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India’s coal stance at COP26 was about money—party politics poses danger to long-term goals

India can't be a power of consequence if it doesn't develop its industries. Govt should move from controller to enabler.

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The United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the COP26, concluded in Glasgow on 13 November. India’s stand on coal birthed a narrative that projected an image of being a ‘hold-out’. China was a hold-out as well, but in terms of image, it managed to stay in the shadow. The light was more on India.

A single phrase struck a deal between India, China and the US. In all probability, there must be more than a grain of truth in it. That phrase was ‘out or down’. To put it in context, it must relate to the common word ‘phase’. The option was about the ‘phase-out’ or ‘phase-down’ of the use of coal.

Prior to the contention raised in relation to coal, the US and China—the two largest contributors to climate change and also the largest coal polluters—had used the word ‘phase down’ in a mutual agreement signed between them. India (as the third-largest coal polluter) and China insisted on ‘phase down’ in the final declaration, which could only then be passed unanimously. Both held onto the word and the US made it possible. India may have won its battle but could be poised to lose the larger war.

Who is the COP26 policy benefitting?

What factors determine India’s stand may remain speculative, but what needs interrogation is whether this policy stance will be of benefit to India or some narrow-interest group. Weighed on this scale, the policy seems shortsighted and questions its lack of vision. The long-term perspective seems to be absconding. Instead, short-term gains of domestic politics seem to be the main area of concern. If the government does not protect the Indian coal industry and simultaneously unleashes India’s potential for alternative energy, then the country has the best chances of making worthwhile contributions to one of the most important aspects of climate change, and in the process modernise and strengthen its industrial capacity. It can be a win-win situation.

But changes to India’s industrial policies have to overcome the temptations of the party in power, to forgo the funding to party coffers by various industrial groups that have an interest in keeping the use of coal alive. Concurrently, the collection of money from the affluent for party coffers seems to have been strengthened and legalised through the Electoral Bond. Therefore, money power may be playing a role that is harmful to India’s long-term interests. It can also play a useful role, and Jeff Bezos’s announcement of a total contribution of $3 billion at the COP26 summit is indicative. India too has its share of such philanthropists.


Also read: India’s economy and sustainability are key to the post-Covid-19 world: WEF president


Why such a stance can damage India in long-term

At the heart of the damage that results from money power controlling party politics, is the danger that it can pose to India’s developmental progress. If the nation holds onto its position, it can only result in extended coal usage, thereby posing the danger of breaching the global temperature ceiling, which is in dire need of maximising national contributions. India can play a major role by adopting the policy of increasing the pace of the growth of alternate energy resources that aim to phase out coal. In the interim, it has the option of developing technology that mitigates coal-induced pollution to some extent. However, with the current stance, India is signalling that it is not quite willing to give its best efforts.

Developing alternative capacities of energy resources to reduce the effects of climate change is what is being demanded of India as the third-largest coal polluter. Instead of putting its weight on the side of eschewing coal in the long term, it has joined hands with the US and China to water down the global intention to phase out coal. However, it can always review its stand and also make internal industrial policy changes for the development of economical and cleaner alternate energy resources.

There should be no doubt to Indian national security planners that climate change and nuclear weapons are the two long-term, existential threats to the world and India in particular. The global situation on both these fronts is dire. In the case of nuclear weapons, growing global geopolitical tensions are driving the nuclear and conventional arms race and expanding the probability of accidental war between nuclear powers. There is insufficient political and public recognition of the scientific evidence that a single nuclear exchange— resulting in nearly 100 nuclear explosions—can pose an existential threat to humanity due to the long-term effects on climate change that have been described as ‘nuclear winter’. These are effects caused in addition to the immediate effects of blasts, fire, smoke, and radiation. They are also caused by the long-term impact of the lowering of global surface temperatures through the blocking of sun rays by the clouds of dust and smoke, which would linger at various levels of the Earth’s atmosphere. The impact on the Earth’s biosphere would severely impact agricultural production and access to clean air and water.

Computer modelling indicates that an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange could affect the agricultural production of China and other Asian countries, and therefore trigger regional and global social upheaval that could snowball and further accelerate geopolitical tensions, which in turn would make it virtually impossible to undertake global cooperation on mitigation measures to deal with climate change.


Also read: Climate experts support India’s stand on ‘phase down’ over ‘phase out’ of coal at COP26


The way forward — loosen govt hold

India cannot be a power of consequence if it does not develop its industrial capacity. For that, the existing political economy has to be transformed. One of the major hurdles to that development is the role played by the nexus of politico-bureaucratic-corporate interests. This requires shaping policies that promote the loosening of governmental control over the growth of India’s industrial capacity, while simultaneously encouraging innovation, technological growth, and providing the appropriate energy and transportation infrastructure inter alia. The required switch in government attitude is one of being an enabler from a controller. Giving up excessive control requires the dilution of flow from the industry to party coffers. India’s stand on coal in Glasgow perhaps indicates that narrow domestic party interests are throttling reforms that should be aimed at providing wind to the sails of India’s economic growth, and that it is characterised by political sensitivity to climate change effects.

For India’s political economy, global cooperation on climate change may be in short supply and the rich polluters of yore may remain unwilling to provide sufficient financial assistance for India to switch its base of energy resources. This situation must drive India to challenge itself and set targets that should unleash its potential. National planners must embrace the long-term perspective. Currently, it seems that short-term domestic political benefits are playing a role that is detrimental to long-term interests.

The ravages of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will certainly deepen India’s challenges in the reformation of the country’s political economy. But Indian political leadership and the public must remind themselves of Plato’s warning: Men engrossed in the pursuit of money are unfit to rule the State.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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