India’s change of tack on climate issue

Business Line, September 17, 2015
The upcoming submission deadline for the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) for the Paris Climate Summit in the present month and India hosting a meeting of Like Minded Developing Countries for the purpose, has focussed the attention of the entire international community on New Delhi, India being the last major player which is yet to announce its INDC. India will deliver soon, but on her own terms.

Considering European Union as one unit, India is the fourth largest emitter of Green House Gases (GHG) in absolute terms, even though China’s emission is more than three times and US’s two times than that of India. Furthermore, in per capita GHG emission terms it’s far behind not only from the developed world but even developing countries like China, Mexico, Iran, Brazil and Indonesia. India also happens to the country where a third of the world’s poorest reside, a third of its population still lacks access to electricity and prevalence of underweight children is highest in the world, double that of sub-Saharan Africa.

On the flip side, India also contains 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, with the national capital topping the list. IPCC rates India as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Uplifting millions of poor from inhuman living conditions while limiting GHG emission is one of the biggest challenges that India faces in the present times. What are the ways to resolve the Indian dilemma? Are the two most pressing causes essentially contradictory or can they be harmonised?

Indian Strategy

The reason behind India’s delay in submission of INDC is being dubbed as increasing scepticism of the Government about meeting the emission intensity targets pledged in the Climate Summit in 2009, whereby it undertook to cut its emission intensity by 20-25% by 2020, on 2005 levels. The level achieved is 18.6% thus far, with hardly any scope for further reduction. This has made the India hesitant to propose a 25-30% emissions figure for 2020-30.

The Indian proposal is not out, but is expected to lay down two pledges like Mexico’s strategy, one involving what India can achieve with its own resources and the other that can be achieved if technology and finance is made available by the West. Further, the country will not commit to a year when its GHG emissions will peak, nor will it provide sectoral commitments but will give an economy wide achievement.

The measures that India is taking for INDC are: renewable energy capacity addition programme, Increasing coal cess to four times its earlier value, aggressive energy efficiency programme, setting up National Adaptation Fund and National Clean Energy Fund. India has also started an outreach programme to publicise India’s mitigation efforts domestically as well as internationally. Many states have also adopted their own Climate Change Policies.

Business as usual approach won’t work

The perception in the world community as well as domestically is that India is taking a minimalist approach and would continue with its business as usual scenario. In reality and so in perception, such an approach will be dangerous from the perspective of not only climate change but also human health. Added to this is the domestic apprehension on existing pollution levels, with a scenario like being cornered during negotiations especially after US-China deal on emission cuts, and in getting the support of Small Island Nations of Pacific Ocean for a UN Security Council seat.

Arvind Subramanian, India’s chief economic adviser, reflected a very different take on the issue when he suggested that the issue of climate finance, emphasis on adaptation in place of mitigation, differential obligations are ‘less vital interests’ for India than developing and frontier countries and they can be used as bargaining chips in the final negotiations.

Balance and a pragmatic plan

The hard reality is that while India’s growth is non-negotiable, it can’t be long term one, if it’s not environmentally sustainable. India will have to take strong and determined actions for bringing the pollution level to safe limits, for its own sake. However, as the ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ is the heart of the climate negotiations, Indian submissions can’t be compared with the developed world or other developing countries with higher per capita emissions. In fact, India while laying down an ambitious yet practical plan must push for emission per capita as the basis for cuts.

India has ambitious targets for renewable energy. It also has one of largest reserves of coal, which at present fulfils 60% of our energy needs, and will continue to form a substantial portion of energy base for India’s growth. Phasing out of present sub-critical coal power plants and shifting to super-critical and ultra-super-critical ones — that could reduce coal usage by 15% — simultaneously investing in Clean Coal Technology will be a balancing act. Further, laying down stringent emission related regulations for industries and its strict implementation, shifting the public transportation to CNG in at least all the tier 1 cities, moving to Bharat Stage IV norms for vehicular emission for the entire country and targeting Stage V swiftly, curbing excessive use of artificial fertilisers while turning to sustainable agriculture would make a serious dent in GHG emissions. In fact, there are ways by which GHG emission cuts can help in job growth and improve the productivity of economy, for example sustainable disposal and conversion of solid waste.

A bottom-up approach of wide-scale stakeholder and public participation in determining the INDC was an important part of the process – which has largely been found missing — as it would have reflected the level of existing domestic concern on the matter. Building capacity for reducing GHG/capita emissions, also popular public participation would have gone a long way in creating consensus on the issue and measures to be undertaken which would facilitate stronger action being taken. An appropriate mitigation/adaptation mix based INDC would create a win-win strategy for India. Hence, while India must push for a fair and equitable climate deal, it must shoulder its responsibility which will not only save the planet but also rescue the poorest of the world from becoming its first most and worst victims, as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently said, “The most adversely affected by climate change are the poor and the downtrodden”.

Secretary General, CUTS International. Sonal Shukla of CUTS contributed.
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