Equity, Responsibility, and Feasibility: India and Climate Change

Windmills at a farm in Samana (Gujarat, India)

The congregation of leaders from over 190 countries in Paris to attempt to achieve a “legally binding and universal agreement on climate” is a historical moment, illustrating a strong collective will to combat the global existential challenge of climate change. Hopes are high, but not without a justified skepticism, most of which stems from projections of the growth path of emerging economies. And among emerging economies, bulk of the attention is focused on India for obvious reasons of high population, low development levels, and consequently, a steep trajectory of projected carbon based growth. In the build up to COP21, India has attempted to establish itself as the leader of developing countries in climate negotiations, and is championing the idea of Climate Justice. Prime Minister Modi, as is his wont, grabbed global headlines on the first day of the conference, not least due to his announcement with François Hollande, of the launching of an international solar alliance of over 120 countries.

But many see India as a hindrance to reaching an agreement. In unsparing terms, the US Secretary of State John Kerry said that India would be “a challenge” in COP21. Quick came a rebuttal from India’s Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, calling Kerry’s remarks unfair and unwarranted, and emphasizing that India will not be bullied by developed countries.

With stakes that have perhaps never been so high, it becomes highly pertinent to analyze India’s position on climate change. And to understand India’s position, we need to look at it through three related lenses of equity, responsibility, and feasibility.

Equity: The emphasis on Climate Justice is deeply rooted in the idea of equity. There are objective and subjective lenses to look at equity issues with mitigation of global warming, and the two frequently overlap. Subjectively, one can question whether it is justified to continue denying access to cheap electricity to a significant portion of the population (237 million as per IEA WEO — 2015), and thus hamper their opportunities of moving towards a basic dignified standard of living. And objectively, a related question is what could justify the existence of a twenty six fold gap between the per capita carbon emission of India and the country with highest per capita emissions (as a more relatable statistic — the difference is tenfold between India and the USA)? At a broader level, this question also finds traction in a new paper by Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel, where they argue for countries’ contribution to green climate fund in proportion of per capita carbon emissions.

The reasons behind this inequity, and the trade-offs for moving towards climate justice, are spread across long time horizons, and thus, the balancing act is not only between nations but also between timelines of action. Further, these are by no means new questions, but were correctly recognized through Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) in Rio 1992. However, with increasing knowledge about the catastrophic outcomes of inaction (and more importantly negative action), there is a justifiable perception that CBDR has outlived its relevance. This brings us to the idea of responsibility.

Responsibility: India’s ex-environment minister and representative for Copenhagen, Jairam Ramesh, has been an outspoken critic of the philosophy of “grow-now pay-later”, and strongly urges that it would be highly irresponsible to continue with this model, for India as well as for the world. India’s rapid economic growth over previous two decades has for the most part ignored environmental impacts, and with polluted rivers, severely unhealthy air, and disturbed livelihoods of forest dependent populace, the damaging impacts are prominently visible. Further, there is a fear that if India follows the same carbon path as China, it could “offset all the efforts at curtailment in the rest of the world, leading to catastrophe”. It seems ironic, although perhaps appropriate, that India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) starts with a hymn from the Yajur Veda, praying for peace and harmony across nature and the world. It could be symbolic of the path the government is willing to take, realizing that as an important economic player globally, and a democratic entity nationally, India cannot shirk its responsibility towards a less carbon intensive growth. The INDCs, complimented by energy policies, indicate the framework of growth that India is targeting. But the signals are mixed, and there are highly pertinent questions on technical as well as financial feasibility of the targets.

Feasibility: As per its INDCs, India aims to reduce the GDP emissions intensity by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Studies have varying perceptions about the achievability of this target. A key contributor to this reduction is the planned increase in non-fossil based electricity, expected to reach 40% of cumulative installed electric power by 2030. This stands in line with the revised solar power policy for 2022, with a recent fivefold increase in the target from 20 GW to 100 GW. However, the INDC proposition on non-fossil electricity targets is not without strings, and makes explicit reference to assistance from “low cost international finance, including from Green Climate Fund (GCF)”. A preliminary estimate puts the required finance (including domestic finance) to USD 2.5 trillion. This is seen by many as a deal breaker. But considered together with the arguments on equity, there is a strong case for developed countries to extend assistance, the extent of which is subject to negotiations.

Along with financial difficulties, India also faces technical challenges in large scale renewable growth. A significant renewable penetration, especially from intermittent sources such as solar and wind, requires the presence of peaker plants (typically hydro and gas based power plants), which can be ramped up and down quickly, and run for a few hours to supply electricity when renewables are down. India doesn’t have enough peaker plants for both financial and non-financial reasons. As peaker plants operate for only a few hours, they require higher tariffs for economic viability, but higher intermittent tariffs appear impossible in India, where electricity tariffs are low and extremely politically sensitive. Further, the absence of a supply chain for gas and the significant socio-environmental impacts of hydropower limit the near-term growth prospects for such plants. How India attempts to address these challenges remains to be seen.

To conclude, while unbalanced binding climate agreements appear justifiably inequitable against developing countries at large, the catastrophic damages that face everyone leave no room for shirking responsibility. Climate agreements have travelled far in time but not far in impact, and although Paris is not expected to lead to a final solution, it would be a disaster if misunderstood realities and rigid perceptions hinder a salutary agreement. And the discussions on equity, responsibility, and feasibility offer necessary frameworks to reach a mutually agreeable position between the developed and the developing world.