Walking the Talk: India’s Surprising Role in the Climate Action Arena

By Ishani Srivastava

India has made a name for itself as a wild card at the climate change negotiating table. In the talks leading up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21), almost all major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting nations agreed to emission reduction targets. India, the world’s third-largest annual GHG emitter, conceded only to reduce its emissions intensity — a constructed metric measuring GHG emissions per unit of GDP. For a fast-growing economy with annual GDP growth around five to eight percent, reductions in emissions intensity would not preclude an increase in actual emissions. At COP 26 in Glasgow last year, India once again sought lighter environmental commitments, forcing a last-minute change from a coal “phase-out” (i.e., removal of coal from the energy mix) to a much weaker “phase-down” (i.e., reduction of coal usage).

However, India’s lack of public commitments must be assessed in light of the persistent global gap between national pledges and substantive action. Climate commitments have notoriously under-delivered throughout the past two decades. Nearly thirty years after the call to action at Rio, most nations are still off-track vis-à-vis their stated goal of curbing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Greta Thunberg famously dubbed the Glasgow summit “a global north greenwash festival.” The best the host government’s climate change committee could say was “there was an increase in ambitions” but that “how far this can be considered a success will depend on follow-up actions over the coming year and beyond.”

In view of this mismatch between words and outcomes, India’s trajectory presents an unexpected reversal. Despite its persistently unambitious posture, it is one of the few countries poised to significantly exceed its key Paris commitments, namely, to generate at least 40 percent of its power from non-fossil fuels, and to reduce emissions intensity by 35 percent compared to 2005 levels, by 2030. Today, India’s power generation capacity from renewables and hydro power is already at 40 percent, and the government has kickstarted an ambitious plan to get this number to 55 percent by 2030. If all goes as planned, emissions intensity could be reduced by as much as 45 percent by 2030. New Delhi updated its green power generation and emissions reduction goals at COP 26, reflecting the growth of its green energy investments and immense sources of renewable energy.

“India has some of the lowest cost of [renewable energy] in the world, coupled with some of the most ambitious deployment targets. Wind and solar have become commercial,” says Jagabanta Ningthoujam, Principal and Director at RMI India, a global sustainability think tank. As many other nations lose momentum on the energy transition, India has the potential to play a leading role. Ningthoujam affirms that the Indian government’s ambitions clearly signal “the intent to provide leadership in energy transition.”

A full transition to renewable generation would come with its own challenges, such as upgrading the power grid and electrifying transport to absorb all this renewable power, but India is primed to address many of these issues head-on. In 2019, the Modi regime revamped its languishing “Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME)” scheme, allocating the equivalent of $1.3 billion towards financial incentives and infrastructure support. “The FAME-II incentive scheme has been vital in spurring new e-mobility government initiatives in areas such as electric buses and charging infrastructure. Additionally, the funding allocated via FAME-II sends a message to the market that more vehicles and infrastructure will be needed,” says Raquel Soat, Senior Associate at RMI.

These actions demonstrate that India is not obstinately and myopically embracing a pollution-heavy regime. Thus, New Delhi’s reluctance to make public commitments seems all the more perplexing. Why is India so unwilling to publicly commit to the action it is already privately taking?

A deeper examination reveals nuanced issues lying below the surface. India’s stance stems from a fundamental divergence in how different nations perceive climate change. Many developing nations believe that a minority group of industrialized countries has shaped a rather oblique narrative, and this has led to several points of disagreement between developing and developed nations.

First, with regard to dividing “fair share” responsibility for climate action, developed nations tend to emphasize forward-looking targets, calling for every nation to set a net-zero target date, while glossing over the issue of historic responsibility. Developing nations, on the other hand, push for recognition of cumulative GHG accumulation, as more than one-third of the 2500 billion tons of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere were produced by just seven industrialized Western nations which collectively house less than one-tenth of the world’s people. India’s push for differentiated targets for developed and developing nations at the Paris Climate Conference stemmed from this perception that nations which have made nearly negligible contributions to the sum total of global warming have a near-zero responsibility to clean up the West’s mess.

Second, raw measurements of annual GHG emissions gloss over differences in nations’ populations. India holds nearly 17 percent of the world’s population but contributes less than seven percent of annual emissions. Its per-capita emissions are actually below the global average, and its cumulative emissions are 3.4 percent of the world’s total — a smaller portion than that of Germany, a country with six percent of India’s population. Yet India comes under fire on account of its sheer size, while smaller industrialized nations such as Estonia and Iceland, with much higher per-capita emissions, are able to stay out of the limelight.

Third, reducing carbon emissions means very different things for developed and developing nations. Developed nations face the challenge of dismantling a traditionally important sector like fossil fuels, but at least they are relatively wealthy and energy-secure. On the other hand, nearly a quarter of Indian households still lack reliable access to electricity. For nations like India, the energy transition has to strike a delicate balance with fulfilling citizens’ basic needs.

Of course, developing nations are not absolved of all responsibility. The nations that industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries were not aware of the environmental consequences of what they were doing. Today, climate change is a well-documented reality, and developing nations have to hold themselves accountable and adopt sustainable paths to development. Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, India is demonstrating its willingness to do exactly that.

India continues to believe that industrialized countries have an obligation to bring more to the table, while industrialized nations continue to perceive India as a recalcitrant, unrepentant polluter. Unless these diametrically opposing attitudes are resolved, climate negotiations will continue to be bitter tugs-of-war characterized by misunderstanding instead of collaborative endeavors that help every country achieve its goals for environmental protection and social development. Now, more than ever, humanity must find a way to act collectively and tackle the climate crisis before time runs out.

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