US President Joe Biden has convened a virtual climate change summit later this week at which 20 top world leaders, whose economies contribute 80 per cent of the global carbon emissions, are expected to be present. At the time of writing this, it is still not clear whether President Xi Jinping of China will accept Biden’s invitation. Though his special climate envoy John Kerry recently visited China and held talks with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, no assurances were forthcoming on this point.
The US insists that climate change is a “stand-alone” issue and should be insulated from other contentious issues in US-China relations, such as the raising of human rights issues in China’s Xinjiang and Tibet. More recently, the issue of Taiwan has also surfaced as a source of tension. China has strongly objected to former senior American officials being despatched to Taiwan by the Biden administration to convey American support to Taiwan’s security. The US Congress is considering legislation that would restore official level contacts between the two countries. This has further angered China. The Chinese spokesman has categorically rejected the US position that climate change should be considered as a stand-alone issue for cooperation between the two countries, asserting that the whole gamut of relations are inter-linked.
Just days before Biden’s virtual Earth Day climate summit on 22-23 April, Xi Jinping held his own virtual trilateral summit with President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany with climate change on the agenda. This, too, seems to put in doubt whether Xi Jinping will eventually avail of Biden’s invitation. If he does not, Biden’s initiative and his effort to re-establish US leadership on climate change will receive a major setback. China is the largest emitter of carbon emissions, responsible for almost 30 per cent of the global total. The US has half this volume while India, in turn, is half of the US figure. So without China, no multilateral initiative is likely to have much credibility.
‘Decouple’ India from China
During his recent visit to India, John Kerry made it clear that one of his key objectives was to get New Delhi to announce its adherence to the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, which the other major emitters are expected to endorse. China has already declared that it will achieve a peaking of its carbon emissions “around 2030” and carbon neutrality by 2060. These Chinese targets are being leveraged to put pressure on India to follow suit with similar targets. We should not fall into this trap. We should welcome a global target of carbon neutrality by 2050, but to be achieved through national contributions based on the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi should make the point that one cannot treat a country with only 7 per cent of global emissions in the same manner as a country responsible for 30 per cent of such emissions. This is the occasion when India should be “decoupled” from China. The world should not expect India to match commitments that are expected from China. This does not mean that India and China cannot work together on climate issues where their interests converge. Recently, the group of BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, China, and India) released a joint statement opposing the European Union’s proposal for a ‘carbon border tax’.
PM Modi should use the Washington summit to draw the attention of participating nations to the parallel importance of adaptation to developing countries and the need to arrange both multilateral finance and technology for their efforts on this score. Climate change is happening now. The frequency of extreme climate events is rising. The world’s ice caps both north and south are melting at an alarming rate as are our own Himalayan glaciers. These are affecting weather patterns as well as ocean currents. There are both current impacts and the prospect of future, even more serious impacts, with the developing countries being the most vulnerable.
Even if global emissions become zero, climate change will continue to affect our planet since it is the stock of emissions in the earth’s atmosphere which is the cause of climate change and this stock will diminish only gradually over several decades, even a century or more. And yet the focus is singularly on mitigation of emissions. Adaptation, which is a bigger challenge for most developing countries, continues to be neglected. India should mobilise international opinion to redress this relative neglect.
India can play its role with ‘green recovery’
India pioneered the International Solar Alliance at the Paris climate summit in 2015 to promote international collaboration on harnessing the infinite power of the sun to provide clean and renewable energy to humanity. India has made impressive progress in promoting solar energy and its own experience can be an example for other developing countries. It should be a signal achievement if PM Modi succeeds in obtaining the adherence of all the participating countries in this ambitious project, the US and the European Union as a community in particular.
From Kerry’s remarks in Delhi, one gathered the impression that there will be little by way of government-level finance available for climate change action by India. He stressed the importance of private capital and technology flows. Whatever commitments India will make at the summit, these will have to rely on domestic resources. Owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s economic prospects have dimmed and are likely to remain uncertain for some time to come.
We should commit India to a “green recovery”, making certain that we put in place an alternative economic strategy of sustainable growth. The current trajectory of our economic development will lead to a dead-end. International credibility will be earned by the formulation and adoption of a sustainable growth strategy, which puts India on the path of low-emission growth rather than through the announcement of ambitious targets for the achievement of which the wherewithal is missing.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. He was the PM’s Special Envoy for Climate Change 2007-2010.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)