The Case for Strategic Multilateral Engagement on Low-Carbon Development in India

As UN climate week wraps up, it is a good time to take stock of where things stand nine months after the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. Since the end of last year, much of the diplomatic community has been focused on putting the agreement into force by the end of this year. They have made important progress and this week crossed one of two important thresholds of having more than 55 countries formally joining the agreement; 55 percent of global emissions represented in the agreement is the second requirement to enter into force. Beyond these important mechanics of the international negotiations process other challenges loom large. Chief among them is the task of proving that the world’s large developing economies can pursue a new low-carbon growth path. In this respect, the international climate effort is at a critical stage, and India is an important proving ground for the idea that large, developing economies can develop in a way that is significantly less carbon intensive than previous development pathways.

In the post-Paris climate environment several things are clear. First, the challenge of overcoming global climate change is an idea that is picking up momentum, not losing momentum. On the policy, investment, social consciousness, security, and political levels, climate change is rising and not falling in terms of overall importance. Second, despite all that support for taking action, the challenges of enacting policies and making investments strong enough to really decarbonize the global energy system are still hampered by economic, technological, political, and logistical stumbling blocks. Third, the clock continues to tick. Time is running out for the global energy system to transition in a way that puts us on a path to perhaps stabilizing the atmosphere at 2 degrees temperature rise.

For years the major question had been whether or not the United States and China would act to reduce emissions. That game of chicken ended this year with the Paris Climate Agreement. Both countries could backslide on their commitments of course, which would be damaging to the overall effort, but the United States and China are taking concrete measures to reduce emissions and have even left room for themselves to be more ambitious should they surpass their existing targets. It is still very important to the goal of stabilization and global leadership that developed economies continue to reduce emissions and show progress on their stated goals.

India is poised to play an ever more important role in the global climate landscape, however. According to the International Energy Agency, India’s emissions are expected to nearly triple between now and 2040 and to account for the single largest contribution to the rise in global emissions over that time frame. India’s historical and per capita emissions are still vastly smaller than those of developed economies, and the need to provide energy access in India is still understandably the single largest imperative going forward.

However, India’s decarbonization matters not only from a numbers/atmospheric perspective but also from a strategic perspective. It is critically important to the future of climate change policy that we prove a large, developing economy can develop in a way that is less carbon intensive. If every developing country left on earth has to go through the energy-intensive and heretofore carbon-intensive period of their development, then the world is surely going to miss its carbon-reduction goals. In this way, India is an important proving ground—we know it can be done on a small scale, we know it can be done at higher levels of development, but can it be done as a country goes through the transition to a middle-income country?

This case was not proven in China, as it was too far along an emissions-intensive development path. But high-level and coordinated engagement with China has been successful and a very important element of progress toward developing and deploying low-carbon energy. The political momentum created by China being able to mass produce solar panels, build new nuclear capacity, and expand wind capacity was transformational both in terms of technology cost reduction and expanding the clean energy market. Strategic engagement with India can and should play a similar role in showing how a combination of policies, international support, and political attention can help them crack the code as well. The international community should rally around India for this reason.

To date, engagement with India on these issues has increased considerably. For example, India has a number of bilateral partnerships that cover this topic. The United States and India have a broad level of engagement on clean energy, energy security, and the environment and a range of other issues all aimed at facilitating low-carbon growth. The European Union also engages with India on clean energy and climate as do some individual EU members. Japan also includes cooperation on energy and climate change within the framework of it partnership with India. The Indian central government, state and local governments, private-sector and industry players are all involved in international groupings and initiatives, like the Clean Energy Ministerial, the G20, Mission Innovation, the International Solar Alliance, the C40 Climate Leadership Group, and many more. Moreover, India itself is undertaking some remarkable domestic reforms and initiatives designed to better prepare itself for a changing climate and reduce its own impact on global emissions.

There are, of course, headwinds to great cooperation. It is not uncommon to hear that some in India would prefer to have less, not more, engagement on the issue of climate change—that they are tired of being told not to use coal, oil, and gas resources or being the guinea pigs for some new-fangled idea of low-carbon development. It is also clear that many countries’ domestic constituencies do not want to aid the development of another country and possible future competitor, especially given the difficulty of spurring their own growth and transitioning their own economies. Finally, other developing economies may worry that a bolder strategic focus on India would detract from the aid and assistance they will receive. All of these concerns bolster the argument for more strategic coordination in multilateral public- and private-sector partnerships in India. Many groups working toward the same goals rather than disparate efforts should help to improve the efficiency and success of those endeavors. Moreover, many of the barriers to low-carbon development in India have a great deal to do with the overall investment climate and cost of doing business and will facilitate additional investment if done right.

As the last several decades have shown, progress toward more action on climate change has been achieved through a combination of systemic reforms and symbolic successes. Great coordination among countries already engaged in India, plus some strategic focus to that engagement, could go a long way to delivering real emission reductions down the line and a much needed signal that large developing economies can achieve less carbon-intensive, more climate-resilient development.

Sarah Ladislaw is a senior fellow and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program