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Climate change: Moving beyond the rhetoric

Indian diplomats should know by experience that it is the fine print and not rhetoric that will determine the impact of the Paris Agreement later this year

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

climate change

India is currently formulating its 'target' for fighting climate change for the global deal that is to be signed in Paris by the end of 2015. Formally, these targets are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. For the first quarter of this year, the government got caught up in the rhetoric of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said: "India can truly show the way to the world in mitigating climate change." The administration under him tried to be more loyal than the king and began working on a plan to do more than what any other country has shown appetite in the short run to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

A semblance of moderation and reality has set in since the US and European Union (EU) put their formal global targets on the table - low on ambition and along expected lines. China is also soon expected to formally announce its targets, picking them up from the China-US joint announcement. India is now beginning to sit down and re-think its positions pragmatically.


The first indication of this came when India delayed its submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), planning to do so after June 2015 rather than in March, waiting to see how ambitious the other large economies would be with their targets.

Sold to the rhetoric
The government had begun its internal discussions in 2014, after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power, by thinking of announcing a peaking year for its emissions - a year by which India's total greenhouse gas emissions would start to fall in absolute terms. The thought was quickly killed.

As it emerged, China - a much larger emitter of global warming gases than India - gave an emission peaking target of 2030. The target was exactly what its current emission reduction policies would anyway achieve. Along the same lines, India could suggest a peaking year of 2040-45. The US said it would cut its emissions by 26-28 per cent below the 2010 levels by 2025 - lower than the target the US government had set for itself in 2010. The EU, with a target of 40 per cent reduction below the 1990 levels by 2030, is promising to do less than what science says it should have by 2020.

By early this year, the Indian administration had got obsessed with the political rhetoric Modi had deployed too often about India becoming a leader on climate change. Modi, quite rightly, was doing what all leading nations have done at global climate deals - play two channels: play up the rhetoric in the public domain while taking a more pragmatic view of what is really possible in a global and economic context. Whether it is the US or China, each country publicly hypes up its low-ambition targets. But the Indian administration began preparations to go all out to achieve its targets - much more than any other country.

Early exuberance
In early inter-ministerial consultations, the government began exploring if India could commit sector-specific emission reduction targets besides an over-arching umbrella number for the Paris deal. To give a hypothetical example: India would commit to an X per cent reduction in the emission intensity of its economy and then break it down to formally lock specific sectors to exact targets. Say, the cement industry would be asked to reduce its emissions by Y per cent and steel industry by Z per cent.

Such an assessment of what potential each sector holds to reduce emissions is necessary to draw an over-arching target. But announcing sector-specific targets to the global community as internationally binding commitments holds great economic and political implications. Would the global community then sit on judgement on how the sectors progress over the next few decades? If the NDA government is so bothered by a Greenpeace hammering at it to shut down greenfield coal mines, what could happen when the carbon emission targets become a tool for global community to regulate India's energy pricing and specific sectors? If the NDA government is so focused on 'Make-in-India', how would it reconcile with putting tough climate targets on the manufacturing sector.

Some of the manufacturing sectors in India are climate-efficient already and some are on a trajectory to be so. But over ambitious sector-specific climate targets would force them to do so at a greater pace, which would mean additional costs to the economy or a slowdown in manufacturing, experts within the government had warned.

But with other key countries now offering only the umbrella figures for reduction in emissions - that too low on ambition - a semblance of pragmatism has set in. India may showcase its achievements and ambitions in sectors, but will commit to an over-arching umbrella target for relative emission reduction.

The real deal
Alerted by experts, some in the government have begun focussing on a more important question that now grips global climate diplomacy. The public rhetoric for more ambition (in terms of emission reduction targets for Paris deal) is only a red-herring, given the targets set by the US and the EU. The real question that engages climate negotiators in the run-up to the Paris meeting is the nature and contents of the global deal - the fine print.

What will be the legal nature of the 2015 Paris Agreement? What parts of it will be legally binding upon countries? What will be the nature of this legal 'bindingness'? How will countries' targets be reviewed and enhanced?

More so, what will the US agree to? An Indian negotiator explains, "The US dilemma is to give such a legal form to the Paris Agreement that it should not require any ratification by the US Senate, yet convince other countries of the 'bindingness' of the US targets in the Agreement." Both India and China have to find a legal framework that provides them flexibility and keeps existing differences between developed and developing countries alive to the strongest level possible.

Unfortunately, this debate on the legal form and shape of the Paris Agreement does not conveniently lend itself to the public campaign that the global green community largely attends. But this is the real game now. This is where diplomats and climate negotiators from across the world are focussing. They know by experience, ultimately it is the fine print, and not the rhetoric their respective leaders deploy in public forums, that will decide the impact of the Paris Agreement - on fighting climate change and on each country's short and long-term economic interests.

First Published: Thu, April 23 2015. 22:30 IST
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