Parley: Is India doing enough to combat climate change?

With the Paris Agreement on climate change set to become operational in 2020, what developmental pathways can India pursue to align its social objectives and energy needs with its commitments made under the UN pact?

In the run-up to the UN Climate Action Summit convened in New York during September to boost ambition and accelerate actions, Prof. T. Jayaraman, chairperson, Centre for Science, Technology and Society at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Prof. Navroz Dubash, professor at the Centre for Policy Research and coordinator of the Initiative on Climate, Energy, and Environment discuss the fairness of the global climate regime, the new opportunities and what India could do to green its growth. The discussion was moderated by G. Ananthakrishnan.

How serious is climate change as an issue today?

Prof. T. Jayaraman: Climate change is certainly without argument the most serious global environmental crisis that we face. It is not the only environmental problem, but it is unique in its multi-scalar characteristic, from the global to the loca., And, in many ways, it is arguably the most immediate.

Maybe, I would just add, that this would be the assessment shared by many sections of society across the world. But there is also a substantial section of the world, of global society, that does not see it in the same terms. That constitutes perhaps one of the most serious aspects of dealing with this problem.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: I think Climate Change has been with us for 25 years at least getting on to 30 years counting from 1993 or before that. It is a curious problem, and it is hard to understand how to discuss it. At one level, for many people climate change has become an existential problem, a problem that risks undermining the conditions for productive life and therefore a problem that does not override but certainly permeates all kinds of other issues. For many others, climate change is a distant problem that is overwhelmed by more immediate issues.

But this ignores the linkage between current issues and climate change. In India, for instance, if you think about farmer distress it is likely to be made much worse by climate change, if we think about challenges of water it is made much worse by climate changing.

We don’t have the option here in India of thinking about anything that is innocent of climate change anymore.

Global warming above pre-industrial levels has touched about 1 degree Celsius. India is not responsible for the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere, but are we in a position not to do anything? Can we afford to wait for developed countries to make their move or should we aggressively pursue our own measures?

Prof. T. Jayaraman: I don’t think there is an either/or on it. We must recognise climate change as a global collective action problem. If one country is honourable in the extreme, and cuts its emissions to the bone, that is going to be of little use if the others do not follow suit. They will suffer the consequences of climate change despite the extent of their sacrifice or effort. Equally, at the same time waiting for others to do something and not doing something oneself, is also not an option, especially in terms of adaptation.

I don’t think the more mitigation India does doesn’t reduce the risk in India. It is not a local exchange. More mitigation, less adaptation -- in India for India. It does not work like that. We

have to have good intent, show it in action, do what it takes, but on the other hand, we must do far more than we are doing today to call the developed countries to account.

The actual performance, forget their rhetoric, is abysmal. They are nowhere near meeting their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets. This is well established. And some countries we don’t even have on board, like the United States. We need to move climate change, global warming to the top of our foreign policy agenda. This is, I think, a critical move we need to make. I think the sooner we do it, the greater is the benefit that we will draw from our own climate actions.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: I certainly agree with Prof. Jayaraman, that the performance of the developed world has been really very poor compared to their capacities and wealth and their promises. But as you also say, with the state of play we are in now, the IPCC 1.5 report basically says, at the current rates at which we are producing greenhouse gases, we are looking at a couple of decades really before what we have available is exhausted.

The extent to which globally we have to turn around is dramatic. Rapidly emerging countries are part of the story, but that does not mean countries that have already emitted a lot and have built their infrastructure shouldn’t actually be creating space, in a sense, for countries like India. So where does that leave India? It is a little bit of a dilemma. We are also one of the most vulnerable countries.

I view it in the following way. One, there are a number of things that India could do, potentially that will bring development gains and also lead to mitigation benefits. For example, how we design our cities: we want more sustainable cities, we want cities with less congestion, with more public transport because we want our cities that are more liveable. Those kinds of cities will also be low carbon cities. Just to give an example. So we need to be thinking about maximising those potentials.

The second way of thinking about this, and this is where a slight nuance on Prof. Jayaraman’s point, it is definitely the case that more mitigation in India does not mean India gets to keep those benefits. Because at the end of the day we are only 6 or 7% of global emissions. But what we are recognising is that the global carbon system is an interlocked system. So what we have to think about is the global transition to low carbon systems and there are spillover effects there, from changes in one economy to changes in another economy, changes in politics in one place to changes in politics in another place. So how we bring about the transition to a low carbon economy is important. India is a large economy, market, second largest population and it can play an important role in being part of these positive spillover effects.

In its Paris Agreement commitments, India had pledged to reduce its intensity of GDP emissions by 33-35% over 2005 levels and at Copenhagen, by 20 to 25%. Are we in sync with what is needed from us? With the goal of keeping temperature rise to 2ºC or well below 2ºC or 1.5ºC, how does India’s Nationally Determined Contribution fit in?

Prof. T. Jayaraman: The very form of your question is problematic. You can do whatever you want with your NDC. It doesn’t matter. The question is, as a developing country, in the matrix of all other NDCs, where does India fit and what are other NDCs like? That would be the starting point. It is not , should we do more? In the scheme of things as they are, what are we doing? I think within that we are doing pretty well. I think the problem for India is hedging its future, not simply what we consume now or what we expect to gain in immediate terms. What is it that we want as our long-term future and how much of it in terms of carbon space we need to hedge? This is an ongoing game, it is not a static number. It changes over time. We need to continually monitor and study. But I repeat, with our NDC, though our performance is good, we cannot respond with more commitments in our NDC until we see serious action at the international level.

In September, at the UN General Assembly, at the special session on climate that has been called, I think India should make it clear that we won’t play ball unless it is clear that it is not enough for you to talk the talk, you should also walk the walk. That is simply not going on. Look at the reaction to the children protesting in the developed world. I am not a great fan of this movement because I think it is superficial in many ways, but they are showing some public concern. And look at the reaction. We should come out against this. Indian civil society wants to hold similar meetings in India, like school children against the government. That’s not what we should be doing. Internationally, we should be telling the developed country governments, look your children are telling you something, why are you not showing action?

What more we should do in India, our developmental concerns, there is plenty going on. People are paying a lot of attention. India’s Second Biennial Update Report to the UNFCCC has a very good compendium of a wide cross section of initiatives. We are home and host to a vast variety of NGOs who take up a wide variety of initiatives.

But now, we have to go out into the world and get global action. That should be perhaps our new and additional nationally determined contribution.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: Let me reflect on this in a slightly different way.

The Paris Agreement basically said, every country, please tell us what you can feasibly do within your country. It was always therefore going to be a relatively low set of pledges, and in that context India’s is a par level of pledge, it doesn’t push the envelope very far, doesn’t do minimal stuff. So how do we know whether the pledge is ambitious or not? There’s no good way to know.

An industry of people is trying to come up with benchmarks; this effort at benchmarks of NDCs is not going to give us a single answer – the answer depends on the benchmark chosen.

The idea of the Paris Agreement is to get countries moving in the direction of travel towards a low carbon economy, with the idea being that each country will see that it is not too costly and not so hard and there are developmental benefits, which will encourage countries to go faster.

The pledges in an ideal world are setting the floor not the ceiling - countries will fulfil and hopefully exceed those pledges. And in India’s case, we will probably exceed the pledges, because for reasons like urban congestion and air pollution, we will want to move in the direction of low carbon anyway, quite apart from climate change.

Now, in terms of what the politics of it are, we can try and arm-twist the rich countries. We can continue to do that, and we should continue doing that on finances etc - they have definitely been recalcitrant, they have dropped their responsibilities. But at the end of the day, India is a deeply vulnerable country. What we have learned in the last 20 years, is that countries don’t move further because of international pressure. Certainly not the rich and industrial countries. They move further because they found ways , in their enlightened self-interest, to do so. And so the game has moved from the negotiating table to a series of discussions in country after country. What is intriguing to me is that in the time of Mr. Trump and his negative approach to climate change, you have this group of people calling for a Green New Deal in the United States. Those politics, what they will work out, that will drive what happens in the United States. We should keep up the pressure, but recognise that our voice is not what will determine what happens there.

The interesting question is within India, what is the story? We need to start taking climate change more seriously, particularly on the adaptation side, because we really have a lot to be concerned about. And on the mitigation side, I don’t think we are fully exploring the scope of the intersections between a low carbon agenda and a development agenda. I think we should be ramping this up.

If you look at the manifestos of the two national parties, climate change sort of ekes in a small mention at the end, but it is really not thought through. In my informal conversations, they are still stuck in the language of saying we still need to have a lot more fossil fuels for more growth, when that is an open question in an era when the price of solar power is coming down and the price of storage is coming down. It is not a settled debate by any means, but we need to engage that debate much more vigorously.

Prof. T. Jayaraman: With regard to NDCs, I think we are risking a great deal if we take the current numbers in India in terms of consumption, energy, as the benchmark for what we need. We continue to be a laggard in development -- India still has huge development deficits. Unfortunately, the intersection between erasing development deficits and genuine adaptation has been very poorly explored. So every time there is a drought, some go around chanting “climate change” when indeed it is regular climate variability. And we have always left our farmers at the mercy of the drought.

So I think in adaptation, our focus should be understanding what our development deficits are. Development is the first line of defence against adaptation, and the kind of adaptation that would really kick in with intensified global warming is something we have to prepare for. At the same time, a whole, new, diversionary argument is emerging. There is this recent paper that has appeared from the U.S. saying that India lost 31% of its potential GDP growth due to global warming between 1960s and 2011. I don’t buy that, even if it is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Such ideas have been floated before, notably by Prof. Jeffrey Sachs in a paper titled “Tropical Underdevelopment”, and others like Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramaniam have made it clear that this idea is simply not coherent. Without accounting most importantly for institutions, if you simply examine temperature and GDP, you will get all kinds of correlations. So this kind of idea is problematic. What we really need to invest in, first of all, is what is our conceptual agenda. What is development versus adaptation? How much mitigation do we need to do? How much is the burden?

Take electric vehicle mobility. Everybody says electric mobility is a good thing, and cheaper than conventional transport, by factoring in the cost of fossil fuels in terms of health etc., using the Disability Adjusted Life Years concept. But what that does is to make the users of public transport pay for the well being of all the people still driving cars. So this way of arguing that electric mobility is cheaper really does not fly. And electric mobility is actually more expensive, in immediate terms, in terms of cost per vehicle kilometre. We need to explore this better.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: I agree completely with Prof. Jayaraman that the entry point for this conversation should be the development deficits, which is a complicated set of questions. For example, to say that we need to improve, find a way for cleaner transportation, shouldn’t actually lead to a conclusion that it should lead to more electric vehicles – the first priority has to be improved and more accessible public transport. We need to understand these development deficits

from a multi objective point of view, in terms of economics and access, in terms of local pollutants like air pollutants, climate change and mitigation, and liveability of cities, we need this more multi-faceted and analytical framework. Too often, our policy process is solutions running in search of a problem rather than the other way around. I agree we need to be more deliberate about this. And yes, we should challenge some of these tall claims, the papers generating spectacular numbers, we don’t have to take them as gospel. But at the same time, we should not be deterred in looking at the likelihood of future impacts. The evidence is mounting that the future impact could be quite considerable. We need to internalise that in our processes. For example, we have a bunch of state climate action plans, those were a reasonable start, but nobody would claim that they were a fully credible response to the threats that India faces.

In terms of policy are we losing an opportunity to leapfrog our investments, we want to expand coal plants, we have a rising number of cars... we spoke about mobilty.

Prof. T. Jayaraman: Look at Maruti, it is exiting diesel vehicles. Why is it exiting diesel? Not because diesel is polluting but the BS VI norms for diesel are not commercially viable. So, when you use the word “we”, we have to break up this we. If you look at the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) census, where the last one collected energy data, roughly 50% of our MSMEs (among the registered ones) don’t use any source of power at all. So, if one says we are consuming too much, which “we” is one talking about?

The other half of the MSME sector, which uses power, overwhelmingly uses electricity. But a huge part of the power is actually consumed by a very few enterprises. So which ‘we’ is one talking about when we say we are investing? Vis-à-vis India’s investment in coal power, look at Japan for instance. At the time of Fukushima, they had 43 GW of thermal power, and after that they planned a 32% increase. Then there was criticism, but they are still planning a 21% increase post-Fukushima. A small country. Germany is building gas lines from Russia. So what is this “we”, “we” as in India, “we” as global society? One needs need to break this down, this discourse of “we”, to who, which part of society, where, for what purposes, for what use and what are its consequences. Then perhaps one will be able to get to grips with the problem.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: We cannot take our current level of energy consumption in any way as a benchmark of what India needs for the future. Our levels per capita are extremely low and not something compatible with the development and lifestyle that we wish for in India. So the dilemma is we want to increase energy use at a time when globally we are trying shift to a low carbon system. At the same time, there is a big challenge... providing jobs when automation and artificial intelligence are growing in power and capacity. How does India think about increasing energy, limiting carbon, providing jobs and addressing local environmental problems? Don’t forget, on a local environmental problem perspective, India is doing extremely poorly. All these rankings put us at 177th out of 180 countries and so on, look at the air pollution problem, water, plastic across the board. We shouldn’t be thinking about it narrowly as a single technology transition. We need to think about jobs, energy and pollution questions together. Do we have the answer to this, probably not.

Prof. T. Jayaraman: There is one point about the global scene. Though we might wish for a transition to a low carbon system or economy on the global scale, with the exception of China, which I don’t understand very well, the rest of the world, I think, we are only seeing a coal to gas transition. This transition is not complete. If it is not gas, it is various forms of petroleum-related energy sources. By the end of the 30s, the most we can hope for is not low carbon, but lower carbon. So in that context, for India, broadly speaking, if we expect our economy to be able to transition instead to an entirely renewables driven one, it is not going to happen. I don’t think that kind of technology exists, that kind of business opportunity does not exist. If it did, we would see other people doing it, and they are not doing it.

Some economists warn that stranded assets will be created, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone.

We need on the global scale, something that would regulate the use of fossil fuels across all economies, undertaken by each individual country. But the world is headed towards still liberalisation and deregulation. So who is going to do this regulation? A lot of moral chest-beating is taking place, but I don’t think this regulation is happening.

We must also avoid an Indian “left” version of the superpower syndrome. Instead of an economic or security superpower, some think we could or should be some kind of Gandhian moral superpower. I don’t think we should play that card when we are talking about climate and energy.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: I agree, also because the idea of India being some kind of Gandhian example to the world is simply not credible, because the state of our environment is so poor. Look around at the state of our resources, state of our air pollution, water pollution. How can we be an example to anybody else? I agree that is not the road we should follow. But what we can do is try and creatively use the fact that we are late movers, we haven’t built most of our infrastructure, we have a lot of our cities left to build, and we can build these facilities and think about our manufacturing and jobs base in ways that take account of new technologies. The new technologies might also be a threat, like automation and artificial intelligence. But we need to now build for the future taking those into account, and the state of our environmental crisis including climate change. And the fact that we have not locked into destructive patterns, is potentially an advantage.

Prof. T. Jayaraman: While I certainly appreciate Prof. Dubash’s argument about not being locked in, the flip side is that we have not built very much. So we are also so slow in building infrastructure. The Make in India programme is widely acknowledged to have delivered much less compared to its ambitions. Our innovation footprint is low, our ability to generate new technology even lower. All our deployment of renewables or the improvements in energy technologies and energy use mechanisms are entirely imported. We don’t have a manufacturing value chain behind it, except in a very few cases.

Which is why, in India, as I see it, our foremost requirement is to hedge the future. This I don’t see happening in the Paris Agreement. When you leave countries to do what they want, what they feel that they are capable of, they all turn bashful and don’t seem to be capable of very much. I think the Paris Agreement has worsened India’s problems. We have allowed the institutionalisation of a system where there is accountability of process, but no accountability of goals. Recently the [UN Climate Conference] COP24 at Katowice, put up an elaborate set of rules, for doing very little. It is a marvellous set of rules, but it doesn’t tell you that you have to do more. We need to break out of the stalemate that the Paris Agreement has delivered to us. We are party to it. But it is going to be a real challenge for us how we handle this in the near future.

What could be the feasible climate diplomacy or politics for India under the UN Framework or outside?

Prof. Navroz Dubash: I have to take a slightly different angle from Prof. Jayaraman. The climate game has now firmly moved to a series of multiple national conversations. The Paris Agreement

process is an iterative process where countries put something on the table, they try to implement it, they see if they could do it more easily than they thought, and they come back to the global level. It is a two level game but the driving force is at the national level. Countries are not going to be arm-twisted by international pressure. We can try, but what will drive it is enlightened self-interest. Where the global role is going to be important is in technological cooperation, in spillover effects. One of the big success stories is the fall in renewable energy prices, driven by Germany’s domestic programme that basically supported global prices for renewables. That kind of interactive effect across countries is what are going to see potentially as a possible game changer. Maybe we will see something similar in energy storage technologies.

India has to play a role diplomatically, but our diplomatic game has to construct a development model that takes into account all our needs, including climate change, thinks a lot about adaptation, and keeps the pressure on the West on issues like finance and technology. I think a lot of the action is going to be here in India, and we have a lot of problems we should be facing up to on our local environment that interface with the climate question.

Prof. T. Jayaraman: All that we do domestically, should be framed in the context of the development deficit. Within that context, whatever we can explore or do, we should. For instance, how do we ensure that we double the productivity of our main food crops. This is feasible, certainly other countries do far better. Why are we not focussing on this? If we do something that is concrete, we will see the nexus between agricultural productivity and climate and climate variability, and we will learn something for the future. We need to focus on specifics of this kind.

My great disappointment is with the Indian private sector. After more than 25 years of liberalisation, the world is not what it was in 1989. India is very different. But I don’t see the private sector seized of these issues. They are willing to donate, willing to tell farmers how to be sustainable, invest in such kinds of activities outside their firms. But making their own firms models of sustainability, sustainability within the plant boundary, drivers of innovation, [on this] they still have to measure up. That is something we should push for domestically. In the context of climate change, poverty eradication becomes ever more important and urgent, and simply our current rate of progress is inadequate. If we frame these national priorities more accurately and correctly, we will have a more reasonable engagement with the international process in climate change. I think part of our not-so-coherent engagement with the international process is perhaps because we are not defining our own local priorities as clearly as we could and should have.

What about addressing inequality of access to energy? Would a carbon tax on conspicuous consumption bring about equity?

Prof. T. Jayaraman: There is something which old Adam Smith noticed. A very important observation called the division of labour. There are people who produce, there are people who consume but provide services, there are people who form the link etc. Before we think of carbon purely in terms of consumption, we should also think of it in terms of production. Say, you privilege Kerala for not having so much emissions at all, and you penalise Jharkhand, Dhanbad for so much emissions. That is not exactly fair.

I think inequality in terms of consumption is not really fair. Is it consumption for production or is it consumption for personal use? The two are not the same thing. The bulk of the problem is really consumption for other production, rather than consumption for personal use. People wanting bigger buildings and individual cars is not the sole problem.

I am a little wary of the carbon tax approach beyond a point. To a limited extent, yes. I think we should also have straightforward regulation. We should go back to some extent to what is disparagingly called command-and-control, but which works. We must explore that more, rather than always looking for fiscal measures, monetary and tax measures and so on.

Could you give an example of such regulation?

Prof. T. Jayaraman: Slow down the registration of cars, do what Singapore does. It is not even a brilliant new idea. Simply physically reduce it.

Prof. Navroz Dubash: India needs to take climate change more seriously than we do, and recognise that it is a pervasive issue. There is no development that is innocent of climate change. That does not translate, however, into an uncritical acceptance of the current fashion when it comes to policy approaches. A carbon tax may be part of the mix, but we have to really resist the idea that we start with this answer rather than exploring the range of solutoins. If we are taking the approach that India has to decarbonise while meeting our development goals, what is important is that the way in which new investments go are in the direction of decarbonising, but while taking into account possible synergies and trade-offs with other development objectives. It is not clear that a carbon tax is necessarily the best way of doing that. We should be a little clever about it, not start with the solution, start with the direction that we want to travel and think about the set of instruments. We also have to keep in mind the enforcement challenge and our limited enforcement capacities. We should be investing in building institutional capacities to address this problem. For example, our pollution control boards do a very poor job of water and air regulation, if you start burdening them with some sort of carbon regulation which also takes accounts of synergies and trade-offs with development, they will collapse under the weight. A carbon tax may be useful in some dimension, I don’t think it is a silver bullet. We have just started the discussion on what portfolio of approaches and packages we need and certainly old fashioned regulation should not be a priori dismissed by any means.

Navroz Dubash is Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and coordinator of the Initiative on Climate, Energy, and Environment. T. Jayaraman is chairperson, Centre for Science, Technology and Society at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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