India’s Climate Contribution Statement Passes The Diplomatic Test

The first step has been taken, but there are several key issues and hurdles that will come up before the Paris negotiations on climate change

Smoke spewing traffic in an Indian city

Smoke spewing traffic in an Indian city

On October 2, India put out its much awaited climate change policy document – Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC, for the faithful – for the upcoming Paris meeting. The last of the large economies to do so, its statement was anxiously awaited globally to see whether India would step out of line with the emergent global political consensus on how to structure a global deal. It didn’t.

The consensus is that each country should put on the table emissions limitations (and other aspects such as adaptation, should it see fit) that its domestic political economy allows. While the collected INDCs of countries may not – almost certainly will not – be sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change, these INDCs are meant to be the first step in a longer-term virtuous cycle of trust building, leading to ever higher pledges. For this edifice to remain standing, it is important that each country’s contribution is, in fact, a good faith contribution.

The problem is, since each contribution is to be ‘nationally determined’ or shaped by domestic considerations, including political considerations, how is ‘good faith’ to be judged? The benchmarks are multiple and divergent. And indeed, the politics behind alternative numbers describing who should do how much is the reason why the climate negotiations have been stalled for 20 years.

In this context, India chose to demonstrate good faith in a few different ways. First, we said that the emissions per unit of GDP that we produce (emissions intensity) would decline by 33-35% from its 2005 level by 2030. By stating an intensity reduction number, India is making clear our total emissions will increase through 2030. Importantly, we are drawing a distinction between ourselves and our political allies and fellow large emerging economies – South Africa, Brazil and China – all of which have chosen to formulate their contribution in terms of some sort of emissions peak (China without specifying an emission level, but only a peaking year of 2030) after which their emissions would decline.

Why emission peak won’t work for India

Starting from a much lower base of emissions, and as a considerably poorer country, an emission peak formulation was clearly not possible for India. For example, India’s emissions per person are about a tenth of the US and four to five times less than that of China, South Africa and Brazil. Our GDP per capita is about half that of China and about a third that of South Africa and Brazil. Nonetheless, we are now the third largest emitter in total terms, and the case for why India’s emissions have to continue growing needed to be made.

Updated analysis of India's INDC pledge

Updated analysis of India’s INDC pledge. Credit: CPR

Consequently, India had to show that it was taking serious measures to limit, if not emissions, than the rate of growth of emissions. By this benchmark, the emissions intensity number is on the conservative side. For example, a recent survey of national emissions and energy modelling studies undertaken by the Centre for Policy Research, illustrated in the above figure, shows that the 33-35% number leads to an intensity that falls at the low end of “reference” scenarios (i.e. what will happen with existing policies) and the high end of “policy” scenarios ( i.e. what will happen with additional policy effort). This suggests that the target may correspond to relatively low levels of policy effort or even to the normal course of events.

If this was all, India’s INDC may have been judged more harshly. But the intensity number was buttressed by two further elements. First, and most headline grabbing, India pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuel based electricity (i.e. solar, wind, biomass, nuclear and hydro) to 40% of total electric capacity, and to increase forest and tree cover considerably. Second, there is a long, 20-page section laying out India’s progress on climate change, which includes a mix of current policies, scaled up efforts and proposed new efforts. Each of these deserves a closer look.

The electricity number, in particular, requires unpacking. A 40% share of electricity from non-fossil sources is a 10% increase from current 30% share. But because the total system itself is rapidly growing, it amounts to a substantial number, with higher end assumptions leading to numbers on the order of our entire current electric system capacity. Curiously, the section on India’s progress also includes an even more ambitious target, of 175GW of renewable energy (only solar, wind and biomass) by the even earlier date of 2022. It is significant that this statement is in the section on progress rather than in the formal part of the INDC, and is further hedged by an explicit statement that India is not bound to any sector specific obligation. If fulfilled, the latter short-term number is likely to make the former number redundant. In other words, while it is likely hard to achieve the 2022 number, once achieved, it should be relatively easier to extend it to the 2030 target.

The problem of finance

In all likelihood, with the 175GW target having been unveiled somewhat hastily earlier this year, India could not back away from it, and have since added a relatively modest update for the INDC. If the 2022 175 GW target is not reached, the 2030 40% fossil-fuel free target still stands as a respectable goal. On the other hand, if we achieve the short term 2022 target, we will considerably overachieve the long-term 2030 target.

Also noteworthy for its sheer scope is the section on India’s progress. Embedded in the detail are a few potentially big-ticket changes, such as the planned dedicated rail freight corridor to shift away from road freight, which could avoid high carbon lock-in an important part of the economy. For the most part, however, this section is somewhat vague, and where specific, it lists existing initiatives rather than new ones. But it is the framing of the section that is worth comment: if this section is to be believed, from here onwards India will include a climate perspective on a huge portion of the economy, including energy, transport, water, forests, agriculture and so on. This is an implicit acknowledgement that, often, addressing climate change is closely linked to sensible stewardship of the local environment and resource base. Will a global pledge to take climate change seriously in these sectors provide a lever to actually take more seriously local environmental protection?

A final point that speaks directly to the politics of the INDC is the treatment of finance. Historically, India has hewed closely to the view that all mitigation action, in particular, has to be paid for by the international community and backed by technology and capacity building. Underlying this notion is the idea that we focus on development at home, and mitigation and adaptation are add-ons for which international support is needed. But if climate change cuts across a huge swathe of the economy, then we are using the concept of mainstreaming climate change, which conceptually runs against the idea that development and climate action are neatly separable.

Here, the INDC resorts to what amounts to creative ambiguity. By listing actions, the text implies that India will go ahead with all sorts of actions that have the effect of mitigating and adapting, using our own money. But it also says that “successful implementation” of the INDC (by which it means a subset of the actions that are singled out) are contingent on an “ambitious global agreement” that includes finance, technology, and capacity building. Contrary to some views that suggest India has hewn to the strict version of its traditional line, this fudge holds open the possibility of continuing to ask for funds – but it also allows for action under India’s own steam. In a sense, this only formalises the approach of the past few years, during which India demanded funds at negotiations, even while undertaking all sorts of actions at home under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. This creative ambiguity on finance is a key element of the good faith test that the international community will apply to India.

Ultimately, India walks a line in its INDC. Passing the test of good faith has certainly been helped by the prevailing international environment – the mood is one of building a virtuous cycle, for which it is necessary to focus on positive interpretations of any ambiguity. But as negotiations begin to pinch, the ambiguity could begin to be less constructive. In the coming two months before the Paris negotiations, there are a number of key issues that India will face with regard to how these INDCs are to be taken forward, assessed, reviewed and updated. And there is the bigger question of whether the edifice, to which India has added its brick, is sufficiently robust to actually accomplish the overarching task of addressing climate change. India’s INDC has passed the diplomatic test. Whether, as part of a larger structure populated by similar carefully parsed INDCs passes, it passes the substantive test, remains to be seen.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi