Modi’s modest climate ‘repositioning’ success

India’s environment minister made a big show in the summer of how the recently elected government would make a sharp “repositioning” of its role within climate negotiations. The new premiership of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi would seek to do its homework before talks, lobby hard to promote its demands and work more closely with allies in the developing world.

“We will do more meaningful representation in the world events,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters after what he felt had been an early success at UN environment talks in Nairobi in June. New Delhi was convinced, he added, that it had time to up its climate diplomacy game ahead of the December 2015 UN climate talks where a new global treaty is expected to be signed. “We will strengthen our climate change negotiation team,” he said.

Just a few months later, international commentators were again representing India as a climate obstructionist. Prime Minister Modi, along with Chinese President Xi Jinping, was a no-show to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in New York in September. He sent his environment minister in his stead. Ostensibly due to a scheduling conflict, his absence was widely viewed as a deliberate snub when 120 other global leaders had put in an appearance.

“What cuts? That’s for more developed countries,” Javadekar then went on to say to the New York Times, a quote since seen as emblematic of India’s climate diplomacy stance.

Modi has even provoked questions as to whether the prime minister still believes in human-induced global warming. “Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is this that in our family, some people are old. They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less,” he told a group of college students. Domestic green NGOs have also criticised the new government for these public statements.

“The prime minister should have prioritised the largest environmental gathering,” Climate Action Network South Asia’s Sanjay Vashist told Al Jazeera. “It was an opportunity for India to sound proactive as well as call on the developed countries to be more ambitious in reducing carbon emissions.”

But has New Delhi really played such a poor hand? The current position is one of robustly defending “common but differentiated responsibility” – the climate diplomacy language internationally agreed in 1992 at the first UN climate conference that assigns to northern economies the bulk of blame for having caused global warming and responsibility for solving the problem. This is no different from the position of India’s Congress Party administrations over the past decade, and little different from the stance of much of the rest of the Southern bloc of countries.

Blame for climate change can no longer be placed exclusively on the North, its negotiators say

Across the developing world, governments have consistently said that they have a right to develop their economies using the cheapest method available – in essence this means coal – the same way the global north achieved its industrialisation. They would indeed be willing to take on fresh commitments to lowering emissions so long as development is not undermined. Therefore, the significant infrastructure costs of clean energy must be paid by someone else. They seem to be saying: “We’ll cut our emissions as soon as you show us the money.” So far, while various international assessments have placed the cost of such north to south transfers between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion annually, just a tiny fraction, $100 billion, in annual climate finance has been pledged, let alone distributed.

Developed-nation negotiators say that this sort of talk is outdated. While in 1992, responsibility for climate change could well have been placed at the foot of the industrialised world, now much of what used to be called the Third World is industrialised as well. China is the largest single producer of greenhouse gas emissions of any economy in the world, followed by the United States and the EU. India is the fourth largest emitter. The United States remains the biggest emitter per capita, followed by China, the EU, and then India. Carbon emissions grew by 5.1 percent last year in India and 4.2 percent in China compared to just 2.9 percent in the U.S.

For Modi government, delivering power to the 300 million Indians without electricity comes first

The carbon output from China and India is a product of their rapidly developing economies. Modi’s campaign promise to electrify the rest of the country after he had largely achieved this transformation in his home state of Gujarat was an important factor in his election. That’s 1.2 billion people who want reliable, cheap electricity.

Solar power is playing a huge role in this country that on average enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, and price parity with coal is within spitting distance – likely by the end of the decade. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi oversaw a flowering of solar electricity production, with solar parks producing an additional 900 megawatts of power capacity, which represents a third of the total capacity in the country. Wind power has also grown apace in the state. Modi hopes to replicate his solar success across the country, aiming for 20,000MW of solar by 2022.

But even in shining India, night does fall once a day. Coal is seen as dependable while solar remains intermittent. Renewables are not able to meet the magnitude of the infrastructural challenge, claims Energy Minister Piyush Goyal. Perhaps most important, coal-fired plants are far easier to finance. As a result, 65 percent of electricity production currently comes from the dirty stuff – a proportion the government refuses to commit to lowering any time soon. While the Energy Information Administration projects that China’s emissions will begin to level off by 2030 before declining, India’s emissions will jump upward by 60 percent for another 20 years after 2020.

For New Delhi, development and delivering power to the 300 million Indians without electricity comes first.

Bilateral Modi-Obama deal sees US provide $1 billion for clean-energy tech, India phase-down of HFCs

And yet despite this apparent stalemate, Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama came away from a bilateral meeting with a deal that each can sell as a win for their side, and offers hope for the Paris climate summit next December.

Distinct from China, India is keen for more technology transfer assistance and funding. As part of the Modi-Obama agreement, Washington will back $1 billion in financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to help with the purchase of American clean-energy technology. Similarly, a possible U.S.-India nuclear power partnership has long been at an impasse over domestic regulatory and liability issues. India maintains 21 operational nuclear plants representing three percent of electricity generation. The government wants to ramp this up to 25 percent by 2050 – a move that would go a long way to delivering the sort of commitment to emissions taming that Brussels and Washington would like to see. Modi has already moved forward in a partnership with Japan and Australia this year. Modi and Obama appear to have made progress as well, with the creation of a bilateral contact group on issues that “hinder … the rapid deployment of U.S.-origin nuclear reactors in India,” Vikram Doraiswami, then minister of external affairs told reporters after the meeting.

In return, Modi committed to back an international phase-down of the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – the “super greenhouse gases” with a warming effect almost 4000 times more potent than CO2. They are found in refrigeration and air-conditioning, the latter increasingly popular amongst India’s growing middle classes. Until now, Modi’s administration had not taken a position on their use.

Despite the overall modesty of the package, it points to a way forward for the developing world and the developed world to move, slowly, toward both sides being able to claim victory in climate talks. The global north gets a nudge in the direction of emissions reductions from the south and the south gets the beginnings of some climate cash. For all of India’s flat-footed public diplomacy in New York on the climate front, the repositioning appears to be having some success.

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