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Climate Change Conundrum and India’s Position

March 31
17:28 2016

uttamsinhaby Uttam K Sinha

There is now no greater challenge to the wellbeing of the global commons than human-induced climate change. Since the industrial era began to trigger large-scale releases of fossil fuels, global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.8°C, already resulting in significant changes in physical, hydrological and ecological systems.

Human activity has profoundly acquired the capacity of a geophysical force that is changing the course of nature at a global scale – what is being informally described as the ‘anthropocene’. This term has acquired considerable conceptual traction and raises many questions such as: What remains of national sovereignty given the overriding planetary imperatives? Will the epoch of the ‘anthropocene’ challenge realist international relations? Will national territory require becoming a subset of the management of transboundary ecology? Will the increasing global average temperature force states to redefine what their national security is? These developments are all connected and there is a risk of an irreversible cascade of changes leading us into a future that is profoundly different from anything we’ve faced before.

However, the science of climate change has not positively converged with political decisions. This indeed is an entrenched irony of international system. While states are prime movers of issues, they, however, tend to determine actions by perception of sovereignty, national interest and security.

Broadly India has been active domestically and engaged bilaterally and multilaterally on climate issues. Through the period 2009-2013, corresponding to UPA government second term, India’s willingness to engage and actively participate in global affairs was lacklustre. Policy inertia and the economic downturn pushed it further into being a reluctant player. India was perceived as being hesitant, half-hearted and indecisive. But with the coming of the NDA government (May 2014) to power, the dynamics of India’s engagement with the world is being recalibrated with a strong emphasis on development agenda.

Domestically, climate change has gained ascendancy. The National Action Plan on Climate Change (2008) in the Prime Minister Office (PMO), is an interdisciplinary and inter-ministerial approach to dealing with the interlinked challenges of climate change, poverty reduction and development.The action plan identifies eight priority areas: solar energy, habitat, water conservation, forest cover, agriculture, energy efficiency, preserving the Himalayan ecosystem, and environmental technology transfer. A host of activities has been undertaken with serious intent including an ambitious National Solar Mission with an earlier goal of generating 20,000 megawatts annually by 2022, which the current government has revised it to 100,000 megawatts; plan to afforest 6 million hectares by 2017, thus increasing forest cover from 23 percent to 33 percent; and enhance the share of nuclear energy in the energy mix.

There is, however, recognition of India’s responsibilities to the global commons and to work with the developed countries to bridge the climate divide. The current government is reflecting domestically realising that constantly harping on ‘equity and justice’ and taking a moral high-ground with almost sermonising attitude is hardly refreshing. So while on the one hand, India’s growth-driven position is legitimate and is right to resist constraints on its development in a global regime, on the other hand, the development path that it has charted are often contradictory. Changes and correction would be required, what is referred to as ‘smarter development’.

India’s current negotiation position, though not significantly different from its earlier stance, is much more focused laying emphasis on voluntary climate action plan or the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), as part of the decision of at the 20th Conference of Parties held in Lima in 2014. The key elements to that is mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building but no ‘peaking year’ of its emission since its per capita emissions is only one-third of the global average.

One of India’s main thrust at the global level of discussion and negotiation will be to raise the pitch on financial commitment and transfer of technologies from the rich industrialised countries. Financial and technological resourcesare critically vital to pursue the sustainable path.

The emphasis on renewable was the hallmark of the Paris climate summit in December 2015 and solar was, in a sense, the “game-changer”. Taking the initiative and seizing the opportunity, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi launched the international solar alliance (ISA) of over 120 countries along with the French president Francois Hollande. Calling it “the sunrise of new hope”, Modi clearly demonstrated that India is ready to take on the challenges of climate with such bold approaches. Earlier in October, the prime minister took the lead by launching a group of 107 sunshine countries at the India-Africa Summit and calling them “suryaputra”. This alliance is called the International Agency for Solar Policy and Application (IASPA). Taking the alliance seriously, the government has pledged to invest USD 30 million and set up the alliance headquarters in India with an eventual aim of raising USD 400 million. The power from the sun emphasised India’s own Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) action plan which outlines an increase in non-fossil based power capacity to 40 per cent by 2030. The renewable road map is ambitious yet achievable with 175 GW by 2022 and an additional 200 GW by 2030. The solar component is 100 GW by 2022 and with the solar technology fast evolving, costs increasingly coming down and better grid connectivity, India can achieve a much higher target of solar energy.

The solar stress has made the world look at India in a new light. With 300 million people without electricity (described as energy poverty) and with vast coal resources, India’s development has always posed a moral question – to pollute and develop like what the western developed countries did or to develop with responsibility. India’s renewable roadmap is a stamp of its leadership role in the climate conundrum, what Hollande described as “climate justice in action”. India has emerged as the natural leader of the solar alliance and Modi as the “clean energy enabler” as someone remarked in Paris.

The Paris agreement is a great example on how to collectively deal with the intertwined challenges of climate. By announcing that the world will aim to limit global temperature rise to “below 1.5 C” from the earlier internationally accepted 2 C, was uniquely pathbreaking. Now with the ambitious aim of 1.5 C, the global desire brings in the need for greater differentiation between the developed and developing countries with the former having to take more emissions cut and to help developing countries in supporting financial and technological resources to achieve the target. The Paris agreement ties together ambition, differentiation and finance in inseparable ways – triumvirate so to speak.

As climate continues to change, and as actions are being forged, it is important to re-conceptualize and re-imagine regions from an ecosystem perspective. For example, South Asia should be seen as a ‘riverine neighbourhood’ or a ‘Himalayan watershed’ or a ‘monsoon Asia’ or a ‘glacial Asia’. Such kind of conceptulisation is a departure from the conventional ways of dividing the world into political-geography to using specific ecosystem to understand regions as one organic continuum and as an organic cultural whole. Viewing seas as a great “commons” or considering Himalaya as the ultimate watershed or charting the monsoon as a rain-dependent phenomena gives us a new lens to look at the world. It is said, “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measures control”. Ideas will thus have to meet the dictates of ecosystem.

Uttam Kumar Sinha is a Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and an adjunct faculty at the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research, Benares Hindu University. He is also the Managing Editor of Strategic Analysis, published by Routledge, London.

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