Climate: India throws down the gauntlet
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bucked tradition, offered solutions to the ongoing climate summit in Glasgow
Well before world leaders gathered in Glasgow this week for the Conference of the Parties (COP26) climate summit, there was already a familiar ring to what has become an annual ritual. It involved various actors, including politicians, activists and celebrities, continuing to pose as they have for decades without making real progress. Except that this time there was a twist, with India departing from the script in a significant way.
An essential part of the rituals is the pontification by rich countries, the greatest cumulative contributors to humanity’s carbon footprint. Their stance that they could do only so much to alleviate it and that the developing world, especially China and India, had to do much more of the heavy lifting, is by now a well-established trope.
They insist on holding developing nations accountable for their gross carbon emissions, since these are now approaching or exceeding those of the rich countries. But here, too, there are vast differences among such nations. China, for instance, has already been the world’s largest emitter of CO2 for 15 years, and now accounts for more than 25% of global emissions. India, with a similar population of 17% of all humanity, still accounts for only 5% of global emissions. By contrast, the United States (US), with only a fourth of India’s population, emits twice as much.
The pressure on developing nations to do more has traditionally been countered with the fundamental equity argument — if each person on earth is equal, then it is the per capita carbon footprints that must be the basis for multilateral commitments on the path forward. If that equity argument were to prevail fully, rich countries would have to far more drastically cut down their emissions to reach an acceptable per capita level, while developing ones would have an easier trajectory towards the same.
Many activists support the former, though not the latter, arguing that giving much leeway to developing nations would lead to catastrophic delays in reining in the earth’s rising temperatures. But activists have no panacea to offer the billions of human beings in such nations who are still deprived of some of the basics of modern existence — electricity and running water among them — and are clamouring for them.
An equitable path forward to reaching the vaunted net-zero milestone would require two critical components. First, technology. An example is the global surge in electric vehicles, though still in its infancy, triggered by Elon Musk. This, and other such major shifts in the global economy powered by new technologies, is key to the road ahead.
Second, and equally if not more importantly, is for developing nations to have access to these technologies and to funding. Without that, no matter how you slice the pie, there is no equitable way for the global poor to avail of basic needs without their per capita emissions skyrocketing.
Rich nations have been found wanting on all the key components of building the road to net-zero — whether it is sticking to their own earlier commitments to cut emissions, prioritising green technologies, or living up to their promises to help developing nations with technology and funding.
Traditionally, India too had stuck to the equity argument, while nevertheless committing to reducing emissions incrementally. There has been a two-fold change in the Narendra Modi era.
One, in his first term, the Modi government shifted gears dramatically on green energy. Without waiting for significant handouts from rich nations, India moved from earlier years of pious intentions to a determined thrust on actually building massive solar generation. It is now fourth in the world and continues to grow rapidly. That has forced a certain grudging public admiration from the rest of the world, for instance by US climate czar, John Kerry.
The second phase of the Modi years began with partnering the United Kingdom (UK) on the Green Grids: One Sun, One World, One Grid initiative, and is now gradually morphing into India taking on a globally influential leadership role.
This was on full display in Glasgow, with the prime minister committing India to a target of net-zero by 2070, and even more importantly, spelling out a detailed road map for it. This has come in for high praise from experts. For instance Rathin Roy, managing director of the London-based think tank, Overseas Development Institute, has called it “pragmatic, in a COP otherwise marked by bluster and artifice.”
This throwing down of the gauntlet by India is a watershed moment, made all the more stark by China’s leadership not even bothering to grace the occasion in person. That, along with rich nations’ continuing stinginess and irresolution, has pitched India, and especially Modi, as a key influencer among those shaping the global response to the climate crisis.
The climate domain is full of Utopian idealists who advocate radical, immediate changes, without viable transition strategies until there are cost-effective alternatives. Apart from its impracticality, a huge cost in human suffering would ensue. It is also full of hypocritical elites who personally flout every low-carbon footprint rule that they preach and seek to impose on others.
The world needs more pragmatic figures committed to both equity as well as tough but practical changes, with a commitment to specific timelines. India is beginning to show the way towards this.
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is national vice-president, BJPThe views expressed are personal