Avoiding a cop out in Paris


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Three of the most exciting initiatives have emerged on the sidelines of the official deliberations, and Indians have played a prominent role in all of them

Ever since Charles Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Field at the end of his epochal maiden solo, non-stop transatlantic flight between New York and Paris in 1927, this venue has invoked the derring-do of pioneers willing to push the conventional envelope, both in terms of technology and policy. It is perhaps no coincidence that the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (or simply COP21) is being held at the same locale and the gathering appears to have imbibed the same spirit of taking bold initiatives to tackle one of the biggest challenges confronting humanity.

Most of the attention has been focused on the formal negotiations. Negotiators have just released a 42-page draft agreement with 939 sections of bracketed text on which there is no agreement so far. They include issues like whether to have a binding treaty or merely a political agreement; whether to work towards a fossil-fuel-free future or a low-carbon economy; and how to create a legal framework to sustain climate finance for developing nations.

However, three of the most exciting initiatives have emerged on the sidelines of the official deliberations, and Indians have played a prominent role in all of them.

The first is the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC), spearheaded by Bill Gates, which includes Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani from India as well as four leading Chinese entrepreneurs. This coalition aims to provide venture capital to bring riskier and untested new technologies related to electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial use, agriculture and energy system efficiency to the market. More than the $20 billion capital that BEC aims to offer over the next decade, it is the idea of making profit while addressing climate change challenges that is truly noteworthy.

The second is the launch of Mission Innovation, a dramatic initiative to accelerate public and private partnership to “address global climate change, provide affordable clean energy to consumers, including in the developing world, and create additional commercial opportunities in clean energy”. This includes the 28 investors from the BEC and 20 countries, including Brazil, China, India and the US who “represent 75% of the world’s CO2 emissions from electricity, and more than 80% of the world’s clean energy R&D investment”. Again the most interesting aspect of this initiative is its move to leverage public-private partnership—both in the global North and South—to promote joint ventures that can make clean energy economically viable.

Finally, the Indo-French-led International Solar Energy Alliance, supported by more than 120 countries, hopes to raise $1 trillion to scale up solar energy development by 2030, particularly in the tropical sun-drenched countries. Apart from bridging the technology and finance gap, the alliance is also an effort to bridge the North-South divide, which has stymied cooperative approaches to addressing climate change.

While officially India has stuck to its “common but differentiated responsibility” guns, these initiatives underline New Delhi’s efforts to avoid a cop out in Paris and play a proactive role in shaping the norms, mechanisms and institutions to deal with climate change, both nationally and globally.

In addition to these initiatives, there are at least two others that India might consider leading. The first could be an initiative to build a global coalition to enhance the resilience of mega cities to deal with the threats of extreme climate events. Against the backdrop of the devastating floods that have battered Chennai—partly on account of climate change factors—such an initiative would be both timely and popular. It would also strengthen the case for the government’s “smart cities” project.

Second, in a bid to enhance its clean energy options, India could also refocus attention on the ambitious ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) megaproject, which seeks to produce clean energy from nuclear fusion. After a promising start, ITER has run into technological difficulties, construction delays and budget overruns. COP21 and beyond might be an opportune moment to re-energize efforts on the ITER project.

These initiatives, along with those already taken, would be in keeping with the spirit of Le Bourget.

This article first appeared in Mint on December 07, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.