Opinion

We'll always have Paris, but India's next action on climate change is what really matters

Going forward, India needs to take an active and collaborative role to position itself as an agenda setter.

We’ll always have Paris: the closing lines from the film Casablanca have made a comeback after the historic climate deal signed by countries in December. Paris has undoubtedly given the world a fighting chance of averting the worst effects of climate change. But now that the euphoria of Paris is behind us, it's time to take stock as 2016 begins with new challenges. Where does India stand, how should it position itself going forward?

India’s performance at Paris has been analysed threadbare. Reactions have ranged from enthusiastic plaudits to scathing criticism. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

Building on an effort that began at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, India managed to signal at Paris that while it did not contribute to the problem, it would actively contribute to the solution. It ceded a bit of ground as some tenets of its negotiating position were buried (for example, the recognition of “historical responsibility” of developed countries) and others were diluted (the much touted “climate justice” concept merely finds a passing reference). But by taking some active steps like championing the International Solar Alliance with hosts France and ultimately going with the larger consensus, India came out looking generally positive.

Now what?

So where does India go from here? It is clear that over the next few years, the country will come under increasing pressure to do more as its emissions grow and the tag of “third largest emitter” begins to show.

India will have a clear choice. One approach is to continue to harp on its traditional self-righteous line of highlighting its low historical and per capita emissions and defending its “right to development” (perceived by others as the "right to pollute"). The other option is to take a more proactive and collaborative role.

The second approach has clear advantages as it would allow India to position itself as an “agenda setter”, shaping the collective journey ahead in a way that advances its interests, and demanding more action from developed countries from a position of strength.

So what can India do if it chooses a proactive approach? Here are some concrete ideas:

India must take ownership of some key global initiatives. The newly formed International Solar Alliance is a great opportunity. Jointly conceiving the initiative with France, India must now follow it up with vigour and ensure that it amounts to something big, bold and actionable, with clear concrete achievements to showcase every year.

India must also demonstrate its leadership by contributing to international finance and technology flows, even though it is not required to do so by the Paris Agreement. India could, for example, launch a South-South Climate Technology Fund to alleviate the cost of intellectual property associated with transfer of climate-friendly technologies.

In one stroke, this would signal India’s intent to help less advanced developing countries, and also create some momentum on the intractable issue of intellectual property in broader climate negotiations. Such a bold initiative is particularly important if India is to cultivate the support of smaller, organised developing country blocs such as the Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States, and the Africa bloc. These are all key actors in the climate negotiations, and expect more from India as a leader among developing countries.

Getting its act together

In addition, India must show leadership in shaping key open areas of the negotiating agenda. An interesting outcome of Paris is that while the notion of “differentiation” between developed and developing countries has been preserved, the binary classification of countries into Annex 1 (essentially industrialised countries who were to take responsibility) and Non Annex 1 countries (developing countries) has been buried.

This is just as good – the binary classification, set in 1992, had become anachronistic, with rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Singapore being classified in the same category South Sudan and Suriname. India has an opportunity to take the lead on the differentiation question. New Delhi could, for example, put forward a proposal on what differentiation could look like in a post-Paris world.

India could also champion, what some including Nobel laureate Michael Spence have called the “Graduation Approach” – countries taking on increasing levels of responsibility as they become richer (for example, as their per capita incomes rise). Such an approach would be both fair and equitable, and also help India as its low per capita income will buy it some more time in terms of taking on more formal mitigation commitments.

Underpinning all this must be a conscious effort to beef up India’s core climate change negotiations team. India’s current bench strength is weak – a small team in the Union environment ministry, with an ad hoc supporting cast.

This is the equivalent of having just Virat Kohli and a couple of all-rounders as full-time players in the Indian cricket team, with the rest of the squad being pieced together weeks before the World Cup.

Having personally seen countries like the US, China, Brazil, and even smaller players like Singapore parading large specialist delegations at climate talks, I am convinced that India needs a massive upgrade here.

Without a full-time team of specialist negotiators, economists, lawyers, climate scientists, energy and forestry experts, and communications professionals, India simply cannot expect to pull its weight in climate negotiations, especially over the critical next few years when the broad principles of Paris will be converted to substantive actions.

We might “always have Paris”, but if we want Paris to be a harbinger of India’s interests, a "proactive beyond Paris" approach is what is required.

Varad Pande is Associate Partner at Dalberg and was an advisor to the Minister of Environment & Forests from 2009-2011 and a member of India’s climate negotiations team at summits in Copenhagen and Cancun.

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