A new greenprint on climate change

India may be moving to ratify the Paris Agreement, but it still has cause to be wary

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

On 2 October a year ago, India moved to allay any international scepticism about its commitment to combating climate change by announcing its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). India is to reduce the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, it said in an announcement. Now, by agreeing to ratify the Paris Agreement—which aims to contain the increase in earth’s temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels—on the same day this year, India will move further along this path. It’s a hurried move—but because of diplomatic compulsions, New Delhi has chosen to couch pragmatism in the symbolism of Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

The Paris agreement—which materialized at the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—requires 55 countries accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions to ratify it in order for it to come into force. New Delhi had gone slow so far—but with the threshold likely to be reached without it in October, and the possibility thereafter of being cast in an obstructionist role diplomatically, it has understandably changed track.

But India still has good reason to be wary at the negotiating table because of three reasons. First, too much focus on incremental pollution by developing countries shifts the public attention away from the historical damage done by the developed countries during their years of rapid economic growth. Second, the per capita carbon footprint of India is still very low by global standards. Third, India needs coal as part of its energy mix right now, until new technologies emerge.

By retaining the “common but differentiated responsibilities” clause in the Paris Agreement, the world has acknowledged Indian concerns. However, as Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary and the prime minister’s special envoy for climate change from 2007-10, points out in an article in The Indian Express last year, doing away with the distinction between developing and developed nations dilutes the differentiation principle—which puts the onus on developed countries to take greater responsibility for reducing emissions. Undue pressure is already being exerted on India as one of the largest polluters of the world. Though third in terms of total emissions, it ranks 140th globally in terms of per capita emissions.

However, with its large coastline susceptible to rising sea levels and a population suffering from the visible consequences of climate change, such as heat waves, pollution and failed monsoons, the country couldn’t have argued for its rights to development beyond a point. It therefore made a calculated choice considering its long-term costs. It embraced the cause of climate change but with a caveat—the availability of global finance and performance of other nations. The cabinet decision, which came on Wednesday, implicitly emphasizes that the onus is on developed nations to fund and transfer technology to developing nations, besides making efforts to meet their domestic commitments.

India’s strategy for combating climate change and achieving INDC targets is a multi-pronged one.

It aims at modifying the energy mix to a more sustainable, efficient and renewable one. Its ambitious solar plan—to expand solar capacity to 100 GW by 2022 from 8 GW in 2016, which incurred the ire of the US and eventually the World Trade Organization due to the priority it gave to domestic producers, is expected to make up almost 48% of the renewable energy capacity. The International Solar Alliance and the recently unveiled plan to subsidize domestic manufacturers will help but can only be sustained by a higher inflow of funds for solar projects.

The rest of the renewable energy capacity would be developed through a mixture of wind power, hydropower, biomass, waste to energy and nuclear power. Nuclear energy will form less than 4% of these clean energy commitments. Though it is unlikely that India’s non-membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group will significantly affect its plans, the membership could have enhanced it.

A significant challenge to these plans remains, as pointed out by India’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, last year, the fall in oil prices, which increases the opportunity cost of expansion of alternative energy sources. The country has dealt with the problem by imposing taxes on petroleum products. As opposed to the cap and trade system proposed by countries such as China, India uses Piguovian taxes as the alternative market approach to limiting emissions. But the issue of renewable energy being less competitive still persists.

Besides dealing with the problem at source, the country is also making efforts to bring down current greenhouse gas levels through the development of carbon sinks. However, this might prove to be a difficult task considering the land-scarcity problem. The Fourteenth Finance Commission made forest cover one of the criteria for devolution of funds from the Centre to incentivize states to engage in afforestation activities. It is estimated that around $6.9 billion will be transferred to states.

A 33-35% reduction in emission targets is not an unattainable one, if all these efforts come through. But that would require persistent efforts from both the global community and the Indian government. A clear vision of what the alternative would mean for the country and the world at large should help in sustaining these efforts.

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