September has been quite the month of non-stop “Modiplomacy”. India’s chief pitchman knocked off the world’s three largest economies in an exquisitely choreographed sequence of moves that underscored his geopolitical grandmastery. Prime Minister Narendra Modi started with a visit to friendly territory: Japan. There, after a decidedly un-Japanese bear hug with soul brother, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he returned with commitments for investments not only in much-needed infrastructure but also for this curious thing called “smart cities”. Next, he turned to the much pricklier relationship with India’s largest trading partner by inviting the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to his very own backyard of Gujarat — on his very own birthday. He managed to collect even more promises for infrastructure investment, despite the tensions with the Chinese on the Ladakh border. How could anyone, even a toughie like Xi, not cut the birthday boy some slack? Of course, Modi held off announcing his “Make in India” push to take the manufacturing sector up from 15 per cent to 25 per cent until after Xi’s departure. Remember, Xi’s China would be the prime competitor as the world’s top incumbent manufacturer. The “Make in India” move was nicely timed, coming just before Modi’s departure for the US, where he was in full sales mode. The message was: do business with us and make stuff in our factories — and yes, we are working on fixing our shoddy infrastructure. Subtext: forget China, think India.
Modi has shown that he is a consummate geopolitical chess player and pitchman for India. But he missed a chance at demonstrating some imaginative international leadership.
It is no secret that India needs to do more in the manufacturing sector. However, as it invests in this area, it is critical that it does not overlook the opportunity to show the rest of the world that it can do so without further endangering the state of the world’s climate. A push towards greater manufacturing prowess also raises the spectre of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. India is already third in the world, behind the US and China, in emissions. Of the three, India has the highest rate of increase in emissions — a rather dubious distinction. While still far from adequate, both the US and China have taken some positive steps. US President Barack Obama has issued directives to reduce emissions from power plants to 30 per cent below 2005 levels and China has invested heavy in renewable and nuclear energy. Sadly, India’s efforts are minuscule in comparison.
Moreover, India has succeeded in sending amply clear signals that it is not losing any sleep over its rather miserable record on climate change. Modi chose to skip the summit on climate change at the UN, prior to his US visit. For the record, it was attended by over 100 heads of state. (yes, it is mostly symbolic, but symbolism does matter in setting a tone in global diplomacy). And if there was any ambiguity about how India feels about the issue, Modi’s stand-in, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s, response to questions about India’s plans for cutting emissions was: “What cuts? That’s for more developed countries.”
Javadekar seems not to have quite grasped that he was contradicting the alliteratively alluring slogan, “development without destruction” — borrowed from a 2010 UN book — which he used to kick off his address to the UN climate summit. Perhaps he was simply channelling his boss, who recently mused, “Is this climate change or have we changed?”
The argument that the developing countries have something owed to them because the developed countries had their chance to emit wantonly en route to getting rich is nonsensical. We have to remember that the Industrial Revolution took 150 years to double Britain’s per capita income on a population of 10 million. Due to the revolution that is currently under way, India will achieve the same feat in 10-15 years on a population base of more than a billion people. The pace of change and extent of impact associated with the current industrial revolution is at least 1,000 times that of the first one. We must consider this current transformation and its consequences through a very different lens. The planet does not have the luxury to let the developing nations go through the same cycle as their predecessors from revolutions past — it may seem unfair but the hard reality is that as a collective, the earth’s population is running out of time. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide levels are already 42 per cent, 153 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively, above the levels prior to the first Industrial Revolution. Global temperatures are likely to exceed the maximum limit (2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial era levels) that was agreed to as part of the 2009 Copenhagen accords. The impact of such changes are rather dire and there may be no turning back.
Not only does India have a responsibility to lead on the climate issue, since it intends to build up its manufacturing sector from a rather low base, it has the opportunity to do so in a climate-smart way. As one of the top three emitters, and the fastest growing of the three, it must step up and play its part — and be innovative in building its manufacturing sector and associated energy needs. It is often argued that because greenhouse gas emissions affect the entire planet, no single country has the incentive to invest in reducing them since it does not directly see the payback from its investments. In India’s case, this may not quite be true. Indian coastal cities — such as Surat in Modi’s home state — and its teeming urban environments in countless other cities are among the parts of the world that are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the negative effects of emissions. Already, far from being smart cities, India’s urban centres face the prospects of flooding, malaria and dengue if they are on the coast, and most of its major metro areas are petri dishes for severe respiratory and other infectious diseases because of the disastrous air quality. One out of seven people on the planet lives in India. The return on investing in the climate can be pretty high and quite direct.
When Modi takes stock of the many deals struck in September, it would be advisable to reconsider the cavalier disregard for the climate crisis. By making an example of its own seriousness and putting money into smart factories, India would have new leverage to encourage other countries to follow its lead. Otherwise, the elaborate diplomatic turns and sales calls of September may result in “Make in India” being heard worldwide as “Make Emissions in India”.
The writer is senior associate dean of international business and finance at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is author of ‘The Slow Pace of Fast Change’