India’s Role in the International Climate Negotiations

For almost a quarter-century, the world has placed its faith in international agreements to address the threat of climate change. A binding global treaty, the reasoning goes, is the best way to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are capped at a level low enough to prevent dangerous climate change.  The effort to set emissions limits got off to a good start in 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first signed.  The UNFCCC has become about as universal as a treaty can be, with over 190 signatories. But momentum towards an agreement that set binding emissions limits for individual countries soon became stymied over the argument put forward by most developing countries: that rich countries should shoulder the entire burden of reducing emissions. In the late 1990s, this divide prevented the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the main mechanism for reducing global emissions. The U.S. Senate reasoned that unless China and other large developing countries agreed to limit their emissions, an international agreement would be meaningless.    

This divide was finally bridged in a big way during President Obama’s visit to China in early November, when the world’s two largest emitters, the United States and China, announced a bilateral agreement in which Washington pledged to reduce emissions by one-quarter below 2005 levels by 2025, and Beijing committed to preventing its emissions from growing after 2030. The Sino-American agreement comes at a critical time for the global climate negotiations: the Kyoto Protocol, despite America’s refusal to ratify it, remains the world’s only binding international agreement to reduce emissions. And it is scheduled to expire in 2020.  Most climate experts believe that a replacement agreement must be formulated by the end of 2015 to allow enough time for it to come into force before 2020, giving the world just one year to overcome decades of stalemate in global climate negotiations. The European Union has launched its own attempt to jump-start climate negotiations, announcing it will pursue emissions reductions of 40% below 1990 levels by 2040. Among the world’s large economies – and big emitters – that leaves India as the biggest wildcard going into the Lima negotiations and the 2015 climate conference, scheduled to be held in Paris.    

So far, India’s stance on climate change has blended genuine concern for the issue with a resolute refusal to consider limiting its own emissions.  On the one hand, the Government of India has long expressed its concern over the effects of climate change. It began formulating policies to support renewable energy in its 2008 National Climate Change Action Plan. India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been outspoken in calling attention to the challenge of climate change. As Chief Minister of Gujarat he promoted policies to expand renewable energy production and to help the state adapt to the effects of climate change.  But Modi’s personally progressive stance on climate change contrasts sharply with New Delhi’s long-standing refusal to consider limiting India’s emissions while India’s per-capita emissions, at 1.7 metric tons in 2010, remains below the global average of about 5 metric tons.  Successive Indian governments have maintained that poverty reduction and expanding access to energy, not reducing emissions, must be the country’s chief priorities.  At the UN Climate Summit in September, India’s Environment Minister repeated this stance, implying that India would not limit its emissions for at least thirty years. 

Unfortunately, the world does not have that long to wait. The world needs robust commitments from India that it will slow and eventually peak emissions as part of a comprehensive, post-Kyoto agreement on climate change.  But equally, the world cannot ignore India’s development priorities, or the fact that external pressure rarely goes down well in New Delhi. The best way forward is to rapidly and dramatically expand partnerships in the field of clean energy, much as the United States, the European Union, and other developed countries have done in China. The Indian government has stated its desire to dramatically expand production of hydropower, solar and nuclear energy. And developed countries must do everything they can to help shift India’s current reliance on coal to these more sustainable energy sources. The priority should be expanding joint research and development partnerships along the lines of the U.S. – China Clean Energy Research Center, which has helped to stimulate collaborations between researchers and pave the way for a joint carbon capture and sequestration demonstration project.  Moreover, Washington should replicate the successful EcoPartnerships program and create similar links with India, by pairing cities, states, universities and even companies in both countries to address shared environmental challenges,.

Reaching a successful agreement in Paris requires an ambitious and constructive climate change policy from New Delhi. There have been some promising moves, including a commitment from the Government of India to phase out hydro-fluorocarbons and to significantly increase solar power.  But India must go further, and pioneer a low-carbon development trajectory that reduces poverty and expands access to energy without relying on excessive use of fossil fuels. Washington and the rest of the world can help. But ultimately New Delhi must recognize its crucial role in the Paris 2015 international climate negotiations.