Is India Rethinking its Climate Strategy?

India, the world’s third largest emitter of carbon and one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, is a key player in global climate negotiations. Now, in the run up to the Paris climate negotiations in October and November this year, its negotiating position might be evolving dramatically. In an internal document, addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government’s Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, suggests that India should abandon old positions and seek new allies.

In what was described as a “scoop”, the document came to the notice of journalist Nitin Sethi at the Business Standard, who reviewed it. My comments are based on his article. I have not seen the original document.

While, of course, such a document would not constitute a final and official position, it seems to reveal a new pliability and readiness to think differently. (The same newspaper had earlier reported that India might, in view of the climate talks, reduce its solar goal downwards again to 20 GW).

Rethinking Everything

In the past, India’s negotiation strategy was to firmly deny any responsibility for climate change (based on low per capita and historical emissions), to fight for a comfortable right to emit (“carbon space“; India’s energy mix is dominated by coal, which is also a plentiful resource domestically), to shift attention from mitigation to adaptation and to avoid any binding commitments (although the previous Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, somewhat vaguely declared that India would never emit more on a per capita basis than the developed countries).

A tough negotiation position centred around “climate justice” was carried by a wide consensus amongst the Intelligentsia at home. To support it, India had previously sought alliances with “like minded developing countries”, especially China.

The new position document now seems to suggest a radical departure: India should focus on actively reducing its own emissions and should no longer hold on to the segmentation between rich and poor countries. These are positions traditionally advanced by the US and the EU and, according to Subramanian, would help Mr. Modi position himself as a global leader and support India’s claim for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Also, to fight climate change, India should push the G7 countries to adopt a carbon tax.

From Idealism to Pragmatism

Reactions in India were largely negative: India is seen as carving into the developed world and of failing to protect its national interest and right to emit and thus develop. The leaking of the document to the public was certainly a tactical disaster (a “Climategate”) as you don’t want your bargaining chips revealed ahead of the discussions. (Since so much is at stake, there might conceivably be intentional behind the leak.) That being said, there are some good points in Subramanian’s note.

First of all: Change in India’s climate position would be a good idea per se. While the past position has been a success in that it avoided any emissions targets being imposed on India, it was a failure in that it contributed substantively to the fact that there is no strong global deal, something which India needs more than many other countries.

Subramanian says as much: “India has a greater stake in climate change mitigation than most rich countries, which will likely be less affected and better able to cope with consequences”. For details, refer to this recent climate risk assessment document.

Subramanian also believes that getting money or substantial help from developed countries is unlikely and therefore India should stop asking for it. Transferring money from rich to poor countries might by ethically sound, but it just doesn’t happen nearly enough.

He writes: “Are the commitments of cash-strapped advanced countries plausible? After all, the US cannot muster the will and ability to contribute a few hundred million dollars (chump change really) to increasing the International Monetary Fund’s resources.”

Or, look at the sorry state of the promised $100 billion climate fund.

So this could be a new pragmatism, leaving behind ideology and the question of justice to instead look at what needs to be done, trying to achieve substantive results rather than score polemical points. That would be great. (Although is is harmful to communicate such a shift now, as “justice” is India’s strongest bargaining chip.)

The Ambiguous Role of Coal

Such a shift, of course, would dovetail with the changing global and Indian energy world. While emissions and carbon space remain a concern for India (emissions will rise as the population grows and consumes more) there is a growing understanding among India’s decision-makers that a transition towards a low-carbon energy system is not a “tax” that would delay development and growth, but rather the best and fastest way towards it.

For instance, many energy efficiency measures make sense from an economic and energy security point of view as much as from a global climate point of view. Also, local pollution and water usage from coal fired power plants are threatening the health and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Indians.

At the same time, renewables (especially solar power) have become cost competitive in generation terms both at the grid and at the socket (albeit not yet in terms of reliability). What is more, these can be implemented much more quickly than large conventional power plants and they attract significant international investment.

However, coal still has a prominent place in the strategy Subramanian outlines. He writes that India should ally itself with coal producing countries such as Australia or the US and push G7 countries to invest into clean coal technologies.

These statements, which appear to conflict with the other ideas, reflect the fact that coal still has a very strong lobby in the Indian government. And it is, indeed, difficult to imagine how India can do without coal in the next couple of years.

Hopefully, Subramanian’s ideas will be discussed within the Indian government and help create a flexible, engaging and constructive negotiating position, one that allows for the substantive result India needs.

Tobias Engelmeier
Tobias Engelmeier
Tobias Engelmeier is an entrepreneur and very passionate about the climate, sustainability, solar energy and India. He is a German Indophile. You can find out more about Tobias on and on LinkedIn. He is also active on Twitter (@TEngelmeier).
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