India’s status as a large developing country and a major emitter complicates its position at the Paris climate talks, writes Alyssa Ayres in this guest blog post, but there are signs that its delegation is working more constructively than in years past toward a deal. This piece is part of our guest series surrounding the UN talks in Paris. Previous posts addressed deforestation, short-lived pollutants, climate change and conflict in northern Nigeria, international climate institutions beyond the UN, and China’s rhetoric on climate.
A reader could be forgiven her confusion at the extreme dichotomy in perspectives offered by Indian and American media covering the Conference of Parties (COP21) climate negotiations in Paris. The U.S. press, cartoonists included, has highlighted India as a hurdle at best, spoiler at worst, to achieving a strong, effective agreement. The Indian press has characterized the United States as a “bully” unwilling to make deeper emissions cuts at home but harshly pressing the poor to do so, balking at more funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change, and resisting proposals for liability for future environmental damage. In contrast, both countries perceive themselves as taking important steps to bring about domestic and international consensus to limit climate change.
While the negotiations will continue throughout this week, a few observations can be made from the talks so far in thinking about how a rising India views its global role.
First—and though obvious, it bears repeating—despite having entered the ranks of the world’s top ten economies last year, and despite its potential trajectory to become a $10 trillion economy in the coming decades, in global negotiations India sees itself squarely as a developing country. There’s no question that the scale of India’s development needs dwarf those of every other country on the planet; that is not in dispute. But at the same time, the magnitude of India’s effect on the world, particularly on the environment as its economy continues to grow, has put India in the frontlines due to its behemoth size. Scale is everything, as India’s current air quality problems illustrate. Like in China, urban Indian citizens are already suffering from the toll rapid economic growth has taken on the environment; last year the World Health Organization declared Delhi’s air the most polluted in the world. (While negotiators burrowed deep into bracketed text in Paris last week, back in India the Delhi High Court ruled that living in the city was like “living in a gas chamber,” an indictment of business as usual if there ever was one.)
Second, despite the impression conveyed in some articles that India (alone) stands between success or failure in Paris, reinforced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s description of India as a “challenge,” it appears that India is far from isolated. And a major issue on which India has a broad slate of support from the Group of 77 concerns climate equity, or what Indian writers refer to as “carbon space.” India and many other developing countries resent being asked to curb emissions to solve a problem that the developed countries created over time, and particularly given their low per capita carbon emissions levels compared to those in the West. As the climate experts Navroz Dubash and Radhika Khosla argue in Time.com, India has accounted for just “3% of global greenhouse-gas emissions since the industrial revolution, compared with 27% for the U.S.” More than 300 million Indian citizens still live without access to basic electricity, and India faces enormous infrastructure needs, so the argument that India still needs to deliver more on development at home at lowest cost before it can definitively shift to more expensive energy sources appeals to a basic logic.
Third, while India has famously employed the power of “no” to scuttle other multilateral negotiations—think of the 2008 Doha Development Round, or the abrupt dissolution of the Bali Trade Facilitation Agreement in July 2014—the India that showed up in Paris came with a proactive proposal to shape global behavior in a direction that suits India’s energy security and economic interests. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, long an advocate of solar power, joined with French President Francois Hollande to inaugurate a new international solar alliance. The alliance declaration emphasized “sustainable development, universal energy access, and energy security,” along with the importance of making “clean and renewable energy…affordable for all.” Given India’s solar energy generation potential, and its stated commitments to rapidly scale up its production to one hundred gigawatts by 2022, the initiative puts India in a global leadership role on an energy policy it has already committed to deliver at home. The solar alliance leverages India’s strengths on solar with a call for greater global commitment to equity by finding ways to bring down the cost of solar technology for poorer countries.
Relatedly, and finally, reports suggest that the Indian delegation in Paris is ready to deal rather than risk a global deal. India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar told the press that, “India is looking positively to the final outcome from Paris and India will be flexible and show the world that though India is not part of the problem, still is facilitator for the solution.” This stance is very different from the single-issue veto-power approach India has at times employed in multilateral consensus settings. In July 2014, by contrast, India’s commerce minister—explaining her country’s objections to the Bali trade agreement India had already signed onto seven months earlier but then refused to ratify—framed her position as a tactic of using the best tool available (veto) to force discussion on a topic India felt had been sidelined.
As the negotiations continue throughout this week, we will see further how India’s aspirations to be a “leading power, rather than just a balancing power” shape its appetite for concessions. The coming days will also show us how effectively New Delhi’s new approach delivers productive outcomes that address Indian concerns while advancing the larger global goal at the same time.