climate change

Feeling the heat: How the US exit from Paris Agreement will affect India

On the bright side, it could have been worse.

President Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Agreement, a global deal signed by all but three countries in the world to cut back carbon emissions and thus limit the rise of global average temperatures to an optimistic two degrees Celsius.

The US is the highest historic contributor to carbon emissions and the second highest emitter at present. Under Barack Obama, the US had promised to lower its emissions by 26%-28% from the 2005 levels. Doing so would would have required a drastic scaling back of its coal energy and fossil fuels – the US ranks below only China in producing the most electricity from coal – and ramping up its push towards renewable energy.

But even with these commitments of the US and other countries, temperatures would have continued to rise, playing havoc with the planet. Already, glaciers are melting faster than ever, triggering a rise in sea levels, throwing wind patterns off kilter and possibly creating a flux in local weather systems. In the last decade, there has been a marked rise in extreme events of the southwest monsoon that brings the Indian subcontinent much of its rain.

If the US is no longer committing to reducing its carbon emissions, the efforts of the rest of the world might not be enough to stop the planet from heating.

Specifically, though, how will the US exit from the accord affect India’s climate change fight? “The fact that the US is pulling out is an enormous problem for India because we are a highly vulnerable country to climate change,” said Navroz Dubash, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “This weakens the Paris Agreement to the extent that it encourages other countries to back out and so India stands to lose.”

Abdicating responsibility

Many countries, including India, had conceded their demands for funding and higher responsibility for the developed world to ensure the US ratified the Paris Agreement. This included making each country’s declaration of their contributions to the climate change fight not legally binding. This is a key difference between the Paris Agreement and other global climate accords before it.

“The reason the Paris Agreement is not even near perfect is primarily because of the US,” said Indrajit Bose, a senior researcher at the Third World Network. “The negotiation happened in the context of historic responsibility and to help developing countries adopt different growth pathways. That has not happened.”

In negotiations, India has always advocated the ethical principle that those who have historically contributed to and benefited from carbon emissions should take the lead and finance the agreement, Dubash said.

“India has always run up against the realpolitik that the West is not willing to go beyond a point even though it has an obligation to do so,” Dubash added. “Trump’s actions now put this dilemma out in the open. We cannot pretend that we will have an agreement based on ethics or past responsibility, or one that is fuelled by international financing beyond a point.”

Strain on funding

As Bose pointed out in this article, the US has pledged $3 billion of a total global input from 43 countries of $10.13 billion for the Green Climate Fund of the United Nations. This fund is meant to help developing countries build capacity to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. But the US has provided only $1 billion of its commitment so far.

In April, the fund approved a $34 million project for solar micro-irrigation and watershed management in Odisha, Bose said. The project is to be implemented by the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development. It is unclear what will happen to this and other projects sanctioned under the fund now. “In terms of emissions, the US had committed very little,” Bose said. “The impact of its exit will be felt far more on finance.”

Since India’s adaptation needs are high and urgent, it plans to send other projects to the green fund for approval. The country’s poor might be at risk if finances get pinched, or if the European Union pressures India into stepping up its contributions. “There is all this talk of India and China rising to the occasion,” Bose said. “But they are already doing their bit and it is the developed countries that need to fill the gap in funding. Otherwise, we will not be able to fulfil these climate goals.”

From Kyoto to Paris

This is not the first time the US has pulled out of a global climate agreement. In 2001, under President George W Bush, the country withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. Other developed countries followed suit and the agreement tanked. But there is a difference. The Kyoto Protocol depended on industrialised countries acting first. Without the US, the agreement could not hold and other countries exited as well. The Paris Agreement is far broader and other major economies, including in the European Union, have reaffirmed their support to the agreement.

Another difference, Dubash said, is that the US does not have as much global heft as it used to. “The US is simply not the same hegemon it was then,” he said. “In political terms, China is far more powerful and visible. The US is also not quite as dominant in the emissions sense. While [US withdrawal] is important certainly, it is arguably more important what China does now. And it is quite important what the developing world does because we are the ones changing the fastest.”

Silver lining

With the cost of renewable energy at an all-time low, India is on track to meet its target of generating 40% of its total energy from renewable sources by 2030. Its other targets include lowering the emissions intensity of the GDP by 33%-35% below the 2005 levels, also by 2030.

Climate Action Tracker has positively rated India’s steps so far, but recommends that it upgrade its nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement so that the rest of the world benefits as well.

The risk with the US exit, however, is that other nations might attempt to back down on their commitments, putting more burden on countries like India and China. “I think it is important that India be one of the loudest voices in support of maintaining the Paris Agreement,” Dubash said. “Trying to open the door to any kind of reconsideration would be a real failure. In that, the US has to be isolated.”

Since the US has to wait four years before its exit is final, it will still be at the negotiating table, Bose said. What kinds of deals the US will push for is anybody’s guess.

There is, however, a silver lining to the US exit, and Dubash said it was important to acknowledge. “A lot of the world wanted the US to stay in at any cost,” Dubash said. “But had the US stayed in, it would probably have weakened its pledge as a condition of doing so.”

That, Dubash argued, would have been a far worse outcome than the US leaving.

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