Hutong Cat | On climate, engagement must mark the India-China dynamic
There is a sense of irony here: As Indian and Chinese soldiers, braving a harsh terrain and glacial winter, continue to face-off along the disputed border in the Himalayas, well-dressed diplomats and climate negotiators from the two countries quietly backed each other up in air-conditioned rooms during the just-concluded 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
The focus was on replacing the phrase “phase out” with “phase down” of coal and fossil fuels – and, not, for a short while, on “disengagement”, a word that’s lately come to define Sino-India bilateral diplomacy.
Instead, engagement between India and China seemed to be key – and the focus of western criticism — at the Scottish Event Centre exhibition hall in Glasgow to push through the argument on behalf of developing countries — the need for climate finance, clean technology for renewables and more time to cut down on using coal for energy needs.
In Beijing, the State-run, usually animus-driven tabloid Global Times almost struck a friendly note, complaining how the western countries were unfairly targeting India and China.
“The West did not play fair by chiding China and India for changing the wording of a coal deal at COP26 in Glasgow…many developing countries still don’t have enough energy supply. To solve the divergence, wealthy countries must help finance the energy transition in developing nations,” the tabloid said in a disapproving tone.
The Chinese foreign ministry had its say too.
“We encourage developed nations to stop using coal first, and remember their promise to provide sufficient financial and technological support to developing countries in energy transition,” Zhao Lijian, ministry spokesperson said, adding that phasing down coal is a gradual process, during which the need of developing countries for sufficient energy supply should be considered.
Over the years, India and China have found common ground on climate and made themselves strategically important in the climate-focused Basic (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) and LMDC (Like-Minded Developing Countries) groupings. The two countries signed an agreement to cooperate on climate in 2009 and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cooperating on green technologies in 2010.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May, 2015, New Delhi and Beijing decided to enhance cooperation in clean energy technologies, renewable energy, electronic vehicles and low-carbon urbanisation. “The two sides believe that their bilateral partnership on climate change is mutually beneficial and contributes to the global efforts to address climate change. In this regard, the two sides decide to enhance high-level bilateral dialogue on domestic climate policies and multilateral negotiations,” said a joint statement released during Modi’s visit to China. The announcement was made ahead of the Paris conference to be held later in 2015.
Critics say the two countries haven’t really achieved much bilaterally against climate crisis or, for that matter, working together on “domestic climate policies”. At multilateral negotiations, yes, but only when it has been mutually convenient to argue for the need to continue the use of coal for energy needs.
China, for example, is not even part of the 100-member plus International Solar Alliance, co-founded by India and France in 2016, headquartered in India. There was no mention of either the One Sun, One World and One Grid pitch made by Modi and British PM Boris Johnson at COP26 in Chinese, forget any official acknowledgement.
Chinese climate experts, however, have closely followed the developments at COP26, especially tracking India’s way forward in cutting down on carbon emissions. They acknowledge that despite a critical common ground between the two countries, the two countries will have to adopt different strategies to counter the climate crisis.
Professor Teng Fei from the prestigious Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy told me about the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) principle that India and China believe in. The principle of CBDR says that while climate crisis is a universal problem that all countries need to address, the historic responsibility and individual capabilities of each country should guide the extent of their efforts and thus simultaneously address inequalities. Teng said the CBDR principle is very important to both India and China and both are firm on safeguarding these principles.
“Both China and India are quite strong in terms of this equity principle and historical responsibility of developed countries because the developed countries account for the majority share of the cumulative emission in the atmosphere, the root cause of climate change,” Teng said.
Both countries will have to adopt different strategies according to their stages of development. That was one of the outcomes reached at the end of the Third China-India Dialogue on climate held in Beijing in 2019 between experts and stakeholders from the two countries.
“There is strong political commitment in both China and India to move towards cleaner energy, but at the same time, the scale of growth – population, rising incomes, automobile growth and refrigerant demand -- in both countries outpaces progress in efficiency and fuel switching,” the dialogue noted in a session chaired by Teng and Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer, Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
Yang Fuqiang, a leading climate expert, from Peking University’s Climate Change and Energy Transition Program, said India and China can work more together on climate if they can set aside their border dispute – indicating broader diplomatic and security disputes could impact climate politics.
Coming back to the soldiers from the two countries who are deployed along the disputed Sino-India border, a recent report on the climate crisis in the current affairs website The Diplomat made some dire predictions.
The climate security study titled “Melting Mountains, Mounting Tensions”, projects a “strong warming trend overall, with a significant reduction of extreme wind chill days in high elevation regions on the western border by 2040. This warming will provide more opportunities for troop patrols on both sides, and therefore potentially more clashes, if tensions remain high. Troops also face enhanced risk of glacial lake outburst floods and avalanches.”
“We argue that enhanced floods in downstream India due to climate change could lead to Indian suspicions of deliberate Chinese water manipulation, regardless of whether this is objectively true. Such risks will be the greatest during phases of particularly low bilateral trust, such as the current period,” the authors of the study from the US-based research institutions, the Council on Strategic Risks and the Woodwell Climate Research Centre, said. Clearly, diplomats and experts arguing the case against climate crisis at summits should more than spare a thought for the soldiers guarding remote and disputed borders.
The views expressed are personal