SPMRF Round Table Week (18 November to 25 November)

India’s climate change: an article of faith

By Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha

India’s current policies on meeting the challenges of climate change are steadfast. The recent news of the Trump administration “withdrawing” from the Paris Agreement though disconcerting has but only resolved countries, including India to “go above and beyond the Paris Agreement” – quite a fitting and sensible response.

It is important not to get drawn to President Trump’s position on climate issues. His strong skepticism and the Republican Party position on climate and energy, including the Paris Agreement (PA) have been well-known. Remember, at the time of the signing the PA in December 2015, President Obama used the ‘executive’order without the Senate consent. So a withdrawal was actually on the card. However, the US will continue to be a member of the PA till the formal process of withdrawal is complete and that will only happen in November 2020. Importantly, the US remains very much part of the UNFC on CC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), which it has duly ratified and thus in principal remains committed to the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC and that is, “…stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system…”

Let us also be clear on what the Paris Agreement is all about rather than merely get psyched by President Trump’s action. First, not all countries have ratified the PA and that includes the US but also let us not forget many countries in the EU. Only 149 countries of the 197 that signed in Paris have so far ratified/accepted/approved including India. Clearly, Trump’s withdrawal announcement is more to do with rolling back many of President Obama’s policies. For example, the Trump administration recently delayed for two years a pair of rules that would have limited the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations across the country. Another reversal of the Obama administration is a call for revising the existing boundariesof the Bears Ears National Historic Monument and how parts of the area should be managed. Such policy reversals will be a common feature of the Trump administration.

But why situate this only with Trump. The US has always shown exceptionalism to signing treaties/agreements but not eventually ratifying it. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is well noted and some of the other important ones include the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in 1969 and the Kyoto Protocol under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The third important aspect is that the Paris Agreement is procedural and based on rules and regulations to limit the temperature rise to two degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels with an emphasis on renewable energy. The PA is thus about process and not commitment as reflected through the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).The voluntary nature of the INDC outlines what post-2020 actions would be required to deal with global warming and climate challenges. The US submitted its INDC in 2015 ahead of the Paris Agreement. While it set a new target to reduce emissions 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, it hardly drew confidence on the provisions of finance and technology or on collaboration between countries to develop environment-friendly technologies or its obligation to create a Green Climate Fund of about $100 billion to help developing countries to achieve their goals. The Obama administration remained non-committed to these critical area of climate cooperation.

India’s unwavering commitment towards meeting the challenges of climate change is not linked to what the US or for that matter any other country does or does not. Rightfully, Prime Minister Modi in a joint press conference with French President Macron said, “The protection of the environment and the mother planet is an article of faith.” In the past, issues of ‘who is to blame’ underpinned all negotiations and not surprisingly actions towards climate change invariably reached deadlocks and logjams.

In the last three years the Modi-government has looked at its domestic strength and focused on growth with a strong emphasis on renewable energy. India’s calculations and targets as defined by its INDC remain independent of US actions. India is leapfrogging the US with ambitious renewable energy goals and achieving them. In the US recent figures suggest that 64 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels and renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower account for only 15 per cent.  India plans to get nearly 60 per cent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027, and is on track to exceed the goals. The energy market is dynamic and vibrant in India growing at 6-7 per cent annually. The renewable energy sector is even better with a growth of 25 per cent annually. The Modi’s government’s commitment to renewable energy and with falling prices for clean technology makes India an attractive destination for global capital.

Despite Trump’s negative pitch on the Paris Agreement, India and the US can bilaterally partner on clean energy. Mechanisms for such partnership have already taken roots. In September 2014, the two countries pledged to strengthen and expand the highly successful US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) and mobilize money to support clean energy development.  Thereon, the US-India Clean Energy Finance Task Force and the US-India Clean Energy Finance (USICEF) Initiative have become important finance hubs for clean energy. Trump can ignore climate issues but cannot really dismiss India’s enormous market for US suppliers. Support and cooperation from the US remains critical in the energy sector.

The coal sector, the ugly duckling of energy, is vital for India’s growth. In recent years, Coal India Limited shut down 37 mines due to economic non-viability. Likewise coal imports have fallen rapidly with no plans to build new coal-fired power plants. Despite such moves by the government, a rethink can bring gainful alignment with the US. With clean technology, finance, converting coal to synthetic gas, and with US help in building smart grids and reducing transmission loses, coal can become a key driver to India’s climate policy and its energy mix, and all this without compromising India’s position as global sustainability leader or its spearheading the International Solar Alliance.

(The author is Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies & Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi, besides being a columnist and a leading expert on water issues. The views expressed are his own)

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