Is India doing enough to combat climate change?

In the run-up to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September, in a discussion moderated byG. Ananthakrishnan, T. Jayaraman and Navroz Dubash talk about the fairness of the global climate regime, and what India could do to green its growth. Edited excerpts:

How serious is climate change as an issue today?

T. Jayaraman:Climate change is certainly 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 local. And in many ways, it is arguably the most immediate. But there is also a substantial section of the world that does not see it in the same terms. That is perhaps one of the most serious aspects of dealing with this problem.

Navroz Dubash:I think climate change has been with us for 25 years at least. At one level, for many people climate change has become an existential 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, it is a distant problem that is overwhelmed by more immediate issues. But this ignores the linkage between current issues and climate change. We don’t have the option in India of thinking about anything that is innocent of climate change any more.

Global warming has touched about 1°C above pre-industrial levels. India is not responsible for the stock of CO2in the atmosphere, but can it afford to wait for developed countries to make their move or should it aggressively pursue its own measures?

TJ:I don’t think there is an either/or about this. We must recognise climate change as a global collective action problem. If one country cuts its emissions to the bone, that is going to be of little use if the others do not follow suit. That country will suffer the consequences of climate change despite the extent of its sacrifice. Equally, waiting for others to do something and not doing something oneself is also not an option, especially in terms of adaptation.

If India does more mitigation, that doesn’t reduce the risk in India. It is not a local exchange. We have to have good intent, show it in action, but on the other hand, we must do far more than we are doing today to call the developed countries to account. They are nowhere near meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) targets. And some countries we don’t even have on board, like the U.S. We need to move climate change to the top of our foreign policy agenda. This is a critical move we need to make.

ND:I agree that the performance of the developed world has been very poor compared to their capacities, wealth and promises.

The extent to which we have to turn around globally 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 for countries like India. So where does that leave India? It is a 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 that will bring development gains and also lead to mitigation benefits. For example, how we design our cities: we want more sustainable cities, cities with less congestion and with more public transport because we want cities that are more liveable. Those kinds of cities will also be low carbon cities. Two, 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.

In its Paris Agreement commitments, India had pledged to reduce its intensity of GDP emissions by 33-35% over 2005 levels by 2030, and at Copenhagen, by 20-25% by 2020. Are we in sync with what is needed from us? With the goal of keeping temperature rise to 2ºC or below 2ºC or 1.5ºC, how does India’s NDC fit in?

TJ: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? 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 do we need to hedge? 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 special session on climate, 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.

ND: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 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.

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

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. 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.

If you look at the manifestos of the two national parties, climate change 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 in that debate much more vigorously.

TJ: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. India still has huge development deficits. Unfortunately, the intersection between erasing development deficits and genuine adaptation has been 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. At the same time, a whole new diversionary argument is emerging. There is this recent paper from the U.S. that has appeared saying that India lost 31% of its potential GDP growth due to global warming between the 1960s and 2011. I don’t buy that. Without accounting most importantly for institutions, if you simply examine temperature and GDP, you will get all kinds of correlations. What we really need to invest in is our conceptual agenda. 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, arguing that electric mobility is cheaper really does not fly. Electric mobility is actually more expensive, in immediate terms, in terms of cost per vehicle kilometre.

ND:I agree that the entry point for this conversation should be the development deficits. For example, to say that we need to 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, more accessible public transport.

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

ND: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 them is enlightened self-interest. Where the global role is going to be important is in technological cooperation, in spill-over effects. One of the big success stories is the fall in renewable energy prices, driven by Germany’s domestic programme that supported global prices for renewables.

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.

TJ:All that we do domestically should be framed in the context of development deficits. 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? If we do something that is concrete, we will see the nexus between agricultural productivity and climate and climate variability, and learn something for the future.

My great disappointment is with the Indian private sector. 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, they still have to measure up. I think part of the reason for our not-so-coherent engagement with the international process is perhaps that we are not defining our own local priorities as clearly as we could and should have.

Everybody says electric mobility is a good thing. But what that does is to make the users of public transport pay for the well-being of the people still driving cars.