Why India must up the stakes in Paris

While India should not hesitate to defend its interests at the climate negotiations, it should be careful to not paint itself into a corner.

Updated - November 30, 2015 09:16 am IST

Published - November 30, 2015 12:22 am IST

The Paris climate negotiations are a pivotal moment for global climate policy and carry huge implications for India’s developmental future. The Paris outcome could affect the extent to which India faces dangerous impacts from climate change, which will magnify its development challenges. But it could also impact whether India faces undue global pressure to prematurely cap its emissions or limit its use of fossil fuels for development. Put differently, India faces the challenge of ensuring dual and seemingly contradictory objectives coming out of Paris. It has to make sure that the global community takes serious action against climate change. But it also has to make sure that the mechanisms built at Paris to do so are consistent with principles of equity, allow India to contribute in a manner consistent with its development needs, and do not burden the country prematurely.

Navroz K. Dubash and Lavanya Rajamani

Substantive and political objectives How does India achieve both substantive and political objectives coming out of Paris? In brief, India needs to argue for a more, not less, effective agreement in Paris. This must strengthen obligations for all and promote equity. The agreement must also operationalise the oft-cited principle of common, but differentiated, responsibility that tailors the obligations of countries to their responsibilities and capabilities. There are several components to this strategy. First, India needs to join the gathering consensus that the 2015 agreement will take the form of a legally binding treaty. A treaty signals the highest expression of political will, generates accountability and predictability in implementation, and typically survives national political changes. A treaty, however, does not necessarily imply that each country’s carbon-cutting pledge will lend them to enforcement; this depends on the nature of the commitment (procedural or substantive, obligation of effort or result) and the precise language used. Instead, the agreement will commit countries to a process for the future. To address its concerns about safeguarding development options within a legally binding treaty, India can and should negotiate for flexibility, procedural obligations and obligations of effort for itself.

Second, the Paris agreement will likely be a hybrid one containing ‘bottom-up’ elements comprising nationally determined contributions to climate action (mitigation, adaptation, and supportive actions such as finance), and some ‘top-down’ elements such as how these contributions are reviewed and updated. India needs to argue for a more, not less, effective review and update process. A process that includes regular, five-year updates based on a global aggregate stocktaking of country contributions is in India’s interest as a highly vulnerable country. This stocktaking process should include consideration, albeit in principle, of equity and fairness in the assessment of aggregate progress towards the objective of the agreement — in particular, its temperature goal. It should also include consideration of the implementation not just of mitigation but also of financial and other support obligations. If India were to put its weight behind such a robust review and update process, it would open the door to a broad range of useful alliances with other vulnerable nations, such as the Small Island States and African countries. A progressive stance on the review, update and stocktaking process, given its crucial relevance to the effectiveness of the Paris agreement, should be a key component of India’s position.

Third, India needs a complementary but nuanced approach to ensure that such a review, update and stocktaking process maintains pressure on industrialised countries with much higher levels of total cumulative emissions over time, and far higher per capita emissions, and is not used to pressure India. The latter is a real concern — our review of existing studies suggests that even with India’s ambitious renewable energy targets, coal-fired electricity will provide the majority of our electric power at least through 2030. The principle of common but differentiated responsibility, and the differentiation that flows from it, will need to be thoughtfully articulated and operationalised to ensure that India has the necessary carbon space to develop. Although the template provided by the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol for differentiated responsibility has served India well thus far, given the fundamentally different conceptual architecture of the 2015 agreement and the realpolitik, a more tailored approach to differentiation is now necessary.

A tailored approach to differentiation This tailored approach to differentiation will need to build on the notion of ‘self-differentiation,’ in which countries implicitly place themselves along a spectrum of actions through their climate pledges. Such an approach can be accomplished through a mix of implicit and explicit signals to guide the self-differentiation process. For example, India could use a key idea at Paris — the ‘progression principle’ that each country moves over time to ever more ambitious pledges — to argue that progression should be based on current starting points which reflect developed and developing countries’ differences. We could also call for the idea of progression to apply not only to mitigation but also to obligations related to support (finance and technology), as this will ensure that developing countries have increasing levels of support as they take on more ambitious efforts. Other aspects may need to be more explicitly addressed. In mitigation, for example, it would be useful if the agreement were to explicitly articulate the notion of developed country leadership, and that developing countries such as India will approach the climate challenge within the context of sustainable development. Such provisions will provide India the necessary reference points to appropriately safeguard development interests. And when located in the context of the progression principle, this helps meet the political objective of sending a signal that India supports an effective climate agreement.

At the core of this approach is the idea that India seeks an ambitious and effective Paris agreement, but one founded on every country leveraging up its pledges and actions in a manner that recognises different starting points and responsibilities. The alternative is to play for a weak agreement, one that is unlikely to place pressure on India, but will let developed countries off the hook as well. This leveraging downward is to be avoided; it is likely to expose India to enhanced climate risk, and make us vulnerable to the charge that we are unsupportive of the process.

Implementing this strategy of leveraging up will be a challenge, requiring going beyond rote recitation of the ideas and text from an earlier era. Instead, it will take detailed and clever textual negotiation using concepts such as progression, and careful alliance building with those who support an effective and equitable climate agreement. India’s climate diplomacy must rise to the challenge of protecting its interests in a manner suited to the emerging political and negotiating context.

(Navroz K. Dubash and Lavanya Rajamani are with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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