US President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement has certainly proved to be a setback for international climate action. One would imagine that this move by the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases would slow down climate action by the rest of the countries, but this is not the case. Countries like Germany and France, as well as China have attempted to fill the gap created in the collective climate leadership (that led to the signing of the Paris Agreement) due to the US’ withdrawal. India too has emerged as a leading climate voice, upholding the Paris Agreement and its spirit of global consensus on climate action. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to place climate change at the centre of India’s bilateral and multilateral dealings with other countries and groupings/organisations. During his recent visit to Europe as well, he “vowed to go above and beyond the Paris accord to combat climate change”.

Trump, while announcing the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, rationalised his decision by pointing finger at two countries, which according to him, would gain most out of the agreement, at the cost of the US—India and China. He accused them of continuing to pollute the environment through coal-fired power plants, while the US would be forced to apply brakes on its coal production and consumption. In addition, he insinuated that India signed on to the deal to lure funds from the US and other developed countries in the name of climate-related projects.

So, why is Trump wrong about India’s climate commitments? Here are five reasons why India is more committed to climate action than any other country in the world, and perhaps can be considered to be the most suitable country to lead the process ethically. First and foremost, environmental protection, conservation and preservation are not new to the Indian ethos. Of course, actions speak louder than words. And this is the right time to ensure that the rich environmental history of India is preserved through environmental actions that do not necessarily pose any risk to the government’s obligation to provide electricity, shelter and other amenities to a large section of the country’s population that still does not have access to them. After all, India’s environmentalism is driven by livelihood and other socio-economic concerns, which cannot be seen independently from one another.

Second, even while India plans to double its coal production in order to achieve self-sufficiency and energy security, it is going the extra mile to ensure that the transition to renewable energy is quick and efficient. India is currently the fourth largest market for solar power in the world behind China, US and Japan. It is now touted to strip Japan of its third position. Besides pledging to derive “at least 40% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030”, India also plans to increase its “solar power generation to 100 GW by 2022”. Recently, when solar power tariff was recorded lower than that of coal-fired power (Rs 2.44 or US$0.04 per kilowatt-hour) at an auction to supply 500 MW of new solar capacity in Rajasthan, the mood was upbeat and more optimistic than ever. If India proceeds at this rate, its dependence on coal-fired power plants could decrease dramatically in another decade or so.

Third, it is not just the renewable energy sector that India is concentrating on. The government has rolled out a series of policies that are directed at reducing the energy intensity of India’s cities, transport and infrastructure. The Green Energy Corridors, the National Smart Grid Mission and the Smart Cities Mission among others, are aimed at increasing the country’s “energy capacities from wind and waste conversion” as well as making cities more energy-efficient and resilient to disasters and climate change. Programmes related to health, soil health management, coastal management, watershed management, irrigation systems, organic farming, climate adaptation and so on, have also been proposed, or are in the pipeline. These are in addition to the eight missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), released in 2008.

Fourth, on the geopolitical front, while Trump’s factually inaccurate statements may not have any adverse impact on Indo-US cooperation in other sectors, India’s approachability factor in the post-Brexit and post-Trump-victory world order has definitely risen. India is emerging as a natural and reliable partner in dealing with issues pertaining to global governance like climate change. This is further reinforced by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s fervent efforts to open new avenues of dialogue and cooperation, based on a pragmatic and result-oriented approach, with India. Emphasising the need for countries to put their faith in a “rules-based global order”, she commended India for its climate mitigation efforts, especially in the renewable energy sector. While China has also catapulted itself into the position of the leader of the new world order, not all countries are inclined naturally to work with the Communist Party of China, as concerns regarding adherence to common principles and international standards exist.

Fifth, if there is one country that stands the best chance to take the moral high ground on climate and environmental issues from a historical, and even futuristic, point of view, it is India. In comparison to the developed nations, India’s per capita emissions are much lower. Moreover, India’s economic growth story is defined by the services and not manufacturing. In essence, India skipped the industrialisation phase (the Industrial Revolution) that spurred West’s unhindered development and also contributed most (single-handedly) to climate change and environmental degradation in general, the world over. Once environmental degradation reached its peak (and perhaps even crossed the threshold) in the West, it was then conveniently relocated to Third World countries (including India) by shifting manufacturing and assembling industries to the latter.

China is following in the West’s path in this respect as well. China is cancelling and shutting coal-fired projects on Chinese soil, and is being appreciated for the same globally. However, China is also contributing heavily to the expansion of coal power in the rest of the world, especially in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, through investments by Chinese state-owned companies and banks that are involved in more than 80 coal projects in the world, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is basically filling the investment void left by international agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, along with the developed countries, which have discontinued funding coal-fired generation projects. Under the much-hyped China Pakistan Economic Corridor, several coal plants, along with coal-based industries are being set up in Pakistan by China, thereby negating the achievements of the emissions reduction schemes back home. Hence, China’s commitment to climate action can only be seen through the prism of its objective of tackling increasing levels of air pollution in China, and not particularly its intention to address concerns related to climate change globally.

This is the right time for India to plunge into the international arena as not only a responsible player, but also an agenda-setter, and more importantly, an agenda-mover, as the world faces several lacunae in global leadership on climate change.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate at Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka; and Editorial Coordinator, Science, Technology & Security forum (STS forum).


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