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India must go beyond seeing climate change as a rich vs poor diplomacy battle

PM Modi’s new govt should know development innocent of climate change is no longer possible.

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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.

Also read: India needs an Arctic strategy urgently, before its opportunities melt away

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.

Also read: How global media goes wrong on coverage of climate change

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.

Also read: The climate change battle will be won or lost in China

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.

Also read: India’s GDP may see 2.8% dip by 2050 due to climate change: World Bank


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 The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series will be available on CPR’s website from 4 June.

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  1. Valuable and most pertinent suggestions and ideas. Kudos to Navroz and Lavanya.

    Given how acute and critical the climate breakdown is, it does however fail far too short. Here is a plan that I would like to put forth.

    Sanjay, need your help with this plan.

    “UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.”

    As per the scientific updates, this goal set by the United Nations is grossly inadequate to avert Climate Breakdown. My plan for the next 4 months will now centre on setting the agenda right i.e. to reduce emissions to ZERO by the next 9 months and absorb extra carbon from the atmosphere by 18% year on year till 2050, as set by our great leader Greta Thunberg.

    Thinking aloud, my plans will be as follows. Welcome your feedback and suggestions:

    1. 3-17 June: Meet with political leaders in India to build a consensus for India to be a Climate Leader and commit to these targets. Starting with meeting the Climate Club of 22 MPs. Represent Indian delegation for the UN summit
    2. 17 June to 7 July: Meet with Greta Thunberg and leaders in Europe, Americas and West Asia to build consensus
    3. 8 July to 29 July: Meet with leaders in South and East Asia and Australasia
    4. 30 July to 30 August: Global consultations and Release the Joint Action Plan to achieve these targets
    5. Fri 20 September #FridaysForFuture Global Climate Strike on
    5. Mon 23 September: Joint declaration at UN New York of these new targets and enforcement plan with deterrent penalties for missing targets and rewards and felicitation for meeting the targets on time or earlier.

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