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Indian diplomacy’s climate test, writes Syed Akbaruddin

BySyed Akbaruddin
Dec 16, 2020 09:28 PM IST

India has been an overachiever on Paris — but the road ahead is strewn with challenges

Come 2021, the climate for diplomacy will change. In 2020, the black swan event of the pandemic was unforeseen. In contrast, the pivoting of the global diplomatic agenda towards the climate crisis is visible.

Numerous conventional diplomatic issues loom on India’s horizon. They include tackling China’s increasing assertiveness and engaging a new United States (US) administration; reinforcing bonds with our neighbours and strengthening bridges with our extended neighbourhood; bolstering relations with the European Union (EU) and reinvigorating ties with a post-Brexit United Kingdom; countering the perennial pestilence of midnight’s other child; and enhancing our burgeoning ties with developing states globally. However, its the unconventional that may upend all these important goals.

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When climate takes centre stage of global policymaking, the economic, social and political implications of the solutions to address the transboundary concerns are likely to override all else on the diplomatic agenda. The announcement of John Kerry’s appointment to the new post of special presidential envoy for climate is an indication that US President-elect Joe Biden’s climate agenda is global. Kerry’s assertion that, “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat that it is” reflects the thinking that the impact of the climate crisis is becoming more complex.

Calls for greater ambition to reach net carbon neutrality by 2050 have gathered steam. The Virtual Climate Ambition Summit held on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement on December 12 is a precursor to the efforts underway. More than 125 states have committed to the goal of a net zero carbon future by 2050. Others are veering towards it. A majority of the G-20 are on board; 38 countries have declared “climate emergencies” until carbon neutrality is reached. China has provided a goal of 2060 and sees climate diplomacy as an opportunity at resuming the G-2 playbook of the Paris Agreement. The incoming Biden Administration is expected to set its target too. Once the US gets on board, those accounting for 63% of global greenhouse emissions would have agreed to carbon neutrality targets. Despite their announcements, there are gaps between 2050 targets and the policies that these countries have put in place.

India is one of the few overachievers in terms of meeting the Nationally Determined Contributions announced under the Paris Agreement for 2030. At the same time, India, as yet, is not in a position to set an economy-wide net-zero target as it needs to sustain economic growth, pull millions out of poverty and provide power to them. Our policymakers are struggling to find solutions to restrain stubble-burning in some regions despite their horrendous impact in nearby regions. The diverse sensitivities that need to be borne in mind in our global engagement will far surpass the concerns our trade negotiators went into Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations had to take into account. Climate negotiations potentially are more far-reaching for our polity, economy and society. Several are suggesting that our best option is a “No” to more ambitious commitments.

However, we need to be cognisant that some are preparing tools of coercive climate diplomacy. EU is eyeing a carbon border adjustment mechanism by 2021. The Biden administration will also look to favour a carbon tax with border adjustments, although whether it can get through such legislation remains uncertain. Kerry will try for a major international breakthrough in his first year. Having witnessed his hectoring approach to promote ratification of the Paris Agreement, caution needs to be our watchword. For a sui generis state such as ours with varied interests, to gather allies with similar climate goals is not easy.

The Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow next year will not be just another multilateral meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the Climate Ambition Summit, signaled that, “Centennial India will not only meet its own targets, but will also exceed your expectations”. It is now for our thought leaders and officials to flesh this out and suggest options. These could perhaps be of a sectoral nature and encompass power, transport, agriculture and forests as possible areas for achieving decarbonising target dates.

India has set up an Apex Committee for Implementation of Paris Agreement (AIPA) to ensure coordination among 14 key ministries and to engage business and other stakeholders. We will also need to leverage bilateral ties with key players such as the US and EU; espouse common concerns in plurilateral groups such as BRICS which we currently chair; and make tactical alliances where possible. Besides, the thrust towards climate crisis as an international peace and security issue is likely to grow. Diplomacy will inevitably be a tool in addressing the growing importance of the phenomenon.

It may be time for the ministry of external affairs to foster greater integration and coherence in the evolving external dimensions of India’s approach to the multi-faceted nature of climate crisis challenges in various forums.

The world cannot solve the climate crisis without India’s active participation. While contributing to the global effort, we will need to seek an equitable outcome based on climate justice that also provides for financing and space for our transition. While the policies of the developed countries are the primary cause of this phenomenon, a sustainable global transition is in India’s interests too.

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