India needs to adopt a coordinated strategy when it comes to climate diplomacy so that financial and technological resources are prioritised and reallocated

India is moving towards a multi-pronged climate strategy (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

India is moving towards a multi-pronged climate strategy (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

India has stepped up its climate action commitments since 2015, especially in light of the growing number of declarations of net-zero emissions targets by various countries, including China. Although India has not yet adopted any such target, it will not be a surprise if the government chooses to do so in the run up to the United Nations climate summit scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November.

Many major emerging economies, developing countries and even least developed countries (LDCs), including China, South Africa, the Maldives and Nepal, have declared net-zero emissions targets, although not all are legally binding.

India is still weighing its options, keeping in view the perceptions and interests of a myriad of domestic constituencies that influence its climate diplomacy.

After a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Glasgow summit is expected to bolster countries’ long-term targets. However, it is important for the international community to note that these targets cannot come at the cost of short and medium-term targets, which are crucial for sustaining the momentum in climate action globally.

Structural and institutional changes

India has introduced structural and institutional changes to spur clean energy goals domestically, but its climate diplomacy approaches have to be intertwined with the urgent need to tackle the country’s worsening climate vulnerabilities in the short and medium terms.

In my book, Climate Diplomacy and Emerging Economies: India as a Case Study, I explore the role of the emerging economies – the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) – in the international climate order, during 2009-2019.

It analyses the shifts in India’s climate diplomacy in particular, by looking into its framing of climate change and the use of certain narratives based on ideas of equity, justice, sovereignty, opportunity, leadership, responsibility, and so on.

An analysis of India’s climate diplomacy during this period clearly shows that from a mere preoccupation with ethical and socio-economic concerns of historical responsibility of the developed countries, equity, climate justice, vulnerability, poverty eradication, and development, India’s climate diplomacy positions have evolved to assume far greater relevance for its geopolitical and foreign policy strategy.

Evolving climate stance

In fact, India’s position in the international climate order has evolved from being (unfairly) called a naysayer to a responsible climate power, as seen by the rest of the international community. This transition was primarily influenced by shifts in its climate diplomacy positioning – increased multilateral, bilateral and informal exchanges on climate change cooperation – particularly since 2010.

The present government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has also put climate diplomacy at the centre of its foreign policy agenda. India’s conceptualisation of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), and their integration into the multilateral climate action agenda are a testimony to this shift.

Interestingly, the period 2015-19 was critical, in light of the Donald Trump administration’s disavowal of the Paris Agreement. With this development in particular, countries such as China and India launched themselves further to live up to their reputation of a responsible power, hinged on multilateralism and the rule of law.

With Joe Biden coming to power in the United States and his act of appointing John Kerry as the climate envoy, the global shift in climate action discourse is visible.

A billboard at the venue of the United Nations climate summit held in Madrid in 2019 (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

A billboard at the venue of the United Nations climate summit held in Madrid in 2019 (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Most recently, climate change has become an indispensable action item in the agenda of QUAD, involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US. At the 2020 G20 Summit too, Modi called for “an integrated, comprehensive and holistic way”.

What seems to strengthen India’s position is the fact that it is the only G20 country whose “fair share” climate mitigation targets and subsequent actions are compatible with the goal of limiting the temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Domestic compulsions

India’s climate goals are tied to its energy commitments. Hence, its climate diplomacy is also largely based on the co-benefits approach of tackling both energy security and climate change.

Although the pandemic impeded the growth of the renewable energy sector in terms of deployment, there were some interventions by the government, such as maintaining must-run status to renewable (mainly solar and wind) energy despite a drop in electricity demand; entry of Coal India into solar manufacturing and value chain (to reduce dependence on Chinese equipment), and fresh incentives for made-in-India solar modules.

It also announced stimulus packages to distribution companies (discoms) that were most financially hit by the pandemic; and even conducted an auction for “the world’s largest renewables-plus-energy-storage capacity tender” by Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) to ensure grid stability and making it viable for the discoms to purchase renewable power.

Institutionally too, the government has appointed a high-level inter-ministerial Apex Committee for Implementation of Paris Agreement (AIPA). However, India has missed the deadline of submitting its new/updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which was on December 31, 2020.

It is yet to submit one (as of March 2021). Most other countries that have submitted have not raised their ambition (by declaring new targets), or in the worst case scenario, even lowered it.

Lately, India’s coal problem has come under the scanner, especially after UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged the Indian government to phase out coal, for not only mitigation purposes, but also battling worsening air pollution levels in the country (reflecting India’s co-benefits approach to climate action).

The message has not been received well by the domestic audience, for which international equity, and just transition (for those heavily dependent on the coal industry) cannot be compromised.

Nevertheless, India’s just transition strategy is in the making; and it will need to address gaping financial, political, institutional, social, and infrastructural loopholes in the energy sector.

Transformational shift  

India will ride on its achievements in the clean energy sector, including its commitment to enhancing its renewable energy capacity to 220 GW by 2022. However, as my book argues, India’s international positioning has largely overlooked its vulnerabilities, even though rhetorically these are highlighted from time to time.

It clearly needs to go beyond the rhetoric of its developing country status coupled with climate leadership; and equally focus on how to mainstream adaptation within development planning to address its own climate vulnerabilities, even in the short and medium terms.

Having been severely affected by climate change-exacerbated extreme weather conditions, resource stress, and other effects in the past couple of decades, the government needs to adopt a coordinated strategy even when it comes to climate diplomacy so that resources (financial, technological etc.) are prioritised and reallocated accordingly.

This coordinated strategy needs to break down a silo mentality and potentially even lead to the establishment of an exclusive nodal agency for dealing with climate change (and climate change only). This entity should better align India’s domestic requirements with international commitments, and should come under parliamentary oversight.

Just as Modi speaks at length about “behavioural change” as the best way to “fight climate change”, what India needs is a transformational shift in its climate diplomacy. Today climate diplomacy is no longer restricted to the realm of climate change negotiations (or the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement).

Hence, it should not only cater to India’s image of a responsible power, but also be able to coordinate its various climate diplomacy initiatives with countries, regional and international institutions, and other actors in the international arena.

Dhanasree Jayaram is assistant professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, and Co-coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Views are personal

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