Design a climate-ready governance system
India needs new dedicated organisations, policy frameworks, and financing mechanisms. Begin with a low-carbon development commission
Countries around the world, including India, face the challenge of building a climate-ready State. Because almost all sectors and many parts of society contribute to greenhouse gases and are vulnerable to its impact, the climate crisis requires an all-of-government and all-of-society response. Because the shifts required must be rapid to address the urgency of the problem, we need strategic ability, including modelling, analysis and direction-setting. And finally, because these shifts will be disruptive, and create winners (renewable energy companies) and losers (coal-dependent communities), a climate-ready State must be able to limit the fallout for those disadvantaged by the transition.
There has been a steady chorus calling for enhanced policy and targets by all countries in the build-up to the Glasgow Conference of Parties in November, and climate has been central to global discussions such as the recent meeting of G7 leaders. Yet, there has been too little discussion about how India, and other countries, can get climate governance right. In addition to targets and policies, we need to deepen and enhance systems of governance for the climate crisis, which include dedicated organisations, policy frameworks, capacities, and financing mechanisms.
This enormous governance challenge has long been under-addressed, in India, as elsewhere. A national plan, created in 2008, limited itself to eight priority sectors, with uneven progress across the various “missions”. No durable bodies were created to orchestrate a strategic national response over the long run. An advisory council under the prime minister has not met since 2015. An apex implementation body composed of senior bureaucrats has been similarly inconsistent, meeting only six times between 2013 and 2019. India has accumulated a growing patchwork of climate policies, with some benefits, but these are scattershot and untethered to a larger national goal.
An eight-country study by the Centre for Policy Research that compares climate governance systems tells us how national governments could tackle the climate governance challenge. It is clear there is no one-size-fits-all institutional framework; different needs, governance systems, and political support all matter. The United Kingdom, with arguably the most well-developed climate governance, has a law-backed independent commission that recommends five-yearly carbon budgets to the government, which filters through to each department. In the fractious climate politics of the United States, after failed efforts at climate law, the federal government has chosen to embed climate capacities across departments. China has a top-down approach that parcels out targets decided at the highest levels of government to lower rungs under threat of sanction. Which approach is right for India?
India’s approach must be driven by its development and carbon context. India’s energy needs are growing, and we emit far less carbon per capita than the rich world. Yet, for our own sake, India must meet an increasing share of energy needs from low-carbon sources. And we must ensure that the India of the future, from infrastructure to industrial foundations, is compatible with low-carbon development. As argued in these pages earlier, India should focus on low-carbon development pathways and establish institutions for this.
Crucially, they must be able to peer into the future to assess how policy choices today might shape decisions in later stages of growth. A choice between electric vehicles or public transport determines the future carbon-intensity of cities, automobile manufacturing and the electric grid, for example.
In a new policy brief, we lay out an institutional architecture capable of crafting such low-carbon development pathways. We ground our prescriptions in the understanding that the system must fill a strategic void through credible information and analysis; that it must be open to voices across society; that it must appropriately address different levels of governance in India; and that it must be able to coordinate ministries pulling in different directions even while working with the grain of existing systems. This is a delicate balancing act.
At the core of our proposal lies an independent, non-executive low-carbon development commission (LCDC), anchored in new climate legislation and composed of both experts and stakeholders. It is meant to craft low-carbon development pathways and recommend policy opportunities to ministries, deriving authority from the credibility of its analysis. But equally, its links to key stakeholders — business, labour, civil society — will allow it to embed technical analysis in broad public discourse.
To improve chances of uptake, we propose that ministries be made to report to Parliament and the public on their annual plans, goals and achievements. Budgetary incentives for mitigation might speed up the process. To coordinate a growing body of policy, now in a different context, we recommend revitialising the body of senior bureaucrats mentioned above – the executive committee on climate change. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change will continue as the nodal ministry, handling key functions, including monitoring. As climate science advances and India’s developmental position evolves, this architecture must be capable of reimagining itself to address other formulations, including net zero-emission targets.
Climate is now firmly entrenched in the global, and Indian, agenda. A great deal of energy goes into debating policies and targets. For these to be strategic, effective, and consistent with India’s development goals, India now needs to also build a climate-ready system of governance.
Navroz K Dubash is professor, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Aditya Valiathan Pillai and Parth Bhatia, co-authors of the piece, are associate fellows at CPR
The views expressed are personal