The US President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has certainly given a setback to global action on climate change. After all, it is after years of arduous negotiations that the international policy community had reached this agreement. The US administration also refrained from endorsing an international declaration dealing with climate mitigation, climate finance and the Paris Agreement at the G-7 meeting of Environment Ministers. Does this leave the climate change-related epistemic communities high and dry regarding the future of international climate action, especially centred on the commitments laid out in the Paris Agreement? Will the rest of the world take a few steps back now that the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has decided to renege on its mitigation and financial commitments? From the early signals, it looks otherwise.

 

Not only are the rest of the nation states steadfastly sticking to their commitments (some even raising them) but also within the US, the pro-climate voices have strengthened. A coalition of businesses (including Nestlé, General Mills, Unilever, Mars, Facebook, Google and Bloomberg), individual states, cities and others are determined to defy Trump’s decision and continue with their climate action plans. Nevertheless, Trump’s anti-climate policies have created a gap in the collective leadership that spurred the negotiations at the 2015 Paris Summit and ultimately led to the signing of the agreement. While a handful of countries of the European Union (EU) like Germany and France, and China have attempted to fill the gap as the leading climate voices of the world, India is not far behind in terms of its clout on an issue of global governance, as important as climate change.

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to place climate change at the centre of India’s bilateral and multilateral dealings with other countries and groupings/organisations. During his recent visit to Europe as well, he “vowed to go above and beyond the Paris accord to combat climate change.” Alluding to the history and tradition of environmental protection in India and reiterating the need for protecting the environment for the future generations, Modi has spelled out India’s unwavering commitment to the Paris Agreement.  His statements shed light on the fact that while the Paris Agreement is the cornerstone of international climate action, it is important to act upon climate change whether or not the agreement exists. The commitment to climate action should not necessarily be bound by a piece of formal document.

 

Trump, while announcing the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, left no stone unturned to point the finger at two specific countries, which according to him, would gain most out of the agreement, at the cost of the US. He accused India and China of continuing to pollute through coal-fired power plants while the US would be forced to apply brakes over its coal production and consumption. In addition, he insinuated that India signed on to the deal to lure funds from the US and other developed countries for climate-related projects. In response, Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister for External Affairs, asserted, “We signed it because of our belief – a 5,000-year-old belief in environment. If someone says we signed it for money or under pressure, I’ll reject it. It is wrong.”

 

So, why is Trump so wrong about India’s climate commitments? Here are five reasons why India is more committed than any other country in the world to climate action and perhaps can be considered the most suited country to lead the process ethically. First and foremost, as Modi and Swaraj pointed out, environmental protection, conservation and preservation are not new to Indian ethos. Of course, actions speak louder than words. And this is the right time to ensure that the rich environmental history of India is preserved through environmental actions that do not necessarily pose any risk to the administration’s obligation to provide electricity, shelter and other amenities to a large section of the country’s population that still does not have access to them. After all, India’s environmentalism is driven by livelihood and other socio-economic concerns, which cannot be seen independently from one another.

 

Second, even while India plans to double its coal production, in order to achieve self-sufficiency and energy security, it is going an extra mile to ensure that the transition to renewable energy is quicker and more efficient. India is currently the fourth largest market for solar power in the world behind China, the US and Japan; and it is now touted to strip Japan of its third position, according to a prediction made by a Taiwanese research firm. Besides pledging to derive “at least 40 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030”, India also plans to increase its “solar power generation to 100 GW by 2022.” Last month, when the solar power tariff was recorded lower than that of coal-fired power (2.44 Indian Rupees or US$0.04 per kilowatt-hour) at an auction to supply 500 MW of new solar capacity in Rajasthan, the mood was upbeat and more optimistic than ever. If India goes at this rate, its dependence on coal-fired power plants could decrease dramatically in another decade or so.

 

Third, it is not just the renewable sector that India is concentrating on. The government has rolled out a series of policies that are directed at reducing the energy intensity of India’s cities, transport and infrastructure. For example, Green Energy Corridors, the National Smart Grid Mission and the Smart Cities Mission are aimed at increasing the country’s “energy capacities from wind and waste conversion” as well as making cities more energy efficient and resilient to disasters and climate change. Programmes related to health, soil health management, coastal management, watershed management, irrigation systems, organic farming and climate adaptation among others are also proposed or are in the pipeline. These are in addition to the eight missions of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) that was enforced in 2008. Climate action has become a buzzword in the policy circles – with several ministries taking a leap by introducing initiatives that could advance the country’s climate and environmental policies. An interesting initiative is that of the Science Express Climate Action Special (SECAS) train that was flagged off – a collaborative project of the Department of Science & Technology (DST), Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC), Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Ministry of Railways – in order to spread awareness about causes and impacts of climate change, and how it could be tackled, across the country, particularly among the youth. It is probably one of the first of its kind in the world. Undoubtedly, the government has expressed its intent to work on the areas that are relevant to environmental and climate policy.

 

Fourth, geopolitically, while these wild and factually inaccurate statements of Trump may not have any adverse impact on Indo-US cooperation in other sectors, India’s approachability factor in the post-Brexit and post-Trump victory world order has definitely risen. India is emerging as a natural and reliable partner in dealing with issues of global governance like climate change. This is further reinforced by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s fervent efforts to open new avenues of dialogue and cooperation, based on a pragmatic and result-oriented approach, with India, and China too. Emphasising on the need for countries to put their faith in a “rules-based global order”, she praised India for vigorous and accelerated action on climate mitigation, especially in the renewable (specifically solar) sector. While China has also catapulted itself into the position of the leader of the new world order, not all countries are inclined naturally to work with the Communist Party of China (CPC). Even the EU, despite being a major component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – as Europe remains the most significant consumer market for Chinese goods – yet it has mixed views on it. The EU voted against China’s application for “market economy status” at the World Trade Organisation (WTO); and at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May, the EU representative’s cautious receptiveness to China’s proposals on the grounds of adherence to “market principles and international standards”, the nature of access that European companies would get into the Chinese market and so on, bring out the EU’s (a few European countries) scepticism over China’s intentions and strategies. India, on the other hand, boycotted the Summit, over issues of security and sovereignty, as a large portion of the initiative is located in regions that are territorially India’s. 

 

Fifth, if there is one country that stands the best chance to take the moral high ground on climate and environmental issues from a historical, and even futuristic, point of view, it is India. This statement should not be read in absolutist terms, as like other developed and developing countries, India has also wreaked severe environmental destruction, at times irreversible, on its land. It has also been accused of doing the same abroad in a few instances, such as in the case of the US$21 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Basin (Australia) that has run into several legal, political and environmental controversies for over seven years. It is the scale and intent that need to be analysed here.

 

In comparison to the developed nations, India’s per capita emissions are much lower. Moreover, India’s economic growth story is defined by the services and not manufacturing. In essence, India skipped the industrialisation phase (the Industrial Revolution) that spurred West’s unhindered development and also contributed most (single-handedly) to climate change and environmental degradation in general world over. Once environmental degradation reached its peak (and perhaps even crossed the threshold) in the West, it was then conveniently relocated to Third World countries (including India) by shifting manufacturing and assembling industries to the latter. China is following the West’s path in this respect as well. China might be cancelling and shutting coal-fired projects on the Chinese soil; and is being appreciated for the same globally. However, it is contributing heavily to expansion of coal power in the rest of the world, especially in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, through investments by Chinese state-owned companies and banks that are involved in more than 80 coal projects in the world, as a part of BRI. China is basically filling the investment void left by international agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) along with the developed countries, which have discontinued funding coal-fired generation projects. China reportedly invested US$25 billion in coal projects during 2007-2015 across the world. Under the much-hyped China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), several coal plants along with coal-based industries are being set up in Pakistan by China – thereby negating the achievements of the emissions reduction schemes back home. Hence, China’s commitment to climate action can only be seen through the prism of its objective of tackling increasing levels of air pollution (particularly smog) in China, and not particularly its intention to address concerns related to climate change globally.

 

India’s “Make in India” programme that proposes to expand India’s industrial base and boost its self-reliance has the potential to transform India’s growth trajectory into one that is environmentally more destructive. Therefore, India should use this opportunity to show the world how one could harmonise economic and environmental objectives, without compromising on national interest. India should strive to develop its rather weak manufacturing sector through “Green Manufacturing” (“reducing parts, rationalising materials, and reusing components, to help make products more efficient to build”), by abiding with international, national and local regulations on environment and energy – like Zero Effect-Zero Defect and Perform-Achieve-Trade. This is the right time for India to plunge into the international arena as not only a responsible player but also an agenda-setter and more importantly an agenda-mover, as the world faces a serious crisis in global leadership. Climate change is the right foot, on which India could start off the process.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.