India is in the midst of an interesting moment in climate politics. UN negotiations in Lima are intended to lay the base for a new 2015 agreement, to be signed in Paris next December. As part of this process, all countries, including India, are expected to submit over the next few months their intended national “contributions” to the struggle against climate change. A recent joint announcement by China and the United States on their future actions to limit greenhouse gases, preceded by an EU announcement, has focused attention on what countries can and should do to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps invariably, this places the spotlight on India, with several media comments asking what India can do. How should India react to this questioning?
The simple answer is: we shouldn’t. Slipping into a reactive mode and seeking to meet benchmarks set by others will fail to reflect both India’s realities and the potential for constructive politics in India’s climate stance. Instead, India should seek to lay out its own benchmarks for what counts as effective action, and urge others to match up.
To begin with, India should resist the temptation to say we will do what China does, but with a time lag: the “China + x” rule. China has committed to “peaking” its emissions by 2030, but a reflexive adherence to a peaking year for India is a bad idea. First, we simply do not have a credible analytical basis for determining a year beyond which our greenhouse gas emissions would not rise. Research underway at the Centre for Policy Research reviewing existing energy and climate scenarios show that few models extend beyond 2030, let alone explicitly analyse a peaking year. Given the vast amount of infrastructure and housing yet to be built, the population yet to be served with quality commercial energy and the requirements of secure energy for development, models are severely challenged in credibly predicting a peaking year. Instead, any such year will be strongly dependent on assumptions about technology and development paths in the distant future, which often amount to guesswork. This is hardly a responsible basis for binding future development.
Second, the political value of stating a peaking year strongly diminishes the more distant the stated year is, since a country has more years to expand emissions. China’s announcement of 2030 is hardly reassuring, since it provides no indication of the emissions growth in the years until 2030. Add, say, 10-20 years for India, and the announcement becomes near meaningless. This is a no-win proposition: bind India with an uncomfortably tight year, or announce a safely distant year and invite criticism.
Third, India is not China and is unlikely to become the next China. India’s emissions are much lower, fossil-fuel reserves are less plentiful and our fossil-based electricity capacity addition is unlikely to grow as fast as China’s because of the necessary checks of healthy democratic debate. It is thus unhelpful to invite assessment on equivalent terms to China.
What, then, should India do?
First, India should base its contributions on existing building blocks for domestic actions in key sectors, based on the principle of co-benefits. These include promoting solar and wind energy, enhanced energy efficiency and other measures already proposed in the 12th Plan. These actions are not yet fully developed to their potential, but they do form the ingredients of a concrete set of contributions. The process of fleshing out these ideas is best undertaken within the broader context of development, energy and environment planning. This will ensure that development objectives are not jeopardised, and that climate objectives are brought into the mainstream, with a correspondingly higher chance of being fully implemented. Following a co-benefits approach also provides a way to separate what India will do for domestic considerations, and what additional action could be undertaken with international climate finance.
Second, because aggregate greenhouse gas emissions do matter, India also needs an economy-wide announcement. For this, an update of India’s existing emissions intensity target announced at Copenhagen should be undertaken, built around a bottom-up analysis of the various domestic sectoral actions and based on robust and deliberated analytical work. While the economy-wide number will provide an outer envelope, the real thrust of India’s contribution would lie in the sectoral measures.
Based on these two pillars, India can credibly argue that it is taking early and substantial action on climate mitigation. This approach will have domestic credibility, because it is rooted in development policy, and not climate policy as an extraneous imposition. It will have international credibility, because it emphasises immediate action that avoids lock-in to more emissions intensive development paths, is embedded in national policy processes with greater chances of implementation and, collectively, likely to result in a substantial “bending” of the emissions curve.
By these benchmarks of early, certain and impactful action, this proposed course of action is far more robust than either the Chinese or US announcements. The only downside of this approach is that it requires India to be deliberate, and not reactive, and take the time to carefully assemble a credible contribution to climate action that is embedded in the development process. This seems a price well worth paying.
Dubash is a senior fellow and Khosla a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi