Proposing a new climate agenda for India
The Indian road to leadership should be based on near-term actions, institutional strengthening, and a combination of mid- and long-term targets
In the first part of this article, I argued that India needs to define its climate policies in ways that meet diplomatic, developmental and climate interest simultaneously. Current proposals for a pledge of net-zero emissions by 2050, particularly if bound in law, would likely win us diplomatic credit, but risk our development future, and ironically, may not, in practice, accelerate our transition to a low-carbon future. India has an opportunity to claim leadership by being ambitious, by shifting the spotlight to concrete immediate actions, backed by credible institutions, with long-term pledges, net-zero or otherwise, as a supporting element.
Our starting point for what India should do lies in two observations. India’s greenhouse gas emissions are growing, and, because complex energy and economic systems take time to turn around, will grow for some time. The trick for countries with growing economies is to shorten that turnaround time and lower the level at which our emissions will peak. To do so, we have to focus on squeezing more development out of less carbon. In addition, India’s domestic political choices are, invariably, going to be driven by our development future, and not by mitigation objectives alone; Indian citizens are unlikely to be willing to sacrifice development for mitigation. But the good news is that, in many cases, we don’t have to. We have to bring together development and mitigation through our development choices — how we urbanise and how we industrialise. While net-zero may be useful for a country where emissions are on the downward slope, a focus on development pathways is more helpful for a growing country like India with a choice between development futures.
To operationalise this focus on development pathways requires three steps. First, identify and build a future pledge around sectoral transition plans for key areas of the economy in order to achieve a low-carbon future. These plans will require emphasising different aspects depending on the specifics of the sector. For example, to accelerate the electricity sector transition requires fixing distribution companies, transitioning from coal while protecting coal communities, and enhancing investment in renewable energy investments. In transport and buildings, attention to urbanisation patterns, behavioural choices such as public transport, and incentives for more electric vehicles in transport will bear fruit.
Limiting emissions from industry is a longer-term prospect because technologies are nascent, and will require international collaboration for new technology and approaches. Notably, attention to sectoral transitions likely sends a clearer and more direct signal to the private sector on the need to shift investment patterns than does a broad and diffuse economy-wide net-zero target.
Second, build and strengthen India’s domestic institutions for climate governance. While this may seem boring and bureaucratic, India’s governance, like most other countries, is designed for silo-based decisions. The climate crisis requires both looking across boundaries — electricity decisions may be tied to decisions on urban policy, transport systems, and building design, for example — and a strategic focus on future pathways and possibilities. Here a climate law can be useful, but it should be one tied to identifying linkages between development needs and low carbon opportunities, and harnessing all levels of government toward realising these opportunities.
Notably, institutions for low-carbon development pathways are not the same as those designed to maximise mitigation. Net-zero-oriented institutions are built around setting and tracking compliance with carbon budgets. Development pathway focused institutions are aimed at identifying opportunities for low-carbon development, ensuring cross-sectoral collaboration, and enabling shifts by smoothening obstacles. India needs to focus on building a State capable of addressing this challenge. Cutting and pasting from net-zero-focused legislations of other countries will not get us there.
Third, because ultimately we do face finite global limits on carbon emissions, India also needs to develop economy-wide targets that signals how much we will contribute globally. But these should be built on top of the first two steps, not the cart that purports to lead the horse. And our economy-wide targets should emphasise near-term actions, in the next five to 10 years. A growing global chorus of critics is pointing out that net-zero emissions targets are not as ambitious as they seem, because they rely on future promises rather than current action, and on uncertain technologies to remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. Indeed, their main merit is political — they create the appearance of dramatic change, while allowing flexibility for governments to avoid being pinned down to more important immediate actions.
The Indian road to leadership should be based on specific near-term actions, institutional strengthening, and a combination of mid- and long-term targets. Longer-term targets, including net-zero, can, and should, be clarified and strengthened as we learn by doing over time, as part of our transition to a low carbon future. This three-part agenda is a more complicated vision of a climate ambitious India than one simply built around a net-zero target. But it is one that is more consistent with the long-term welfare and prospects of India’s citizens. This is a complexity worth embracing and arguing for in this year’s fraught context of climate diplomacy.
Navroz K Dubash is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and the editor of India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development.
The views expressed are personal