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India’s main challenge in tackling climate change is to find a way to meet its development goals while controlling the emissions. Here is a primer on how India’s climate policymaking has evolved over the years and its milestones

(Image by Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development)

(Image by Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos Pictures / Department for International Development)

India’s development policies have acknowledged the need to protect nature. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the British and Indian governments have recognised the need to conserve natural resources. This is enshrined in India’s Constitution.

However, such policymaking was not designed to meet the challenge of controlling greenhouse gas emissions – that has entered policymaking space a little over 20 years ago. In this period, India’s core challenge has been to find a way in which it can meet its development goals while controlling the emissions, which mostly occur due to economic exploitations of natural resources.

This has necessitated new thinking at the interface of economic, energy, social and environmental policymaking, to name a few. India is still grappling with this challenge.

National priorities, international developments

India has a millennia old tradition of environmental policymaking. But in the early years after independence in 1947, economic development took centre stage. The Constitution mentioned the need for balance, but there were no legal provisions to protect natural resources from overexploitation. This state of affairs continued till the early 1970s.
Conservation of nature gained attention after the protests against the cutting down of the Silent Valley in Kerala and the Chipko movement in what is now Uttarakhand. Parliament passed various laws to protect the environment. It was also during this period in the seventies and eighties that India was drawn into international environmental diplomacy. Many of its domestic actions were in response to its pledges in international platforms. But the essential
Climate policy in India ‘polluter pays principle’ was enshrined in law after the methyl isocyanate gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, which killed an estimated 50,000 people and is the world’s worst industrial disaster till now.

The next phase started with negotiations for what would become the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer on top of the earth’s atmosphere. This phase gained momentum after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Three conventions were established at Rio – to combat climate change, to protect biodiversity and to battle desertification. The nineties also saw international development targets being established through the Millennium Development Goals.

Evolution of climate policymaking in India

Climate policymaking started in India on the basis of the development-first ideology that sees emissions control as a co-benefit. To a certain extent, it worked in the case of industry, especially heavy industry, which steadily increased its energy use efficiency and thus reduced its emissions per unit of output. A recent estimate places this reduction in emissions intensity between 1997 and 2015 at over 17%. In its INDC prepared for Paris, India has pledged an emissions intensity reduction of 30-35% by 2030.

But other effects of such policies were not felt in reality, while India kept facing more frequent and more severe storms, floods and droughts, which scientists say is a result of climate change. Apart from the loss of lives and human misery, the economic value of having to deal with such extreme weather events was as high as 2.6% of India’s GDP, according to the country’s 2008 annual economic review.

There were voices within and outside the government seeking to make climate actions a policymaking priority. But these voices were in a minority and till recently they have not influenced energy or industrialisation programmes in any significant way. The one significant action came through participation of the private sector in the Clean Development Mechanism.

Throughout this period, India kept insisting at international climate negotiations that the developed world must lead on emissions cuts through legally binding commitments. Its one big announcement came at a 2007 G20 summit in Germany, when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that India’s per capita emissions would never exceed that in a developed country. Everyone knew India would not have to do anything extra to fulfil this promise.

India did come up with a comprehensive National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008, but it did not really take off till after the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

Two developments in 2008 and 2009 affected climate negotiations and hence climate policymaking. First, the developed world slumped into recession due to the sub-prime crisis. Second, emerging economies including India became centres of fast economic growth. That was why India’s traditional position of capability shortage for climate actions was questioned by the LDCs and AOSIS in Copenhagen, not to speak of the rich countries.

In the face of this scathing attack, the easiest way out was to make a voluntary commitment that would not be legally binding. India committed to a 20-25% reduction in emissions intensity by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.

After Copenhagen

The next phase of climate policymaking was about implementing the NAPCC. The plan had eight missions:
• National Solar Mission
• National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency
• National Mission on Sustainable Habitat
• National Water Mission
• National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem
• National Mission for a Green India
• National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture
• National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change

Initial action on all missions – with the partial exception of the missions on solar energy and energy efficiency – was largely limited to asking state governments to prepare their own action plans in accordance with NAPCC. The process took years. It also showed that policymakers at state government levels were focussed on development issues, with climate action appearing as a by-product, if at all.

At international forums, India continued to be under attack for not doing enough to control its greenhouse gas emissions. Its response was to point to its renewable energy sector, which was gathering pace. Now that India has the world’s highest target of producing 100 GW through solar energy by 2022, and 60 GW through wind, the criticism is muted, though questions about whether this target will be reached continue to be raised.

The other criticism is directly on India’s stand on equity in climate space, with many rich countries accusing India of hiding behind its poor. Such talk gains momentum whenever India announces a large outlay for defence or space exploration. India’s way to counter it has been to point out that rich countries have a far worse record in either mitigation or helping poor countries. That silences critics for a while, but does not help the combat against climate change.

Indian approach to climate policymaking came under severe attack due to perceived notion of the country hiding behind its poor and projecting it to be unable to meet the costs of climate actions against already high bills of development expenses. This approach attracted strong criticism from the countries both developed and developing ones post 2009. In order to abate such notion, India started taking actions towards emission reduction voluntarily so that it (a) is able to have leg room for development needs related emissions increase and (b) explicate the seriousness on taking actions on climate change to back the pressure on developed countries who have faltered miserably on reducing emissions.

New Plans

As outlined in India’s INDC, the country has an ambitious plan to generate 350 GW through renewable sources by 2030. This will be a mix of both grid and off grid installations and will mean 40% of the electricity needed in India will come through these sources. The real challenge here will be to implement this plan. Entrepreneurs in the renewable energy arena have complaints that need to be addressed urgently.

A bigger challenge will be to find the billions of dollars needed to move India to a green development path. Major infrastructure sectors such as railways, road transport and manufacturing require investments that are simply not available in the current global economic climate. Indian policymakers have reposed their faith in technological breakthroughs that will radically reduce the cost of green technologies – but right now it is more a matter of faith than policymaking.

There will be enhanced pressure on India during and after the Paris COP to take more climate actions. Some experts think the Indian government negotiators are aware of this, and have submitted a conservative INDC so that they can make some higher pledges if necessary during the negotiations.

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