Home >Opinion >India opts for caution on climate change strategy

The release of India’s long-awaited INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on 2 October has obviously been timed to impart some noble Gandhian overtones to the unusually detailed, 40-page document. The INDC goes beyond the exercise of setting key targets for inclusion in the Outcome Agreement at the forthcoming Paris Climate Change Summit in December. It reads more like a sustainable development strategy, complete with a philosophical introduction harking back to India’s innate ecological sensibilities. The document also reflects some of the key pronouncements on climate change Prime Minister Narendra Modi made during his recent visit to the US. The notion of climate justice, of differentiation between developed and developing countries, the role of the transfer of financial resources and technology to enable appropriate climate action by developing countries and the need to shift away from competitive market responses to collaborative initiatives—all these ideas resonate through the document.

So what are India’s headline commitments in the INDC?

One, the emission intensity of gross domestic product (GDP) is targeted to reduce by 33-35% by 2030 with 2005 as the base year. Since India has already pledged to reduce its emission intensity by 20%-25% between 2005 and 2020, the latest commitment is realistic and achievable. India is at an early phase of its industrialization and most of its infrastructure remains to be built. A rising level of energy consumption, and therefore emissions, is inevitable, but at a lower pace than in the earlier phase.

Two, the INDC envisages that by 2030, 40% of cumulative electric power installed capacity will come from non-fossil fuels. These would include renewables such as solar, wind and biomass, hydropower and nuclear. The current percentage is about 30%. This target, too, is modest and prudent. Ambitious plans to develop large-scale hydro are slowed down by issues relating to environmental impact and land acquisition. The target of 63,000 megawatts (MW) of nuclear power by 2032, which appeared feasible when the Indo-US nuclear deal was concluded in 2008, is unlikely to be achieved. The Nuclear Liability Bill controversy and the growing public opposition to nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan a few years ago have ensured that nuclear power will remain a supplemental fuel source for the time being.

Three, there is an intention to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. It is not clear how much additional land acreage this would require.

The INDC contains an impressive list of mitigation, adaptation, capacity building and technology-related programmes and projects India is already undertaking. The target of 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewables by 2022 finds prominent mention, but it would have helped if an indicative target for 2030 was included. Regarding resource mobilization, prominence has been given to coal cess, which finances the Clean Energy Fund, the reduction in fuel subsidies, the setting up of the National Adaptation Fund and the introduction of tax-free infrastructure bonds for renewable energy projects. There are hopes for support from the Green Climate Fund under the UNFCCC, but it is unlikely that India will be a significant recipient.

After his meeting with US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Modi spoke of a global partnership for generating and disseminating as public goods clean energy technologies. He said the President had reacted positively. The INDC should have elaborated this idea further. If climate change represents an urgent and unprecedented threat to planetary survival, then should we not have an international platform where the collective wisdom of the world’s foremost minds can be tasked to find effective solutions? Even today, there is a range of climate-friendly technologies that is available and whose widespread diffusion could significantly reduce the risks from climate change. Intellectual property issues stand in the way, but this is where market-based approaches driven by profit, cannot provide the answer.

The scene will now shift to Paris and the final round of negotiations to deliver an Agreed Outcome. The voluntary pledges made so far will overshoot the target of 2 degree Celsius limit for the rise in global temperature. Paris will be only the first of several future iterations, and which will hopefully deliver a more ambitious effort. We must ensure that whatever template is adopted at Paris does not deviate from the principle of equity and equitable burden-sharing and maintains a legal distinction between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries respectively. The legal nature of the Agreed Outcome is important, as is the manner in which the principle of differentiation finds practical application. The balance between mitigation and adaptation must be maintained. For developing countries, particularly those most vulnerable, climate change is already a reality and will continue to impact lives even after significant mitigation. Greenhouse gases accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere will dissipate only slowly.

India for its own sake must not replicate the highly energy-intensive, waste-generating and environmentally degrading growth strategy that has been the hallmark of the industrial age. In fact, in an increasingly resource-constrained world, it cannot. The appeal to India’s cultural and spiritual traditions needs to go beyond rhetoric. We must find a new concept of affluence, where access to clean air and water and a green Earth is valued as a greater source of wealth than material accumulation.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary of India and Prime Minister’s special envoy for climate change (2007-10).

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