While on the face of it, countries did celebrate the outcome of the latest round of climate negotiations in Marrakesh, the uncertainty brought out by the US presidential elections is likely to be on the mind of everyone returning from Marrakesh. If Donald Trump executes his threat of pulling his country out of the climate convention, the negotiations will lose out on US diplomatic efforts that have been pivotal to their success in the past few years — the rapid entry into force of the Paris Agreement that was adopted by all countries in 2015 being its last success.
With the US likely to be out of commission during Trump’s presidential tenure, the world has started looking out for a leader to fill this void. The first answer that comes to mind is China. The country’s engagement in climate change diplomacy has been growing rapidly. The two punch approach by the US and China have, of late, left other countries with no option but to follow their lead. The texts of the final agreements of the CoP 20 and CoP 21 summits were directly adopted from the joint statements made by the two countries in the run-up to the summits, particularly on the crucial issues of differentiation and the legal nature of commitments. With the US in the back row, the Chinese are poised to be in the driver’s seat.
But this leadership void on climate change action needs to be filled carefully. The Chinese approach to foreign policy has been relatively inward-looking. This is evident in Chinese economic investments in other developing countries, particularly in the African continent, and in the country’s latest diplomatic response to its claims on the South China Sea. China’s responses to India’s recent foreign policy aspirations such as membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the UN resolution to ban terrorist organisations were well-calculated to suit its own concerns and not global interests.
Climate change leadership requires an approach where needs and interests of the poorest and most vulnerable are kept at the centre. Such kind of leadership has eluded us so far, with only a few countries deciding the global course of action. This is a great opportunity for India to orchestrate an “alliance of the willing” that can be a positive counterbalance to the existing power structure. This role is not new for India, which played a crucial role in providing leadership during the Cold War with the establishment of the Non Alignment Movement.
India’s foreign policy approach, “Panchsheel” — the five principles of co-existence whose bedrock is mutual self-respect, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence — could be the basis of the new modus operandi for building this “coalition of the willing” for climate change action. For this, India will need to increase its ambition on climate change action. It has already committed to ambitious climate action at home; this can be augmented through stronger commitments, particularly in the transport sector. Sound long-term planning in infrastructure decisions and providing greater incentives in the financial markets for climate action will also provide India opportunities to show the rest of the world that stronger action on climate change can go hand-in-hand with actions needed to meet development imperatives.
While taking greater action at home will enable India to position itself for a leadership role, India’s foreign policy approach to climate change needs to be enhanced. Not only will India need to establish cooperation within the South Asian neighbourhood but it will also have to reach out to other developing country partners — like it has in forums such as the BRICS. India has a lot to share, particularly on matters of technology. But it has also much to learn about the implementation of climate action in a complicated policy and social environment.
India could host multi-country forums on climate change on the same lines as the Major Economies Forum hosted by the US as well as Petersburg Dialogue, traditionally hosted by Germany.India could reach out to Fiji — the host of the next climate change convention — and offer technical and political help to make the next round of negotiations a success. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already established strong ties with Fiji by becoming the first Indian PM to visit the country in 33 years and providing it a $ 75 million credit.
Though a leadership void resulting from the US election stares the world, India should view it as a potential opportunity to establish itself as a global leader.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline “India’s Trump card”)