India’s redrawing of its climate change strategy marks a radical shift in the way it plays on the global stage
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at COP26 in Glasgow, November 1 (Photo: Getty Images)
IN EARLY JULY 2006, then Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath proclaimed at every available forum, “I can negotiate commerce, not subsistence.” The occasion was the three-day ministerial meet in Geneva trying to fashion the modalities for the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO). By then, India—the second-most populous nation—had already earned the dubious distinction of being the “deal breaker” on the global stage. The sticky issue in Geneva was agriculture. Persistent trade-distorting agricultural subsidies as a pre-condition to market access were opposed by India and members of other developing-nation groups, such as the G33 and the G20. Playing to the gallery before the media, Nath chose to flourish what was clearly a politically loaded decision to walk out of the talks, asserting that his staying on would make no difference to the big guys setting the agenda and its contours. Earlier, in December 2005, Nath had projected himself as a hero for the cause of developing nations and the Hong Kong declaration as a victory. Between Hong Kong and Geneva though, the provisions on special products and import surges were changed to ensure more opening up of markets in developing nations. Nath’s much-publicised walkout in Geneva was milked for its domestic political gains but made little difference to the talks themselves and the dominance of rich countries in calling the shots on the core agenda. The US blamed the European Union (EU) and vice versa. Within the EU, France stuck to its guns but together, they continued to define the contours of key issues. Despite its size and importance on the global stage, India had remained a player on the fringes, hung over on Third World politics, and not able to muscle its way into the exclusive tent of “deal makers”. It was an era when being a roadblock to global talks on key issues that concern the planet was celebrated politically. The moves and motives of the affluent world were viewed with suspicion and perceived as intrinsically wrong and loaded against the emerging nations and their key interests.
That changed dramatically at the “make or break” Glasgow Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP26. In a much-hailed speech that made specific and impressive climate action commitments, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made history: he did not just demonstrate India’s seriousness in responding to the climate crisis by committing to shoulder more than its fair share of the burden but also firmly lobbed the ball back into the court of the richer nations to put their money where their mouth was and prove their sincerity on commitments. Spelling out five core goals at the COP26 climate summit hosted by the UK, Modi asserted that “India constitutes 17 per cent of the global population and India’s contribution to the emission has been only 5 per cent. But today, the entire world admits that India is the only major economy which has delivered on Paris agreements in letter and spirit.”
The climate change commitments spelt out by Modi at Glasgow showed an intent that was as bold as it was serious. And it wasn’t India’s commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, just 20 years after the US’ own committed deadline, which stunned Glasgow into impressed silence. India committed to upping its installed capacity of non-fossil fuel energy from 450 GW to 500 GW. Not only that, but by 2030 half of India’s energy needs would comprise renewable energy. It has already reached 40 per cent of this target. Modi signed up for India cutting down carbon intensity in the economy by 45 per cent by 2030, just nine years from now, and cutting carbon emissions by one billion tonnes from the total projected emissions by that deadline.
Among top world leaders taking the stage, Modi’s pledges were not grandiose, rhetorical or jargon-ridden. They were down-to-earth and focused on categorically conveying the determination of India’s 1.3 billion people to achieve the climate change goals set in Glasgow, despite the heavy sacrifices rejecting dirty energy would demand of the second-most populous and still developing country. As Modi put it, his were “not just words”. India meant business on both the regional and global canvas. “I have brought before you India’s track record. My words are not just words, they are announcements of a bright future for our future generations. Today, India ranks fourth in the world in installed renewable energy capacity. India’s non-fossil fuel energy has increased by more than 25 per cent in the last seven years and now, it has reached 40 per cent of our energy mix,” the prime minister told the gathering.
One of his references in the UK was to the Railways, introduced by his hosts during the British Raj, and how this sector planned to go about it. “Every year, more passengers travel by the Indian Railways than the population of the world. This huge railway system has set a target of making itself Net Zero by 2030. This initiative alone will lead to the reduction of emissions by 60 metric tonnes (Mt) annually. Similarly, our massive LED bulb campaign is reducing emissions by 40 Mt annually. Today, India is working at a faster pace on many such initiatives, with a strong will…Along with this, India has given institutional solutions to cooperate with the world at the international level. As a revolutionary step in solar power, we initiated the International Solar Alliance. We have created a coalition for disaster-resilient infrastructure for climate adaptation. This is a sensitive and vital initiative to save millions of lives.”
But Modi had gone to Glasgow meaning to draw blood, not just soak in accolades from fat-cat nations for the sincerity of India’s pledges made there. The sacrifices that millions of Indians would make, for a better climate future for the world, would not come for nothing. There would be a price to pay and costs to account for. He demanded, without demur, that to realise the pledges that India made, rich nations should stop beating about the bush and talk hard climate finance and tech transfer. “Today, when India has resolved to move forward with a new commitment and new energy, the transfer of climate finance and low-cost climate technologies becomes more important. India expects developed countries to provide climate finance of $1 trillion at the earliest. Today, it is necessary that as we track the progress made in climate change mitigation, we should also track climate finance. The proper justice would be that countries that do not live up to their promises on climate finance must be pressured, too.”
In one fell swoop, Modi strategically positioned India—in the context of meetings on climate change mitigation over decades dominated by gasbagging and vacuous promises—as a change pledger that meant business. India would play ball, but only when everyone, not just the affluent, followed the rules. The pledges were extremely difficult but not unrealistic. It was a calculated positioning that gave New Delhi a sharp diplomatic edge at the meeting and boosted the leverage that it had at COP26. It was there for all to see when several leaders, reacting to the shock-and-awe tactic, showed open admiration.
Modi has positioned India as a change pledger that means business. The pledges were difficult but not unrealistic. India has already met its target of 40 per cent energy supply from renewables. New Delhi is now inside the tent, putting pressure on others to make good on their promises
Modi’s determined straight-talking blueprint drew grudging admiration in an environment usually marked by cynicism about the unrealistic goals voiced. That it took the hosts UK by surprise was clear when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged, in a pointed reference to India’s worldwide solar alliance initiative, “There is one guy who understands only too well how one hour of sunshine can power the energy needs of the whole world for a whole year…he has achieved absolutely extraordinary things in his own country…there is one sun, one world, one grid and one Narendra Modi.” More praise for Modi came from Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at their first formal meeting on the sidelines of COP26 when they reviewed bilateral ties and explored cooperation in high tech. At that meeting, Bennett told his Indian counterpart, “You are the most popular person in Israel.” To which Modi replied, “Thank you, thank you.” Bennett then joked, “You should come and join my [Yamina] party.”
Using the diplomatic edge it thus gained at COP26, India has pitched itself as the “Can Do” voice of developing nations and demanded, as an undeniable right, reciprocal proof of sincerity from rich countries on their oft-repeated offers of funding that have, so far, remained opaque. Taking a position on behalf of the BASIC nations (including Brazil, India and South Africa), India asserted that the elite rich nations’ club show the money, now that India has officially committed to five key climate disaster mitigation goals. The message: We have shown our resolve and commitment, it’s now your turn to show us the money as you promised. Modi, in effect, has called their bluff. It was a calculated strategy that catapulted India out of its habitual position as “part of the problem” and allowed it to muscle its way into the exclusive club of “problem solvers”.
THE ERA OF fashioning martyrdom out of walkouts from key global meetings where the chips were loaded against us is finally over. Deals, at all such meets, are made inside the tent. Petulantly walking out of negotiations, burnished in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era as a macho strategy meant to earn laurels, is no longer an option for India. The age of India’s playing footsie outside the tent is done and New Delhi has now muscled its way into the tent. By fundamentally changing the rules and strategies, and insisting that the time for individual pledges at the national level was over and the world had to urgently respond collectively to the dangers of climate change. Modi has redefined the lay of the land by reworking Delhi’s core strategy on global climate change negotiations: no longer is it content with walkouts and making a virtue of opposing the self-serving and obfuscatory manoeuvres of rich nations to bulldoze commitments by the poorer ones without reciprocal pledges on funds and technology transfer. While the opposition was imperative, it had also left Delhi completely alienated from making the rules. Now, however, India is inside and serious about using its clout and size to bargain at the negotiating table, alongside affluent nations, in drawing up the rules. Modi’s re-strategising marks a radical shift in the way India plays on the global stage: from being perceived as “part of the problem” it has now become a problem solver by placing itself in a lead position to find answers to the climate crisis. As environmentalist Sunita Narain put it, India’s targets were “bold, ambitious and challenging” but not unrealistic. Yet, given the enormity of the crisis, India is now not just “walking the talk, it was running the talk”.
The story of the Industrial Revolution is primarily one of dirty energy, exponential pollution, population growth and environmental degradation. History is a testament to how the big three, the UK, the US and China, drove big-time pollution and global warming in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the first and second industrial revolutions, coal was the most sought after and most used energy source that drove the machines of Britain and later, the US and China. This was largely based on both a lack of discovery of new fuels and ignorance of the environmental impact of fossil-fuel use. In tandem, during the Industrial Revolution, population exploded to unprecedented levels, especially in cities where jobs were to be found. Factories belched black smoke and cinder all day into the air and water supplies, leading to the coining of the phrase “dirty energy”. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere was reportedly 280 parts per million (ppm). Today, scientists have pegged it at 387 ppm and rising, a level that is the highest in the past 750,000 years. The Industrial Revolution had a far-reaching and dynamic impact on society, economy, production, labour, government policies and their fallout for ordinary citizens as well as their numbers. At its beginning, the global population was about 700 million. By 1800, it was one billion and by 1850 it was two billion. During the 1900s, world population exploded to six billion, a 400 per cent increase. This took a big toll on the planet in terms of environment and air pollution. American geophysicist M King Hubbert theorised in 1949 that the fossil fuel era would be very short-lived and that other energy sources would have to be found. He also predicted that oil would reach its peak production period in the 1970s and then steadily decline against the rising energy demands of a steadily growing population. Much of what he predicted came true in the early 1970s in the US. Air, water, noise and other pollution had increased enormously. It wasn’t until 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring rang in the concept of sustainable production and development. The book was a telling exposé on how human actions impacted nature adversely for now and the conceivable future. By then, acid rain and killer smog had called for attention both in the UK and the US.
China’s industrial revolution, which is more recent, is today considered one of the most important economic and geopolitical phenomena since the original Industrial Revolution 250 years ago. In just 35 years, it allowed the country to transform itself from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Today, China’s carbon emissions threaten global efforts to fight climate change and the environmental degradation thus triggered endangers both economic growth and public health. China is the world’s top emitter, producing more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions which contribute heavily to climate change. Beijing pledged to cut emissions under the Paris agreement, to reduce coal energy and invest in renewables. But China’s Belt and Road Initiative still finances coal-fired plants abroad, analysts emphasise. Air pollution, water scarcity and soil contamination have become big threats to both the health and livelihood of people.
China’s carbon emissions threaten global efforts to fight climate change and the environmental degradation thus triggered endangers both economic growth and public health. China is the world’s top emitter, producing more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
Lindsay Maizland, writing on China’s fight against climate change and environmental degradation says, “China’s economic rise—national gross domestic product (GDP) grew 10 percent on average each year for more than a decade—has greatly accelerated its emissions. In the past ten years, China has emitted more greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, per year than any other country in the world. It surpassed the United States as the top emitter in 2005, according to Climate Watch. (Emissions per capita in the United States are still more than double those in China.)” (‘China’s Fight Against Climate Change and Environmental Degradation’, cfr.org.)
India, in contrast, has not been a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions historically. Narain maintains that from 1870 to 2019, its emissions added up to a miniscule 4 per cent of global emissions. Vilified in 2019 as the world’s third-highest polluter, India’s emissions stand at 2.88 CO2 gigatonnes (Gt) compared to the two highest polluters, China (10.6 Gt) and the US (5 Gt). This, she points out, despite an urgent need to meet the energy needs of millions of its own people. “From every angle, India did not have to make these global targets to reduce its carbon emissions. Despite this, India’s climate targets are laudable, and they show the developed world that it means business,” Narain wrote. “India’s climate commitment is a challenge for the rest to follow. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions must be 18.22 GT in 2030 for the world to stay below a 1.5 degree rise in temperature. If you take the global population in 2030, this means that every person in the world can only emit some 2.14 tonnes of CO2. India’s per capita comes close.” According to Narain, if you compare India’s emission targets to the rest of the world, the “sheer scale of the transformation is apparent.” The US, even after the 50 per cent reduction target set by President Joe Biden, will see 9.42 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2030, a goal that it may well not achieve. China, which has not set any emission reduction target, will actually see the number go up from 7.3 tonnes to 9 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2030.
In 2008, more than a few officials and observers in Washington were reportedly hoping that a victory for Congress in Madhya Pradesh, with the self-styled “Hero of Doha” commerce minister projected as potential chief minister, would remove him from the WTO circuit. Nath himself admitted to the media at home that the negotiations at WTO did not matter very much to the average voter but asserted, nonetheless, that he was proud to be talking for the poor at global fora. As the votes were counted, director general of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, reportedly faced a “difficult decision” on whether to call ministers to a meeting that could either achieve an outline deal or end in another failure. Nath was perceived as a key player in that decision. Christopher Wenk, former executive director of international policy at the US Chamber of Commerce had said at the time, “In reality, the biggest calculation…on whether or not to have another go at a ministerial in December, is whether Kamal Nath, and India, will actually be willing to negotiate or is he more willing to run out the clock on 2009 and the end of the Bush administration.” In the end, Lamy decided against taking the risk. Nath and the outdated strategies of India of the 2000s have been well and truly relegated to the margins of history now.
Modi has changed the fundamental rules of the game and showcased India’s firm resolve in talking serious climate change business to the big players within the tent. And he has, rightfully, demanded that the affluent countries now put their money where their mouth is.