Climate diplomacy must begin at home
It is now time to invest in a strategic capacity so that its climate diplomacy is better equipped to transform prevailing climate commitments into action
Long gone are the days when India’s climate postures were ostensibly defensive. Today, we see an India that is a proactive and prolific global climate actor, seeking and clinching pragmatic solutions that align growth with green imperatives.
This is an India that remains comfortable with its identity as a Global South partner that adheres to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Yet this is also an India that takes the initiative by creating new organisations like the International Solar Alliance to drive decarbonisation. In its quest to achieve its 2030 transition and 2070 net zero targets at home, India’s climate diplomacy has been forward looking.
The signs of India’s proactive climate diplomacy are evident. There is virtually no significant climate forum without New Delhi’s participation. Under the UNFCCC, India is contributing to better reporting mechanisms that periodically measure climate progress. It is working towards becoming a full member of the International Energy Agency. And it is coordinating policies on clean energy sources and green technologies through Quad with the United States (US), Japan, and Australia.
India is also driving the adaptation agenda by shepherding the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. It has signed multiple bilateral climate partnerships, including with the US, the European Union and several of its member States. Throughout its G20 presidency, India championed the Global South’s interests, including through an expansive understanding of climate transition as reflected in the Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) initiative.
India’s global climate initiatives have earned the country much global visibility, but it has also raised the bar to the ability to follow through on commitments and deliver on multiple fronts of climate action. In its rush to join or create new international platforms, India must not forget to build domestic strategic capacity that can better define, articulate, and implement India’s international climate aspirations and goals. This strategy must, for example, reflect political decisions pertaining to taxes, subsidies and investments tied to low-carbon futures.
Mere membership or leadership at international forums should not be confused with strategy. India needs to be clear on how each of its multiple global climate engagements – at the multilateral, minilateral, and bilateral levels — add up to a coherent whole to achieve its 2030 decarbonisation targets. Otherwise, there is a risk of a growing gap between India’s domestic priorities and transition targets and the rapidly fragmenting global climate landscape.
To avoid this outcome, strategic policy coordination and capacity will become crucial to connect the domestic and international domains. This includes multiple and complex competencies, including tracking India’s progress vis-à-vis the Paris commitments and giving sufficient attention to climate adaptation, not just mitigation; working with international financial institutions (IFIs) and multilateral development banks and the private sector to unlock climate finance; assessing the costs of American and European protectionist and fiscal transition policies; and understand the climate dimensions of sectors like aviation, biodiversity, health, agriculture, and trade.
Based on the findings of our recent study, we also propose two organisational options for India to strengthen its climate diplomacy, at the strategic and ministerial levels. At the highest level, India should reinstitute the position of a prime minister (PM)’s special envoy for climate or a climate ‘‘tsar”. Between 2007 and 2010, the former climate envoy Shyam Saran played a central role in preparing India’s international negotiation stances and coordinating between domestic and international actors. This is in line with what is already done by other special envoys representing the leaders of China or the US. While other countries have opted for a foreign-ministry level representative, the envoy’s direct link to the PM would confer greater standing abroad and legitimacy at home.
At the ministerial level, we propose three options. The ministry of external affairs (MEA) is now one of the few foreign ministries among major economic powers without a dedicated climate unit. First, the MEA should create a new division for climate issues, in line with divisions created in recent years for new policy issues (for example, on the Indo-Pacific and on new emerging and strategic technologies), headed by a joint secretary and including expert staff on deputation from other ministries engaged on climate matters abroad.
Second, the MEA should create a secretary-level position dedicated to climate, at par with the four existing secretary-level positions in the MEA (besides the foreign secretary). This senior position would help its holder to define, coordinate, and implement India’s climate diplomacy in coordination with the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC)— and at par with other secretary-ranked officials from other nodal ministries supporting India’s climate transition.
Finally, the MEA should create a “climate wing” at India’s major diplomatic missions abroad to track and accelerate key bilateral climate partnerships. India’s missions in Washington DC, Brussels, and Tokyo, among its largest, have a variety of specialised wings including political, economic, defence and military, trade and commerce, and science and technology affairs. New climate wings could help synergise policy, set bilateral targets, and engage with the rising number of multilateral and other climate clubs.
Climate today is an increasingly complex and crowded domain, shaped by political, economic, and geostrategic priorities. India has signalled its intent to be a positive climate player. It is now time to invest in a strategic capacity so that its climate diplomacy is better equipped to transform prevailing climate commitments into action.
Constantino Xavier is fellow at Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi and Karthik Nachiappan is research fellow at Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. The views expressed are personal