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India was perhaps the only big country at the Glasgow CoP-26 meeting whose commitments were entirely driven by environmental considerations, and which came at a substantial cost to its medium-term economic prospects. Other major players had upsides. The transition from fossil fuels to modern renewables, for instance, presents China with a massive economic opportunity, given its dominance in solar, battery and nuclear power. Europe can protect its domestic industries from foreign competition by imposing green standards and tariffs. Given its advanced research and development ecosystem, the US is sure to derive economic benefits from the emerging global market for green technology.

While energy transition will certainly create opportunities for Indian firms and consumers, the challenge of raising the living standards of hundreds of millions of our people has become even more daunting. It is uncertain if high economic growth at the scale required to create the 20 million jobs we need every year is possible within the parameters of India’s carbon commitments.

Moreover, it is hard not to be sceptical about rich countries’ promises to ease the decades of pain and sacrifice the rest of the world has to bear. The righteousness of the West’s most ardent climate advocates must be seen against their abject failure to make covid vaccines available to billions of people in need of them today. The pandemic, like climate, is an indivisible collective threat to humankind. So countries, societies and leaders who are effectively refusing to come to the aid of billions of real people in this generation can hardly be relied upon to help future generations. Talk of $1 trillion in green financing and assistance from rich countries must be taken with liberal pinches of organic salt, given that we are still waiting for them to part with the $100 billion per year they promised at Paris six years ago.

New Delhi can neither rely on the rich countries keeping to their emission commitments nor on receiving compensation for sacrificing growth. Financial Times columnist Megan Greene warns that, “There are inevitable short-term economic costs that risk generating a backlash against efforts to fight climate change." Rapid decarbonization is likely to cause a supply shock, raise prices and raise public debt. It will create winners and losers, and the latter could push back, as they have done against globalization. Yet, the pain that rich country populations will suffer is a trifle in comparison to that in the developing world, where well-known growth paths are to be abandoned and unknown, risky routes embraced. Lacking power in the international system, governments of developing countries will be compelled to require sacrifices from people too weak to mount backlashes.

This is only partially a story of the hypocrisy and self-serving righteousness of powerful countries. If agreements like Paris’s and Glasgow’s are inadequate and unreliable, it is because the political structure of the world is not optimized to formulate solutions for humankind as a whole. Most of the 200-odd independent nation-states that exist today do so on the basis of national self-determination, the idea that people who share a lot of things in common and have their own homeland have the right to govern themselves. Whether or not people are better off under this dispensation is debatable. We have seen nation-states trample on the liberties of minorities and individuals. Their international conduct wilfully threatens the very existence of humanity. Addressing common global challenges was not even part of the design specifications of nation-states, which is why a collective front against a virus or a holistic approach to tackling climate change is touch-and-go at best.

Our failure to adopt coherent global approaches to a growing number of important issues, such as international terrorism, public health, environment, weapons of mass destruction, transnational technology platforms and cyberspace governance, is in large part due to political structures. The best we can do under the current international system is to evolve a stable balance of power that creates an global order that permits global solutions for global problems. This long chain of hope, tenuous at best, is broken in many places. Xi Jinping’s absence at Glasgow indicates that no serious effort is on to try fixing this.

As unprecedented are the risks to human survival and prosperity today, so are the opportunities for overcoming them. But we need to rethink political structures. Within countries, mechanisms of representative democracy and bureaucratic administration need overhauling. Across countries, there is a case for large, thin continental federations like the Indian republic and European Union. And what do we do with the United Nations?

Let us hope that CoP-26 will achieve its goal of reducing carbon emissions. But in doing so, it will exacerbate other geopolitical and economic problems. Imagine a world where some other country replaces the Gulf as the global hub of energy. Fuel we will get from the sun and the air. But the supply of technology and raw materials to convert it to electricity may be dominated by China. Such a world is a decade away and will arrive well before we update our political structures. So, in whose image will the 21st century be constructed?

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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