India’s new strategy in climate negotiations

India has shown it’s willing to go the extra mile —but it can’t be expected to do all the heavy lifting

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

From Paris to Kigali via Montreal and to Marrakesh, India’s fight against climate change is gathering pace. New Delhi’s response to two international pacts negotiated in recent months on controlling the emission of greenhouse gases offers an overarching perspective of how India’s battle strategies are shaping up within the sustainable development paradigm.

Last year, at Paris, India upgraded its official policies on climate change negotiations—taking a more proactive approach to a global challenge that puts millions of its own citizens at risk—and placed itself in a leadership role. Along with more than 190 countries, it vowed to cut down carbon emissions, move towards renewable energy sources, and invest in green energy technology. Earlier this month, Parliament ratified the Paris Agreement, bringing it a step closer to global enforcement.

A week later in Montreal, however, India opposed the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (Icao’s) proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international flights. But then on 15 October in the Rwandan capital Kigali, it worked with the other signatories to the 1989 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to introduce a major amendment on phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—a potent greenhouse gas that is commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators. The question here is: What do the positions taken at Kigali and Montreal tell us about our bargaining strategy?

First, the Kigali deal: This is a major development because, even though the Kigali agreement may not have received the same kind of public attention as the more broad-based Paris deal, it is—unlike the latter—legally enforceable. India has agreed to reduce its HFCs by 85% by 2047 with 2024-26 being the baseline year period. In other words, India can increase its HFC consumption for the next decade. After 2026, it has two years to maintain that level and then work towards a reduction.

The timeline is important because domestic air conditioner use in particular is growing rapidly in the country, and if manufacturers are forced to move to expensive alternatives, the consumer will suffer. At the same time, the switch to cleaner alternatives also has to be made before the Indian boom leads to devastating consequences. Also, accessing and developing alternative technologies is a major concern—developed countries hold most of the patents for these technologies, while other options such as hydrocarbons are still a work-in-progress.

India had initially wanted a more relaxed timeline but after several years of failed negotiations, it went to Kigali with a different approach: “We were flexible, accommodative and ambitious,” said environment minister Anil Madhav Dave. At the negotiating table, India compromised on the timeline but also compelled developed nations to pursue more aggressive targets.

On the other hand, the Montreal deal has been backed by 65 countries and opposed by major developing countries like India and Brazil. Known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia), this plan allocates countries and their carriers a fixed annual quota of emission units using 2019-20 as the baseline year. When one party crosses their limit, they will have to buy units from the open carbon exchange.

Such a global market-based measure puts an unfair economic burden on developing countries like India where the aviation sector is still growing. The Icao proposal also does not take into consideration historical responsibilities—in comparison, the Kigali pact is more equitable because it allows different countries different timelines and baselines for emission cuts. The US and EU, for instance, have to cap their HFC levels in 2019; for China and Brazil, the deadline is 2024; for India, it is 2028. Participation in the Icao proposal is voluntary for now but it will be interesting to see how India navigates this space in the long term.

In the short term, the focus will be on the next climate change summit at Marrakesh, where India is expected to play tough—it has led by example and shown to the world that it willing to go the extra mile when needed but at the same time, it (and other developing countries) cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. Specifically, the environment minister has indicated that he would like to see some money on the table.

In a statement released during the Paris treaty ratification, he noted that the “$11 billion per year climate finance goal has not been met”; that “$10.3 billion committed to the Green Climate Fund does not match the enormous finance and technology requirements indicated by developing countries”; and that “on the technology and capacity-building front also, not much headway has been made”. He has made it clear that India will “insist on a concrete road map from developed countries”. This is key if the Paris treaty is to be effectively implemented and enforced, and India’s own efforts to ensure a fair and equitable solution will empower is leadership.

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