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The first ever Informal Summit held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in April 2018 has ushered in a period of relative peace and cooperation between India and China. After the Doklam standoff in 2017, the two countries were committed to normalising relations. The Wuhan Summit has set the tone for cooperation at both bilateral and international levels. Apart from addressing politically volatile issues like the India-China border dispute and economically beneficial issues like bilateral trade and investment, the two leaders also touched upon critical issues like climate change, sustainable development and food security.


India and China’s Positions on Climate Change


India and China have maintained similar positions on climate change, especially on equity and climate justice. At the Copenhagen Summit (2009), the two countries united against a divided West in order to thwart efforts by the industrialised countries to impose an unfair treaty on the developing and least developed blocs. This resulted in a somewhat diluted climate accord, but paved the way for a process, geared towards “shared responsibilities” based on national circumstances and capabilities. India and China have been at the forefront of climate change negotiations, putting forth the demand for revising the international climate order that is known to be favourable to the West. Through groupings like BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) and Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), the two countries have striven to coordinate and integrate their views and activities along with other developing countries in order to achieve common objectives and safeguard common interests.


These common positions do not however, necessarily translate into impregnable unity on all fronts. There are many sticking points between India and China that have also led to the two countries moving apart in recent years, as far as climate change negotiations are concerned. In the run up to the Paris Summit, while China was more amenable to signing a deal with the United States (US) – under the Obama administration – India remained a holdout till the last minute. The negotiations could have ended in a stalemate if India had held the line against the Paris Agreement. India’s dependence on coal to meet its burgeoning energy requirements and reducing poverty do not match that of China whose emissions are enormously more than India’s and is therefore is under greater pressure to cap emissions and phase out coal.  Despite this reality, India decided to join the bandwagon for fear of isolation as well as driven by the aspiration to place the nation on the global high table in terms of decision-making on global challenges like climate change, international trade and so on.


Leadership in the Global Climate Order


A recently published memoir by Obama’s foreign policy and national security aide, Ben Rhodes, reveals that the President convinced Modi to break out of the institutional barriers to sign the deal, by using the “African-American” card. Having overcome several socio-economic and political upheavals in personal lives, fairness and survival are concerns that are shared by many world leaders, including Obama. Modi’s story of rise from a tea seller to the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world and Xi’s tale of hardship and survival to rise up the ranks of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and to become the longest serving (futuristically) President after Mao Zedong, albeit under entirely different circumstances, also resonate with their aspirations for a strong and transformative leadership that would “reform” the existing institutions.


By overemphasising rivalry and competition between India and China for increasing influence in Asia, Africa and beyond, one tends to overlook the potential for immense cooperation between the two countries, particularly on issues like climate change. The two leaders stressed on the contributions of India and China to “global peace and prosperity” and agreed to “jointly contribute in a positive and constructive way in facilitating sustainable solutions for global challenges including climate change, sustainable development, food security etc.” Both Xi and Modi realise the importance of making the “multilateral financial and political institutions…representative and responsive to the needs of developing countries.” Therefore, it is increasingly becoming imperative for them to converge and coordinate to be able to influence global governance. Both countries, even while competing, would need each other to mobilise the voices of the developing and emerging economies as well as channelise them to achieve common goals and targets. Although China announced the joint communiqué with the US in 2014, it readily clarified that it would continue to stand with the other developing countries, when it came to the industrialised countries’ responsibility to fulfil their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which has miserably failed to deliver results during its second commitment period. 


Scope for Bilateral and Multilateral Cooperation


Both India and China are highly vulnerable to climate change and one of the major drivers of climate action in the two countries is the vulnerability factor. Tackling the scourge of pollution, health hazards, agricultural decline, water scarcity and food insecurity, apart from climate change presents an opportunity to engage in cooperative arrangements that are mutually beneficial. For instance, both countries’ coastal cities face the threat of sea-level rise, land subsidence, flooding and numerous other environmental challenges that are common in nature. With cities being crucial for the future of global climate governance, one way in which India and China could contribute is by forming city networks, involving multiple stakeholders, engaging in knowledge co-production and exchanging best practices. China launched the world’s largest carbon-trading scheme in 2017, covering the power-generation industry, and the scheme would include other sectors such as iron and steel as well in the future. India could conduct a feasibility study based on the Chinese experience and expand its own Perform-Achieve-Trade scheme, currently aimed at enhancing energy efficiency of the industry.


In the agricultural sector, India is ahead in terms of developing climate-smart approaches like “climate-smart village”, solar irrigation, “underground taming of floods for drought management”, “improved weather-based crop insurance”, “precision nutrient management” and so on. Agriculture in China continues to be a vital sector and is one of the climate-vulnerable ones. Therefore, there is scope for China taking a leaf out of India’s book as well. In fact, even in disaster management, bilaterally and multilaterally, India and China can expand cooperation in countries of South and Southeast Asia, with the increase in the frequency and intensity of disasters across the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, the two countries engaged in “humanitarian cooperation”, instilling coordination among each other’s governmental and non-governmental organisations for better disaster relief, search and rescue.


China’s solar manufacturing industry accounts for more than half of the global supply of solar equipment – both raw material and panels. In fact, six out of ten top solar panel manufacturers are based in China (the list includes foreign companies whose manufacturing base is China). With increasing signs of protectionism (like in the case of the US) and slump in the domestic demand, China is looking to enhance its supply of solar products to other countries like India. On the other hand, India’s brainchild – International Solar Alliance (ISA) – is headquartered in India and its first summit was held earlier in 2018 in the country, which featured heads of state of over 20 countries as well as senior representatives of many global banks. If the two Asian giants can join hands and steward the ISA, it will be a win-win situation for both. Even though only a tiny portion of China falls inside the inter-tropical zone, India and other members of the ISA have expressed their interest in expanding the membership by inviting countries like China, Germany and the US among others. Very often, the activities of China and India (with the former’s being on a much larger scale) in a continent like Africa have been regarded as a “scramble”, detrimental to “African interests”. This picture could be transformed into that of constructive cooperation in areas like renewable energy, wherein both nations’ ‘smart power’ – China’s money and India’s goodwill – could together help secure Africa’s energy requirements.    


Politics Aside, Time for Climate Action


With the exit of the US from the Paris Agreement – courtesy, President Trump’s opposition to emissions reduction commitments – the onus is now on the rest of the international community to rescue the climate treaty. India and China have been on the forefront of taking on the leadership role, albeit the way ahead is replete with challenges. Reports suggest that India is well placed to achieve the targets set under the Paris Agreement, with the industry also aligning itself with the national climate goals and the government’s policies. With the expansion of renewables in not only the energy sector but also transport, India is set to overachieve its Paris targets, according to reports. China is also on its way to achieving its targets: increase “forest stock volume”, “forest coverage”, and “non-fossil fuels’ share of primary energy consumption”, and reduce “carbon dioxide emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”.


While China’s commitments have been rated as “highly insufficient” as far as consistency with restricting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius is concerned, India’s is considered largely “compatible”. The clock is ticking and the two countries, especially China with its greater resources, influence and responsibility, have to raise climate ambition. Setting aside thorny political differences over territorial boundary, the Wuhan Summit endeavoured to clear the air between the two powers. Climate change offers a platform for cooperation as well as building trust and peace. Climate change could emerge as an issue on which they could advance efforts jointly, which would not only improve bilateral relations that could in turn, positively affect the political equations, but also save the climate and the Planet.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.