Navroz K Dubash, who has been a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5) in 2014 and a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, is also a coordinating lead author of the IPCC AR6 report for 2022. His edited volume of essays—India In A Warming World: Integrating Climate Change And Development—by domain experts, was published by Oxford University Press last year. Dubash believes that the war on climate change wouldn’t have been won or lost in Madrid. Rather, what’s more important is how individual economies legislate for a low-carbon future. In an interview, Dubash talks about climate and environment concerns in India amid a slowing economy, the relevance and effectiveness of NDCs, and his expectations on climate action for 2020. Edited excerpts:
Madrid marked a dismal end to 2019. What are the main bottlenecks on effective climate action?
It was dismal for various structural reasons. It was dismal because, globally, in many countries, there isn’t a national appetite to address climate change. You have leaders who are de-emphasizing or actively pushing back like (Jair) Bolsanaro, (Donald) Trump, and Australia, as well. That’s one reason why the broader conditions were not in place. The second reason is that, I think, while there has been a very heartening, growing, political mobilization by young people, particularly in Europe, it is also accompanied by the fact that the world is going through very distressing times in other ways. The rise of nationalism, identity politics—all of these things are also crowding the space. For example, who wants to talk about climate change right now in India, given what we are going through with the discussion and unrest over the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the protests associated with it? So, the centre of gravity of the climate action needs to be at the national level, particularly in keys country such as the US, the EU as a block, Brazil, China, India, and so on.
You’ve written elsewhere that it is impossible for India to grow first and clean up later, and that this needs to be tackled simultaneously. This is a unique challenge.
I don’t think India has a choice, except to find a way to grow in a way that’s clean. We haven’t fully realised that we don’t have a choice. I don’t think that India is facing a middle-income trap anytime soon because we are not creating many jobs and we have a large unskilled labour force. But we could end up in a middle-income environment trap, wherein the conditions for our economy that rest on natural resources, the ability of our transport networks to move things around, the ability of our economy to have access to raw material, the ability to attract senior managers who are willing to brave the highest levels of pollution in the world—all of these things actually will have a material effect on growth. I think it’s a hypothesis right now; one can’t prove this, but I think it will be foolish to think that the environmental story is disconnected from the growth story right now. I think the environment could easily, if it hasn’t already, become a constraint on our growth.
Given the current GDP rates and the severely slowing economy, will climate and environmental concerns take a backseat?
People mobilise around climate, as you see with the Extinction Rebellion. But, when you have to get a political system moving, you don’t set a climate policy except at a high level. You set a transport policy, an energy policy, a land-use policy, you set an urban policy and you think about how all of those things could be made the most climate-friendly. If you think about it in that way, it need not take a back seat, because even in an economic slowdown, people care about the shape of their cities and it pertains to the slowdown. If you are a sensible public planner, you’d worry about such things, including from a growth point of view.
How has India’s position at the UNFCCC changed over the years?
India has long been the bulwark of north-south politics on climate change, which slowly has blurred a little bit at the edges, starting around maybe in the mid-2000s, leading through Copenhagen and on through Paris. India has changed the way we talk about climate change a lot. We haven’t changed that much about our actions, because they have actually always been okay. We have changed how we talk about it. But because there are things that India can do to help us domestically, bringing what I call ‘climate co-benefits’. We should be doing those things: More efficient lighting is a good thing for India, climate or no climate; more efficient public transport is a good thing; better and more efficient water is a good thing, quite aside from climate. But they all also help with either climate mitigation or adaptation. That understanding has allowed India to tell a story globally, that says we are going to do a bunch of things, but we also think you should do more. We haven’t said that maybe as powerfully as we could have. Our position should be: ‘We are already doing a lot, you (the West) please do a delta more than that.’
Among big emitters in Asia, how different do you think are India’s and China’s stances?
India has, in a sense, in many other ways, been following China perhaps misguidedly. China played a clever game through Paris in 2015. They increased their emissions dramatically and built up a buffer. Now, at relatively low costs, they can reduce their emissions, they can stabilize and reduce because they have a very carbon-inefficient economy and they have over capacity in coal. India sort of tried to do the same thing, but an interesting thing happened along the way: Renewable energy became cheaper than coal. Now, India is in a very interesting position. We have the chance of dramatically increasing our energy use at a time when it is cheaper to do it through renewable energy, than through coal. But we haven’t factored that into our negotiating strategy and calculations.
People don’t talk about Africa, but if the next 20 years of what India and China do will help settle whether or not we get to 1.5, what Africa does in the next 30 years is actually going to define everything that follows. That’s a massive continent with a lot of people. If they start growing at 6-7% a year, the path that they choose is going to be really important and India could actually be part of that conversation.
What about solving these problems? There are reports now suggesting that most of south Bombay will be underwater by 2050, as the sea levels rise. Why are we ignoring this? You had farmers on the streets of Mumbai and other cities before the last Lok Sabha elections—the link was not made to climate change, but it’s a matter of time. If you think you have farmer distress now, wait until you have more heatwaves, declining crop yields, water stress. What’s going to happen to India’s farmers then? We can’t be treating this as somebody else’s problem.
Do NDCs work? Also, where do you see India’s new NDCs going next year?
The NDC is an interesting construct. It’s a hurdle. It’s like setting up an obstacle course. Just like training your bureaucracy and your industry. You set up an obstacle course and then the bureaucracy has to learn to jump over a hurdle. It gets everybody in shape and thinking about these things. It gets them practising the exercises and you then realise that maybe your economy may be actually turned into a low-carbon direction. But actually, it’s better thought of as a process. The NDC is a process that gets the body politic of India and the economy conditioned to a low-carbon future.
How should India think about climate change?
To me, the useful next step for India is to actually have conversations about distinct sectors. How do we want to build our freight corridor, how do we want our cities to look, are we willing to rethink our cropping patterns away from a wheat-rice dominated cropping cycle, to also taking into account things like air pollution, crop residue burning, ground water and so on.
Now, there is an interesting conversation around EVs. My own view is that we should be a little cautious about stampeding towards EVs and we should be thinking harder about public transport. You don’t want to end up in a situation, to put it unkindly, clean congestion. Climate change is never going to be the primary objective, it’s going to be a multiple-objective story: Air pollution, energy security, congestion, etc. We also have multiple stressers.
So, when you have in Uttarakhand, tree felling and denudation of slopes, that’s when you get the worst effects of flash floods. So, there are stressers that have to do with climate change and those that don’t have to do with climate change. It’s a multiple objective, multiple stresser problem. To deal with that, you need to have an institutional structure that is much richer. MoEF (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) is the nodal ministry. It is also a relatively weak ministry in the hierarchy. So, you don’t actually have a context where you are able to think across ministries and plan strategically. Nor do you have a research base you can go to.
China has something like the Planning Commission, but much more powerful. It had 24 people working on climate change and an associated huge research arm.
You are a coordinating lead author of the IPCC AR6 report. Do you see any change in focus from the last one?
In the past, you could have climate policy conversations that said things like ‘we will just set a carbon tax and then we are done’. There’s no longer that sort of conversation. The carbon tax is part of the story, but the new language is that we should be thinking of ‘policy mixes’. A mix of policies that compliments each other and takes care of climate change, besides also taking care of air pollution and the distribution of consequences. Climate policy isn’t going to fly if it is not politically sellable. But at the same time, there is a set of people who say climate change is an existential problem, and it should be the dominant thing to look at. I think the IPCC has to sort through those tensions.
Apart from the two IPCC reports, there were a number of increasingly urgent scientific reports through 2019. And yet, emissions continue to grow. Is the favourable window for mitigations on its way out?
We know already that we have to think about adaptation because we can’t reduce warming to less than 1.5 degrees and most likely 2-2.5 degrees. We know that we are locked into, I’d say, 2-2.5 degrees. That is going to have impacts. We have to adapt. At the same time, we can’t adapt to a 5-degree world. It’s not possible. Different people would disagree. In other words, if you said it is too late, let’s stop mitigating and only adapt, the conditions for life on earth might well be undermined. The costs to adapting to a 4 or 5 or 6 degree world are unimaginable. Therefore, you have to mitigate.
My personal list? Public transport, the electricity sector, making sure that we transition the electricity sector to renewable energy as fast as possible, taking into account the fact our discoms are broken. This is a disruptive change. If we are not careful, the advent of renewable energy will leave some people in the dark. We have to make sure that you don’t have people pushing back on renewable energy because of the social cause. I think we need to think about where we are developing. We are changing rapidly as a society.
Finally, what are your hopes for 2020?
At a global level, I’d like to see as many governments elected as possible, in as many countries as possible that say ‘climate change is high on our agenda and that we are going to work it into our economic development strategies’. In India, I’d like to see a greater understanding of the broader point that the economy and environment are not oppositional, contradictory things. But that actually, if you want a society that you like to live in, if you want to have cities that you like to live in and bring your children up in, then you have to pay attention to the environment. The third thing that would be interesting—and I am beginning to see signs of this—is if the financial sector started internalizing the environmental cost. I think that would drive things a lot. You already see the insurance industry waking up and saying we have a lot more payouts due to climate change-related disasters. When it comes to agriculture, the financial sector needs to understand better its implicit exposure to climate risk. The other thing I’d like to see is two or three states taking the leadership and saying ‘we are going to actually experiment with becoming a state that takes climate change really seriously on both the adaptation and mitigation side’, to show the rest of India what that looks like. If you can see that state-level experimentation, that’d be very useful.