As the United States rejoins the Paris Agreement after a brief hiatus, the Biden administration must regain legitimacy in the international climate order. President Biden has championed international cooperation on climate change since his candidature. To this end, the United States convened the “Leaders Summit on Climate,” inviting 41 international leaders, including South Asian leaders from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and, after some initial reluctance on the U.S. side, Pakistan. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s India visit is perceived as an effort to shore up a partnership with India, which is the third-largest carbon emitter. Besides its expanding carbon footprint and rising global status, India’s critical position in the international climate order is also cemented by its influence to shape the opinion of the developing world. To that end, this article first analyzes India’s stated positions and climate actions and links these to the role it can play at the summit. It then outlines potential cooperation on climate change between India, the United States, and Quad countries.
Besides its expanding carbon footprint and rising global status, India’s critical position in the international climate order is also cemented by its influence to shape the opinion of the developing world.
India’s Efforts against the Climate Crisis
With a massive population of 1.3 billion and growing, India and the wider South Asian region remain critically vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. India has steadfastly adhered to the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, whereby the greater onus lies on the industrialized countries to commit to bigger emissions reduction targets. However, this uncompromising stance does not necessarily contradict India’s steadily rising climate mitigation commitments. New Delhi is now assiduously working to both attain its climate goals and proactively aid others to achieve their own. Among the G20 economies, India is the only member on track to meet its Paris Agreement goals. Comparatively, the United States, China, and European Union remain insufficiently committed to their pledges. As India embarks on a target of 175 GW installed renewable capacity by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030, its renewable power deployment has doubled since 2014 and now constitutes a 23.39 percent (up to February 29, 2020) share in the total installed power generation capacity. India also plans to add another 63 GW of nuclear energy by 2032, which it sees as a cleaner alternative to coal. Despite such decisive actions, India would not be able to completely do away with coal, which remains a source of 70 percent of its electricity production. Even if determined for energy transition, it must address issues of a coal-industry dependent workforce, loss of coal revenue by federal and regional governments, and legacy structural debt of power distribution companies.
New Delhi perceives the resolution of the climate crisis as a global leadership opportunity. India’s international solar initiative, the International Solar Alliance, now enjoys the support of 122 sun-belt countries, for which India proposes to mobilize investments over USD $1 trillion by 2030 through the World Bank and other financial institutions. It is a step towards a broader bid of developing a global ecosystem of interconnected renewable energy resources, “One Sun, One World, One Grid.” While the United States still struggles to formulate a cleaner financing response to China’s pollution-intensive Belt and Road Initiative, a project which includes investments to the tune of USD $51.6 billion in overseas coal-powered projects, India is venturing in the right direction with cleaner global financing initiatives both in terms of addressing climate change and matching Beijing in the geopolitical game, as evidenced by the above-mentioned steps taken by the Indian government. Moreover, India has launched various climate-friendly initiatives through the UN, such as installing climate early warning systems in seven Pacific Island countries. By taking leadership on climate action, availing finance and technology, and sharing its own experiences on sustainability, India is acting as “bridging nation” between industrialized and developing countries.
India at the Summit
At the Leaders Summit, India can showcase both its domestic and international achievements while pressing the industrialized countries to meet their Paris Agreement pledges and financial assistance goals towards the developing world. While India itself struggles to phase out coal plants in the short term despite their sunk cost, it can ask OECD donor countries and the likes of China to stop financing overseas thermal projects. India also feels that the commitment by developed countries, including China, to long-term net-zero emissions targets without any corresponding, immediate, and concrete measures is inadequate. India can also raise the issue of expanding climate finance to include mounting adaptation costs—the cost required to tackle immediate climate hazards against the cost to address climate change—for its developing counterparts, including South Asian countries, which endured damages from climate change worth USD $149.27 billion between 2000-2017.
Some initial speculations that India might announce a net-zero emissions target during the summit with some pressure from the United States were quelled by none other than John Kerry. India remains a divided house for this long-term commitment, even though its commitment would remain absolutely critical to meet global decarbonization targets. At home, some, like former minister Jayant Sinha, see a massive investment boom from the employment of millions in the net-zero commitment. Others, like current Minister for Power, New, and Renewable Energy Raj Kumar Singh, consider it unfair to expect such commitment from India, as its per capita emissions remain extremely low in comparison to others. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, India’s stance of “differentiation” in responsibilities between the developing and developed world, while India is allowed to adopt a “co-benefits” approach—measures that aid both development and climate action—is unlikely to be diluted. As New Delhi builds a domestic consensus over a long-term commitment, it will need to showcase its short and medium-term plans to help keep the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Many [U.S.-India climate initiatives] lost steam because of former President Trump’s disinterest in the climate action agenda. With the Biden administration in charge, some of these initiatives can be revived, which may further bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
Reviving Indo-U.S. Cooperation on Climate Change
Towards the end of the Obama administration, India and the United States managed to hammer out several key agreements and initiatives on climate change action, including renewable and civil nuclear energy, clean energy finance, energy-efficient technology, capacity-building, and climate resilience, among others. Many of these initiatives lost steam because of former President Trump’s disinterest in the climate action agenda. With the Biden administration in charge, some of these initiatives can be revived, which may further bilateral cooperation between the two countries. India’s successful green transition remains contingent upon two critical elements—availability of low-cost finance and necessary technology. As one estimate suggests, India would require around USD $500 billion investments to meet its 2030 renewable target. During his recent India visit, Kerry reiterated the United States’ commitment to bring a considerable amount of investments into India to aid the latter’s bid. Similarly, collaboration on vital technology, such as biofuel and green hydrogen, upon which negotiations are currently ongoing, can help alleviate a substantial chunk of India’s carbon emissions.
Beyond working bilaterally, both India and the United States are part of the Quad, where all four countries have announced cooperation through a working group on climate change. The Quad countries are also keen to collaborate on the rare-earth mineral value chain, a critical ingredient for decarbonization efforts, where China currently holds 60 percent control. The other three Quad countries—Australia, Japan, and the United States—have already extended their support to India’s multilateral climate-resilient infrastructure initiative, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, which can see further expansion in terms of membership and finance. There remain some areas of difference; for instance, the United States joined the UN Group of Friends on Climate and Security aimed to address climate security concerns, whereas India resists securitization of climate change as it sees UNSC as a non-representative body. Nevertheless, such multilateral summits and dialogues generate the opportunity to iron out differences between willing partners who wish to work together on attending climate change through the Paris Agreement and other multilateral mechanisms.
Image 1: via India, Press Information Bureau
Image 2: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images