India’s signing of the Paris climate accord last week marks the beginning of difficult negotiations that heavily implicate its energy consumption and economic interests. The first signs are already visible: no sooner had the ink dried on New Delhi’s signature than enormous pressure brought to bear on Indian negotiators in Montreal to commit to emission reductions in the country’s aviation sector. The ongoing general assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal is expected to announce a “markets-based” framework to reduce “global aviation emissions” this week. The ICAO’s initial proposal to achieve “carbon-neutral growth” for air traffic by 2020 – a fancy way of asking countries to cap their emissions in four years – was emphatically rejected by the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries. Nevertheless, it appears an emissions reductions plan will emerge from the general assembly, moving this deadline to 2027, while seeking voluntary reductions from developing countries in the interim.
For India, which is poised to be the third largest aviation market in the world by 2020, the implications of the ICAO deal are significant. According to New Delhi’s official submission to the ICAO, India emits less than 1% of the total carbon emission from global aviation. Domestic flights are not likely to be part of the ICAO proposal, but any commitment to a cap on emissions will have the effect of locking down global aviation hubs. New Delhi is already playing catch-up with Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the National Democratic Alliance should not agree to any proposal that will limit the country’s emergence as a regional transit point. Just as important, new ICAO rules will make international air travel more expensive for Indian carriers, potentially limiting their spread to regional and global destinations.
Whether or not India signs up to this deal, the developments in Montreal reflect a fundamental shift in the way the world approaches climate treaties. No longer will Indian negotiators be able to seek refuge under the umbrella UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The standards of equity, “historical responsibility” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” that were born out of the Rio Declaration of 1992 have systematically slid over time, reflecting instead a call to arms for reducing “global” emissions. The Paris accord is the culmination of this shift in narratives, which India was late to recognise, but wisely took ownership at the eleventh hour.
In reality, the Paris agreement commits India to do little more than being part of a multilateral effort to reduce the “global average temperature” to below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Any effort to further mitigate emissions is contingent on the flow of climate finance and the feasibility of technology transfers. The accord leaves ample room for countries to determine their national contributions, although its review/stocktaking process will keep capitals on their toes. Were the technology mechanism or climate fund envisaged in the agreement to fail to live up to their targets, India can claim a material change in the circumstances of the accord, which allows New Delhi to legally withdraw from its obligations. Indeed, the union cabinet while deciding to ratify the agreement has made precisely such an observation. All this is not to say India should oblige the Paris deal with a wink and a smile, but only that the agreement does not require the country to pursue any more mitigation efforts than it is currently implementing to counter the devastating effects of global warming nationally.
It is to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credit that India could emerge from the Paris negotiations relatively unscathed. India’s negotiating line, which has survived bitter diplomatic battles over the course of the last decade, was not in doubt at the 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21. But that line was never sold as a political package to foreign capitals. Once diplomats stepped back and leaders like US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande began to take ownership of climate change as a legacy issue, it became unsustainable for New Delhi to simply reiterate its red lines. Modi’s interventions and his shepherding of the International Solar Alliance in Paris helped rebrand India as a responsible player – this was a relatively easy task given the agreement’s modest objectives, but still needed political leadership that the PM provided.
This manoeuvre may have worked for the time being, but the fact remains Indian diplomacy is not equipped with a comprehensive strategy to tackle the long-term effects of the Paris agreement. By placing all major economies on an even keel, the climate accord has blurred the line between developed and emerging markets. Its impact will be felt most acutely in technology and trade negotiations happening across the world, either in the form of bilateral FTAs or mega-regional arrangements. To meet mitigation goals, developing countries would need green technologies that are patented in the US and Europe. Access to these technologies will come with riders attached, such as the recalibration of foreign investment directives and intellectual property rights regimes. The climate finance fund, even if it were to materialise, would only create a captive market for Western technologies. The WTO ruling against India’s domestic content requirement on solar panels illustrates the difficulty in managing both emissions reductions and affordable provision of clean energy sources. Just as industry-driven initiatives such as the US “Special 301” report are made to exert pressure on countries whose IP regimes are not “favourable”, the Paris agreement’s review mechanisms will nudge developing economies towards “greener” growth.
India cannot defend against such outcomes merely by holding on to its IP laws or insisting on domestic manufacturing requirements. It should continue to push for affordable access to technology and finance for developing countries and LDCs, without parroting norms of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. New Delhi’s proactive diplomacy in Paris offers it some political space to negotiate technology transfers under the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other agreements, with a view to meet mitigation targets. Rather than tweaking its domestic laws to meet mitigation targets, India should ensure the shoe is on the other foot, so that plurilateral economic deals reflect the promises of the Paris agreement. And lastly, New Delhi’s climate diplomacy should be “ally-proof” and hedge against an imminent split in the BASIC grouping: China has made significant concessions through bilateral climate deals with the US, and is unlikely to back India’s multilateral positions. With its change in government, Brazil is likely to follow suit.
The first phase of India’s climate diplomacy, which began in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit and lasted till the 2016 Paris agreement, is over. It emphasised the creation of norms of responsibility and a multilateral framework to tackle climate change. Now that this is in place, Indian diplomacy should place a premium on implementation. Through enabling market conditions and ready access to capital from regional financial institutions, India should avoid any serious disruption to its economic growth as it goes about meeting its mitigation targets.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.