In October 2015, India unveiled a comprehensive strategy to curb its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reduce its vulnerability to a changing climate. Climate advocacy groups hailed the document—which in the parlance of international climate negotiations is known as India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)—because it signaled a historic shift in India’s stance on climate action. Altogether, 185 countries have now submitted INDCs, accounting for nearly 90 percent of global GHG emissions and raising hopes for a successful accord at the UN climate talks being held in Paris at the end of 2015.
Varun Sivaram, Douglas Dillon Fellow, and Annushka Shivnani in an essay quoting some analysts caution that such optimism is unfounded. The pessimist’s take is that India, the world’s third-largest GHG emitter behind China and the United States, has committed to little more than business as usual. Despite ambitious commitments, for example to rapidly deploy renewable energy sources, India’s emissions are set to more than double by 2030 as the country burns more coal to fuel a growing economy. Left unchecked, India’s annual GHG emissions could be the highest in the world by 2050, both Varun Sivaram and Annushka Shivnani say.
“It is still too early to tell which story—the optimist’s or the pessimist’s—is right,” Sivaram and Shivani write. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now in his second year in office, has clearly signaled a break from India’s prior hardline stance against taking responsibility for mitigating climate change, recognizing that India itself could suffer acutely from its effects. But he has also stressed that India’s ability to act on climate is constrained by its needs as a developing country seeking to industrialize and expand affordable energy access.”
They have appealed to the developed countries like the United States to welcome India’s progress in submitting an INDC and seek ways to help it ratchet up its efforts. “For their part, Indian policymakers must understand that renewables like solar and wind are not a silver bullet for climate policy, and that it will take a broader portfolio of reforms to successfully transition to a low-carbon economy,” Sivaram and Shivani say.
According to them, India’s climate policy is beset by an apparent paradox. India is starting from a relatively low point: today, its per capita emissions are only one-third the global average. As its economy expands by more than 7 percent a year, India’s emissions will quickly grow and soon approach the global per capita average. Because carbon emissions from developed countries have historically increased as their economies industrialized, international pressure on India to cap and ultimately reduce total emissions can appear to Indian policymakers as a threat to its pursuit of affordable energy, and thus its economic development.
This dynamic explains India’s historical resistance to reducing its own GHG emissions, especially on a unilateral basis. When it ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty mandating that developed countries reduce their GHG emissions, India embraced the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” arguing that developed countries should bear most of the burden of combating climate change. And the Modi administration continues to stress that more than 400 million citizens are underserved by, or lack access to, the electricity grid. As the government contends in the INDC, increasing per capita energy consumption is crucial “to provide a dignified life to its population and meet their rightful aspirations.”
In its INDC, India outlines a suite of actions related to curbing the growth of its emissions (known as climate change “mitigation”) and to preparing for the likely effects of climate change (or “adaptation”). The Modi administration has called its commitment “ambitious but achievable,” but it cautions that the price tag of the entire INDC—including public and private sector investment—could be $2.5 trillion by 2030, far exceeding the resources of India’s government and domestic investors. As a result, India contends that successfully achieving its goals will require financial assistance and technology transfer from developed countries.
The vast majority—80 percent—of the projected expenses arise from the plan’s mitigation commitments. To curb India’s GHG emission growth, the Modi administration has committed to reduce its emissions intensity by 33–35 percent below 2005 levels—principally through deploying renewable energy and also by improving the energy efficiency of its industrial sector. The INDC also sets a target for a carbon dioxide “sink,” or capture through additional forest and tree cover.
According to the authors, India is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which include extreme heat, prolonged drought, and changing rainfall patterns that could disrupt agriculture, spread disease, and lead to climate refugees. In response, the INDC outlines a series of investments to prepare for disasters and improve the resilience of agriculture, water resources, glacier and coastal regions, and human health systems.
“India’s INDC submission is, properly understood, just a starting point for future progress,” Sivaram and Shivani say. “India will need a broad portfolio of new energy technologies to transition to a low-carbon economy. The Modi administration is right to insist that India cannot accomplish a low-carbon transition alone, especially given the urgency of improving energy access and maintaining breakneck economic growth. International actors can support India’s transition in several ways.”
The submission of an INDC is a major step forward for both India and global climate efforts, but these difficult decisions await beyond this year’s Paris conference. Achieving effective climate policy in India is a global challenge—and one that, if surmounted, could bring global benefits. India’s initial commitment to the climate talks should raise hopes that more progress, domestic and international, is on the horizon.