Six years ago, on November 12, 2014, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping struck a deal on climate change. It made sense then for the largest historical carbon polluter and the largest current polluter to agree to act together. But the deal also disrupted developing country unity. Caught in a “climate chakravyuh”, India was encircled by larger economies demanding more climate action from it — a far poorer country but, in aggregate terms, a major emitter. The ascent of US President-elect Joe Biden raises the prospect of renewed efforts against the climate crisis. It also offers a strategic opportunity for India — an historic Biden-Modi deal in 2021.
The biggest damage President Donald Trump did to the fight against climate change was to remove trust between major economies. The Paris Agreement painstakingly created the conditions for building trust incrementally after more than two decades of fractious climate negotiations. By withdrawing, Trump threatened to fatally weaken those foundations. He also elevated denial of climate science into high art. And his actions gave other major polluters an excuse to slow down their efforts.
A Biden administration promises to change this. At home, it intends to spend more than $2 trillion on energy and infrastructure to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This includes the aim to have zero-emission power generation by 2035, stronger regulation of polluters, and focus on climate risks for companies and their supply chains.
Abroad, Biden plans to bring the US back into the Paris Agreement and wishes to host a world summit to ask other countries to ramp up their climate pledges. He will certainly put pressure on India to announce its mid-century plans. More ominously, with the EU already promising to introduce a carbon border adjustment mechanism by 2021, the US could also bring in border tariffs (something on which the Democrats and Trump Republicans might converge), potentially triggering a slew of climate-related trade disputes. Against such compulsions, India could change the game and shift focus on climate action rather than political rhetoric. It should reach out to the Biden administration early on and propose a bilateral deal, drawing out four contours — changing narratives, facilitating investment, developing technology and increasing resilience.
The narrative around climate ambition is increasingly crowded with terms such as net-zero, carbon-neutral and climate positive. Recent announcements by China (2060), the EU (2050) and Japan (2050) for net-zero emissions are too far into the future, highly unlikely to have any serious accountability and reduce growth opportunities for developing countries. Lesser the action in the past or near future means tighter the carbon budget in the future for them.
A changed narrative must discount distant promises and lay premium on proximate action. For India, this would be a chance to showcase its climate actions more robustly to the world: Hundreds of millions getting access to electricity and clean cooking energy, massive reductions in costs of LED light bulbs, the first country in the world with a cooling action plan, aims to have 30 per cent electric vehicle sales by 2030 and, of course, the huge target of 4,50,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity.
Since Biden does not intend to pursue a second term, his climate legacy would be contingent on him pushing actions now, rather than later. This is where India can become a strong ally. If India and the US worked together, they could put China in a spot, asking it to give details about its road to 2060 or calling out its funding of thermal power assets in the Belt and Road Initiative countries. They could also simultaneously ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, injecting new energy into the global phasedown of highly potent hydrofluorocarbons.
India has huge demand for institutional investment (domestic and foreign) for its low-carbon growth. At the height of the pandemic, it sanctioned 12,000 MW of renewables capacity (15,000 MW since January), even as thermal power assets were lying idle. Despite such signals, it gets investments of about $10-11 billion for renewables annually, when it needs upwards of $30 billion. When combined with investments in EVs, industrial energy efficiency, appliance efficiency (including sustainable cooling), and new applications of smart distributed energy, the demand for capital is much higher. Yet, clean-tech capital mostly circulates in rich countries. As, respectively, among the largest demanders and suppliers of capital, India and the US should cooperate to bridge the supply-demand gap, lower risk perceptions, de-risk investments and promote state-level investment relationships, which could democratise and decentralise low-carbon pathways.
The two countries should leverage their R&D priorities. India’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (only the fifth since Independence) now has an explicit focus on low-carbon technologies. Biden wants a massive $300 billion push on climate-related R&D. Two critical areas in which they could collaborate are green hydrogen and carbon dioxide removal. A Global Green Hydrogen Alliance, spearheaded by India and the US, would galvanise global attention towards a breakthrough technology-transforming industrial production processes. Equally, the road to net-zero emissions would be near impossible without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to some degree. This is a technological frontier in which India would do well to engage and design collaborative research programmes and governance protocols.
Another area of critical importance is the potential to collaborate on rising climate risks. Both countries have been hit by unprecedented extreme weather events in 2020, from cyclones to forest fires, causing billions of dollars in damage. India and the US could begin to rebuild multilateralism centred around chronic risks. This would mean deeper cooperation via the India-sponsored Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, developing financial solutions to upgrade older infrastructure (power, roads/bridges, telecom), and designing new climate risk insurance schemes.
Rather than feel cornered and react under pressure, India must seize the moment. On the US side, there is mainly a lot of intention and expectation right now. On the Indian side, there is already a lot of climate action. These interests can converge. India’s public communication on climate change needs sharper focus and raised decibels. Its diplomatic outreach needs deft alliance-building, starting with a climate handshake between Biden and Modi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 21, 2020 under the title ‘Right climate for a handshake’. The writer is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
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