An Indian climate czar

The United Nations’ Conference of Parties summit to deal with climate change, COP26, is fast approaching. The summit is to be held in Glasgow and a great deal of speculation has been attached to whether the Government of India will be in a position to revise the commitments, under the nationally determined contributions (NDC) scheme, that it had made at the Paris summit in 2015. Several major emitters, including the United States, the European Union, and the People’s Republic of China, have done so. The Indian government, however — with some justification — has argued t.....
The United Nations’ Conference of Parties summit to deal with climate change, COP26, is fast approaching. The summit is to be held in Glasgow and a great deal of speculation has been attached to whether the Government of India will be in a position to revise the commitments, under the nationally determined contributions (NDC) scheme, that it had made at the Paris summit in 2015. Several major emitters, including the United States, the European Union, and the People’s Republic of China, have done so. The Indian government, however — with some justification — has argued that the greater climate ambition must be accompanied by greater commitment to transition and adaptation costs worldwide. Addressing an audience comprising officials of the World Bank Group recently, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also argued other countries’ commitments, particularly those from industrialised countries that have high historical emissions of greenhouse gases, must be legally binding and get to “net-zero” emissions faster.

While India has a good case to make that it is already over-achieving on climate change, the fact is that international negotiations of the sort to be undertaken at COP26 are complex and require high-level commitment and constant engagement with a variety of stakeholders. The United States has appointed a climate envoy who combines great experience with international affairs and considerable political prestige — the former secretary of state, senator, and presidential candidate John Kerry. COP26’s hosts, the United Kingdom, have appointed a Cabinet-level politician, Alok Sharma, to lead the country’s efforts leading up to and at the conference. The European Commission has a large department devoted to climate change targets and negotiations, and their climate negotiating team has considerable experience at past COPs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must recognise that India’s team is, by comparison, under-powered. It is time to appoint a Cabinet-level official focused on climate change who will lead India’s efforts at the Union government level. The environment ministry may have been renamed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, but it simply is not fit for purpose.

Whether this new team should be located at the prime minister’s office or be modelled after past G20 sherpas in India is open to question. But, ideally, in order to hold his or her own in negotiations with the likes of Mr Kerry, the individual in question should have some political standing. Even though India is not responsible for the current problem, its actions and commitments in the context of mitigation will be closely watched. India should be able to project and defend its position in international negotiations. There should also be a specific team of climate negotiators who can build, and call upon, institutional memory beyond what has been stated in files and joint statements. India’s commitment to the climate change cause is evaluated globally not simply through its statements but also in terms of the state capacity it allots to the problem, and in that category at least it will be found wanting. India’s climate positions should not be evaluated and constructed from summit to summit, but be constantly evolving in response to global developments, the latest scientific consensus, and domestic policies. This cannot happen when it is simply another responsibility for an overburdened joint secretary somewhere on Raisina Hill.


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