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Climate realpolitik

India’s pledge is middle of the road, but opens up a larger, potentially productive conversation before Paris.

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Just past midnight on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, but late at night on October 1 in Europe, the international deadline for submission, India released its official contribution to climate action for the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris in December. This intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) symbolically bridged timezones — the INDC is intended to speak to the international community, but firmly rests on domestic, “nationally determined”, foundations.

To understand how effectively India’s contribution has played internationally we need to understand the peculiar context of the Paris climate negotiations. The emergent climate regime will be built around bottom-up INDCs, such as India’s, which represent what each country is willing to do, based on its national circumstances and capabilities. This approach sets aside, at least for now, the thorny question of whether the contributions add up to enough greenhouse gas reductions to address the climate change problem and what we will collectively do if they do not. Instead, the intent is to generate positive sentiment and momentum, upon which future action can be built. Given the deadlock in climate politics for over two decades, this is a reasonable approach to — but only if it results in ever-greater action over time.

The build-up to Paris is based on a mutual non-aggression pact to sustain this fragile structure — if countries were to overtly criticise each other on the grounds of insufficient effort (muted grumbling is allowed), the structure would collapse. Since each country’s context is different, each can come up with its own benchmark(s) to justify its action. Thus, the US claims a relatively high future decarbonisation rate (rate at which non-carbon energy sources grow), obscuring attention to its extremely lax climate policy until now. China has offered a seemingly high 60-65 per cent target for reduction of emissions intensity (emissions per unit GDP) compared to 2005 levels by 2030, but its enormous ramp-up in annual emissions over the past decade on the back of a highly energy inefficient economy is set aside.

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In this environment, the bar for India is relatively low, and with the aid of our INDC, we comfortably jump over it. Our narrative is defensible and has a sound basis: We have a substantial development burden ahead; we start from a low base of energy use and emissions; we will take measures to make our economy more climate resilient; and we will make good faith sector-by-sector efforts to follow a more climate-friendly path. Looking forward, we offer a reduction in our emissions intensity of 33-35 per cent below 2005 levels, an increase in the non-fossil share of electricity to 40 per cent by 2030, and a substantial increase in forest cover.

Are these numbers high or low? It depends on the benchmarks used. For example, one analysis finds India’s emissions intensity target “ambitious” (a code-word for a climate thumbs-up), on the basis that it will lead to an equivalent emissions intensity to China by 2030. But why is that the appropriate benchmark? There are other equally, if not more, plausible alternatives. Why not how much each nation has contributed over time, a scientifically correct benchmark? Why not an application of relative capability to address the problem based on per capita GDP? Why not (given that this is a “nationally determined” exercise) a reasonable decrease from current projections of energy needs and emissions, driven by new policies? Indeed, on the basis purely of national energy projections, India’s emissions intensity target appears, perhaps, a little more modest than it could be. But the fact is that this exercise is not driven by technical or even economic possibility, but by political strategy for a long-term negotiation.
The honest answer, then, is that India has been suitably strategic in its INDC, as most other countries have, and it is more useful to assess it by a reading of the underlying strategy than by cherry-picking benchmarks. This strategy appears to be built around a measured INDC that does not press the brakes on the political momentum going into Paris, but also does not press the accelerator. Instead, it treads the middle ground.

For example, in the key area of international finance and technology support for domestic actions, the INDC sends a mixed message, with something for everyone. The long list of domestic actions listed under “India’s Progress”, along with the promise of continuing these actions, suggests India’s actions are not entirely conditional on international support. At the same time, although only the fossil fuel-free target is made explicitly conditional, other blanket language suggests that “successful implementation” of the INDC is indeed contingent on support. This is neither an Indian approach that insists any and all mitigation action has to be based on international financial support, as has been done before, nor one that eschews financial support, but instead retains the option to demand it.


Beyond the INDC itself, India’s strategic positioning for Paris will depend on how we weigh in on the thorny question of what happens to country contributions, once submitted. This is the subject of negotiations over the next two months. The Paris agreement’s bottom-up led approach will almost certainly fall short of addressing the problem in this round. As a highly vulnerable nation, this is a problem for India. The bottom-up approach of Paris is only a constructive start if there is a mechanism to ratchet up contributions in subsequent years. Having opted for a middle-of-the-road INDC, the focus will now shift to whether India joins those calling for a strong international review of the environmental and equity effects of the INDCs, and for regular updates of contributions. If, instead, we argue for an entirely hands-off approach, it risks placing India with the laggards.

The INDC itself, therefore, is middle-of-the-road, but opens up a larger and potentially productive conversation. While firmly rooted in the realpolitik of climate negotiations, it creates some potential for energising domestic policies, new spaces for exploring the linkage between external finance and climate action, and an open question about how we position ourselves in the remaining two months until Paris.

The writer is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

First published on: 08-10-2015 at 12:05:27 am
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