India's climate change dilemma: Do more while US shrugs off responsibility?

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In 2015, the Paris Agreement was crafted to suit the demands of the then US government. The agreement, taking the bottoms-up approach, left it to each country to volunteer its best possible effort in the global fight against climate change. No one would dictate how much effort each country must make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By now, 177 countries, including India, have submitted their targets, which are called the Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs. 

But the latest report of the UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that the targets are inadequate to ensure that the global average temperatures do not rise more than 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era. The panel of scientists has concluded that the emission reduction efforts of countries for the period between now and 2030 need to be ratcheted up in order to have a good chance of keeping the temperature rise under check.

Not keeping the temperature rise under check could have substantial economic and ecological impacts on the planet, and countries such as India are likely to face some of the worst consequences.

This is set to put India and other emerging economies in a challenging spot.

The report's conclusions have again triggered a demand from several countries and global civil society that countries should ratchet up their emission reduction targets. This demand will soon snowball into a political slug-fest at the upcoming climate change negotiations in December in Poland.

On the face of it, the demands for deepening the emission cuts read as an easy and perfect global response to the dire warnings of the IPCC report. But the report does not answer two critical questions. One: What are the estimated economic costs of topping up the existing emission reduction targets? Two: On what basis would these additional emission reduction cuts and the attendant additional economic burden be apportioned between countries? These are particularly relevant issues when the US has decided to sit out the Paris Agreement. 

At Paris, India took a rather ambitious first step with the understanding that the first set of targets under the agreement going from 2020 onwards up to 2030 would not be ratcheted up. The agreement provides for a review and upward revision of the targets for the next phase after 2030.

India committed to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030. To do so by 2030, the country would derive 40 per cent of its power capacity from non-fossil fuel based sources. Domestically, to ensure that the National Democratic Alliance government fixed a tough target of setting up 100 Gw of solar power by 2022, to be topped up by 25-50 Gw by 2030. This won India accolades for taking a leadership role on the global stage even as some historical emitters took on relatively modest commitments.

By August 2018, the country has installed 23 Gw of solar power capacity and the 100 Gw target looks tough to achieve within the next four years.

The new IPCC report has said that when looked at cumulatively, all such targets of the 177 countries are not adequate. But the panel was neither tasked with nor has answered the politically significant question of who needs to do more and how this additional responsibility will be apportioned. 

This debate is going to rage at the Poland climate change talks in December. Two factors are likely to wedge India into a corner. The US -- the biggest historical emitter -- has stepped away from its existing commitments on emission reductions as well as providing finance. The US, and the European Union to a lesser extent, have argued hard at the talks over years to not let the principle of equity and fair distribution of responsibility become a firm central basis for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

With the idea of a fair burden-sharing formula being contested by the developed world and the US entirely out of the game, the pressure to take yet deeper emission cuts without any financial support is likely to be focused on large emerging economies such as India and China.

This leaves India in a bind. If the entire global community does not heed the IPCC report to enhance emission-cutting targets, climate change is certain to become more acute, leading to massive economic and ecological disruption in India even though its contribution to the problem so far has been much less than all other large economies. But taking on disproportionally higher emission reduction targets would mean more investments and financial resources being drawn away from short- and medium-term objectives of poverty eradication and economic growth to long-term social and economic security.  

Some experts contend that the continuous falling prices of clean technology, such as solar power and storage, permits countries like India to reassess where the new golden mean may lie between these contesting demands on resources. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Centre for Science and Environment, recently said such a "sweet spot" exists for India to be more ambitious.

Others contend that negotiations cannot take place on the basis of an acceptance that developed countries are not to be held accountable for their existing commitments and historical responsibility.

"Going by experience, there will be pressure on developing countries to ratchet up their ambition and present revised and more ambitious NDCs by 2020. However, it is important to ensure that the conversation on the IPCC report is premised on equity and fairness and in the answering of the who and the how, these principles must not be forgotten," says Indrajit Bose of Third World Network, an international NGO that tracks the negotiations.

"Developing countries have to also invest large amounts for adaptation. How does one ratchet up NDCs without seeing accompanying increase in support for adaptation or finance and technology for developing countries?" he adds.

With the Paris Agreement now the template to move forward, developing countries are unlikely to give the US and EU an easy walk over in Poland on this count.

Bose says, "The US spent several hours at the IPCC meeting to ensure the words 'principle of equity' do not find mention in the report. They did not endorse the final report. During the Bangkok climate talks held in September 2018, developed countries were quite aggressive about not wanting to talk about finance under the Paris Agreement. In such a scenario, pushing certain developing countries to revise their NDCs upwards without the developed countries doing their fair share is going to be a challenge."

The agenda for Poland negotiations in December was crammed tight with dozens of decisions to be taken for implementing the Paris Agreement from 2020. With the new IPCC findings also to be addressed at these negotiations, the geo-political and economic significance of the upcoming talks has gone up by several notches.  

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