Climate change will have devastating impacts on India. And tackling it purely as a diplomatic issue rather than internalising climate change considerations into our development agenda just won’t do anymore. Climate change should be a priority area of action for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his second term.
India has traditionally insisted that the developed world, because of their disproportionate role in causing the problem, should lead the way in reducing emissions, and provide finance and technology to others. While this is entirely justifiable, and has served India well in the past, there are compelling reasons for India to rethink its approach now.
First, the impacts of climate change will make the task of poverty eradication and development harder for India. Second, there are several cost-effective actions that India can take that serve both its development and climate interests.
Internationally, India must join, or even lead, a ‘coalition of the willing’ in advocating for an ambitious and strong, rules-based global climate regime. Domestically, a new approach would mean a proactive exploration of lower-carbon opportunities that also foster development.
Wrath in a degree’s rise
Climate change is often characterised as the ‘defining issue of our age’. With just 1°C warming since pre-industrial times, Himalayan glaciers have begun to retreat, and there has been a marked increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, droughts, extreme rainfall events, and floods. If the world warms to between 2.6°C and 3.2°C, as the UN climate secretariat estimates it will, there will be serious, pervasive and irreversible consequences for India. Climate change is predicted, for instance, to reduce agricultural incomes by 15-25 per cent by the end of the century in India.
International climate policy
With the US retreat from the Paris Agreement, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s equivocation on it, and the defeat of a Labour Party in Australia that advocated strong climate measures, the momentum that led to the Paris Agreement has begun to dissipate. The gains of the Green parties in the EU, however, is a source for comfort.
But there is a general leadership and imagination vacuum in global climate politics, which India could fill.
India could reach out to China to forge a mutually beneficial alliance on the global solar energy transition. India leads the International Solar Alliance and provides a substantial market, while China has technological leadership in solar energy.
India could also lead vulnerable nations, which will be viewed favourably in South Asia, and help form and lead a ‘coalition of the willing’.
The Paris Rulebook negotiations came to an end in Katowice, Poland last year, and the focus has shifted to implementation. The Paris Agreement builds on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) from countries to reduce greenhouse gases, complemented by a normative expectation of progression and ‘highest possible ambition’ that calls for these contributions to be strengthened over time. The terms ‘progression’ and ‘highest possible ambition’ are, however, not defined. And, the Rulebook balances flexibility, autonomy and discretion to states with prescriptiveness in terms of requirements.,
States could choose to progressively strengthen their NDCs and trigger a virtuous cycle of ever ambitious actions necessary to meet the temperature goal. Or they could exploit the discretion to create a political drag in the system. It is in India’s interest to do the former and urge others to do so as well.
What India should do
First, India should provide information on its NDC, set against the larger context of its development aspirations and resource constraints.
Second, India should clearly explain how its NDC is fair and explain the objective criteria and benchmarks on which this is based. This would allow India to ask for these criteria and benchmarks to be applied to other countries’ NDCs as well.
Third, in relation to ex-post tracking of progress in implementing its NDC, India should identify objective defensible indicators to assess its progress, take proactive efforts to address capacity gaps in implementation and reporting, and gradually improve the quality of information it provides.
Finally, in relation to the global stock take process every five years, India should work with negotiating partners such as South Africa, and vulnerable nations, to ensure that the ‘hooks’ in the Paris Agreement and Rulebook on equity are duly exploited.
India’s ability to take a leadership position in this coalition will require a substantial scaling up of capacity and resources, and complementary back-channel processes.
India’s delegations to the climate negotiations are considerably smaller than other nations. The composition tends to favour bureaucrats rather than experts and specialised researchers. India must rethink this.
Domestic climate policy
Global pressures to limit greenhouse gases and the emergence of new technologies will make it more complicated for India to power its industries and provide electricity.
Apart from agriculture, cities and coastlines may be subject to disruptions from climate-related events. Water and monsoon cycles may be disrupted and India’s rivers may shift. And heat waves and shifting disease vectors will complicate the problem of public health.
Climate change is not an isolated challenge, and requires coordination of all government departments.
Development remains India’s number one priority. But development innocent of climate change is no longer possible.
Climate change mitigation, or the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions, has always been tied to India’s global negotiating stance. If wealthier countries are largely responsible for the problem, why should India undertake costly mitigation actions?
A decade ago, the National Action Plan on Climate Change proposed exploring actions that lead to both development and climate benefits – known as ‘co-benefits’. This formulation remains salient today.
India’s cities provide a particularly good example. The next couple of decades afford an opportunity to build cities where transport needs are lower due to sensible planning; new buildings are designed to need less cooling and heating, and planning processes for urban spaces are built around the multiple objectives that we seek to meet with cities.
India’s electricity system provides another instructive case. Long ridden with problems of unreliability, poor service, and loss-making, Indian electricity is likely to be shaken up by the recent steep decline in costs of renewable electricity. The transition is likely to be turbulent, but it is inevitable. We have to plan for this change and aim for electricity that is cheaper, more regular, and cleaner.
India, even more than other nations, has to pay greater attention to adaptation and resilience of our economy and society.
Adaptation in agriculture requires preparing India for heat stress and unpredictable rainfall patterns against a backdrop of existing farmer distress, a creaky system of price-stabilisation, and inadequate risk-management mechanisms.
Climate change is likely to decrease the productivity of fisheries from changes in ocean temperature and acidity levels, already stressed by non-climate effects such as fertiliser run-off. Addressing these challenges has to include, but go beyond, disaster preparedness.
The challenge is no less complex in urban areas, forests, and water management.
Pursuing development without internalising climate change considerations risks ignoring a big piece of the puzzle. A central element of the new Modi-led NDA government’s agenda must be to mainstream climate considerations into our development agenda.
Navroz K. Dubash and Lavanya Rajamani are Professors at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. They both also serve as Coordinating Lead Authors for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report.
This is the second in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at www.cprindia.org. The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series will be available on CPR’s website from 4 June.