumulative effects of these actions undoubtedly have implications for the trajectory of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. They are correct in arguing that efforts to boost the coal industry are likely fruitless. Even without the Clean Power Plan, the falling price of wind and solar energy and the availability of cheap gas could signal the end of coal in the U.S. But the same cannot be said for efforts to limit methane. And the removal of the single agreed social cost of carbon as a basis for regulatory efforts hamstrings the effectiveness of other regulations. These orders set back climate mitigation efforts in the U.S. The only question is how much, and whether America’s Paris Agreement pledge is still within reach.
But the deeper significance of the order rests in the political signal it sends to the world, and the reactions it may elicit. The Paris Agreement is, at the core, a confidence game. Each country is required to submit a national ‘pledge’ to limit emissions growth, which is to be reviewed internationally, and updated and enhanced every five years. The intent is to generate a virtuous cycle of enhanced actions over time, as countries gain confidence in each other’s commitment to climate action.
Mr. Trump’s order risks turning a fragile global virtuous cycle into a vicious one; with global confidence punctured, other countries may follow the U.S. lead and dilute their national actions too. While the order is silent on America’s formal commitment to the Paris Agreement for now, an explicit announcement on this is expected in May, when the G7 leaders are scheduled to meet. A formal withdrawal, though complex and time-consuming, could further dent appetite for collective action.
For veteran climate watchers, what makes this order particularly galling is that the Paris Agreement was, in substantial measure, written to accommodate the U.S. and enable its participation. And this is not the first time the U.S. has pulled the rug out from under the global community. In the mid-1990s, it notably walked away from the Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed countries to take the lead. With this order, as a senior U.S. government official put it: “The U.S. is going to pursue its interests as it sees fit” based on “an America First energy policy.”
Implications for India
In this context, what are India’s interests, and how best can it pursue them? It is certainly the case that the developed world has consistently taken on less leadership than it should have, and the global climate regime could be better moored in principles of equity in addressing climate change. It would be tempting to conclude that India could use the U.S. retreat to stage one of its own, go slow on its own obligations, and adopt an approach of benign neglect towards the Paris Agreement.
However, this would be flawed and incomplete thinking. India’s interests are best served by buttressing the Paris Agreement, using its mechanisms to hold to account the developed world, and maintaining its own pledges.
India has a lot to gain from a virtuous cycle because it is extremely vulnerable to climate impacts. While the ability of the Paris Agreement to slow warming may be more modest than is ideal, it will certainly have more effect than no agreement at all.
Moreover, India has little to gain from going slow on implementing its own pledge. India’s greenhouse gas limitation pledge is appropriately cautious and, in key areas such as renewable energy promotion, existing domestic policy targets are more ambitious than India’s Paris pledge. Its approach is based on accelerating a transition to renewable energy, which would bring gains in terms of energy security and air pollution. But in doing so, India importantly retains the right to meet its energy access needs and energy for development through fossil fuel use, particularly coal, if needed. The Paris Agreement does not constrain this approach, which is based on Indian interests.
Should the Paris Agreement unravel, there will almost certainly be a push to re-negotiate a new agreement when political conditions in the U.S. change. At that time, developed country emissions will be lower, India’s emissions will likely be rising faster than any other country, and it will have considerably more pressure to take on more ambitious pledges that could, in fact, risk constraining its energy choices.
Could India’s stance actually make a difference to global climate outcomes in the context of U.S. recalcitrance? Unambiguously yes. India is emerging as a swing player in global climate politics. With the U.S. adopting the role of the leading naysayer, the Chinese have skilfully stepped into the role of climate champions, reaffirming their own commitment to the Paris Agreement. As a large emerging country, whose yearly emissions follow only these two nations, India has enormous leverage as a deciding factor in the future of the Paris Agreement. It should insist that Western countries maintain their obligations, including financial. Indeed, the Trump order provides an opening to enhance India’s global standing. Skilfully executed, such a climate position could even be useful in a larger foreign policy sense, serving as a soothing element in an otherwise fraught relationship with China, and signalling independent pursuit of interests to the Americans.
History will likely judge the Trump order an own goal, born of the poisoned politics that prevails in the U.S. today. It will likely hurt the interests of the U.S. in the long run because it postpones an inevitable but complex readjustment of energy systems around renewable energy, undermines confidence in the U.S. as a reliable global partner, and even revokes preparation for climate impacts meant to safeguard American citizens. Fortunately, India is in a position to think and act more clearly. It should do so by re-affirming its Paris pledge and placing its weight behind implementing the Paris Agreement.
Navroz K. Dubash is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi