Thursday, 17 December 2015

A climate more congenial to India

The Paris Agreement preserves space for greater energy use, but with the caveat that India's actions will be subject to scrutiny. We should use these mechanisms to hold others to account.

Is the Paris Agreement on climate change a good or bad deal for India? The complex text, produced after four years of tortuous negotiations, does not lend itself to a simple answer. But this is the question that matters for India, and is worth trying to answer.
Efforts at international cooperation imply that countries must concede something with the intent of obtaining some greater gain. The premise of the climate agreement is that by agreeing to some checks on national greenhouse gas emissions, and hence energy use patterns, each country benefits from decreased collective exposure to harmful global climate change. Most Indian analyses of the Paris Agreement have focussed on the concession — what did India give up? But since India is a country at great risk from climate impacts, a balanced reckoning requires a close look at both sides of the ledger, the loss and the gain.
Securing our energy future

On the loss side, India’s long-standing objective in climate talks is to avoid undue limits on energy options. This is important, as India will require a great deal more energy in the coming decades: for commercial cooking fuels, access to electricity, and power for industries and commerce to provide livelihoods. Although huge, these needs are also uncertain; much depends on how India grows, and on how technology changes. This uncertainty also makes negotiation difficult, as it is hard to know how much to bargain away without causing harm.
Navroz K. Dubash
The bedrock of India’s approach to ensuring we do not give away our energy future is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” embedded in the underlying Framework Convention on Climate Change. Without this safeguard, all countries would have been placed on the same footing. India, despite contributing little to the problem and having limited capacity to address it, would have been placed under undue pressure to prematurely limit emissions. Developed countries have long argued for a dilution of this principle, saying that the world has changed since 1990 when the Convention was negotiated — particularly referring to the rise of China — and that static lists of developed and developing countries fail to capture this dynamic global context.
Developed-developing distinction

This deadlock was broken at Paris by acknowledging that the world has indeed changed, yet not so much that these categories are no longer relevant; developed and developing country categories are retainedbut made more fluid. Moreover, the Agreement usefully specifies what the principle means in practice for key climate policy areas such as mitigation, adaptation, finance, and transparency provisions. In this respect, India demonstrated some nimbleness at Paris, by shifting from arguing for blanket invocation of the principle to seeking its specific application in key areas.
For example, in the core mitigation area, the Agreement states that developed countries should take the lead with economy-wide emission reduction targets, while developing countries should aspire to do so over time, recognising that they will need to grow their emissions. This allows some countries to cross categories when it deems fit, as China has done by pledging a “peaking year” for its emissions, while allowing other, like India, to persist with an emissions intensity pledge, which allows emissions to rise. Significantly, it maintains a distinction between developed and developing countries in the provision of climate finance, using the same model of creating a somewhat porous boundary. This distinction retains a key idea for India — expectations of mitigation actions by developing countries are related to expectations of support from developed countries. Together, retention of categories of countries and their operationalisation in key provisions ensure India’s losses at Paris are limited. An important caveat is that what was a relatively impervious boundary has been made permeable, increasing the risk that India will be pressured to ‘voluntarily’ cross that boundary sooner rather than later.
On this aspect, one dissonant note in the negotiations was a successful last-minute effort by a coalition of countries to introduce the idea of attempting to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C instead of 2°C. While highly desirable in principle, this increase in ‘ambition’ was not backed by an increase in action, particularly from the developed countries, increasing the risk that India will be asked to prematurely step up to fill the gap.
National pledges

What, then, are the gains for India? Will India gain, and how much, from the Paris Agreement in terms of avoided climate harms? One common line of argument is that the Paris Agreement is relatively toothless, does not bind countries (including India) to actual emission limits, has no mechanisms to enforce actions, and therefore will have little impact. If so, India would have little to gain.
But this description entirely misses the point. It rests on a presumption that international agreements drive domestic actions in countries, even against the run of domestic politics. The Paris Agreement is built on a different logic: the motive power for change in energy systems will come from domestic politics in country after country, but the international process can amplify and provide leverage for domestic actors. By this logic, the key elements of the Paris Agreement are the national pledges made before Paris, and the mechanism to encourage those pledges to be ratcheted up over time. This mechanism includes: a mandatory five-yearly update of all pledges; a technical review process of both climate actions and financial contributions that is meant to ensure countries take their updates seriously; transparency provisions; and a global ‘stocktake’ on the aggregate effect of these actions. The idea is that the Paris Agreement will set in place mandatory procedures, which then stimulate an iterative process in country after country, ideally stimulating ever greater shifts to low-carbon trajectories.
The first round of pledges submitted before Paris were conservative and have fallen short of what is required, bridging only about a quarter to a third of the necessary gap between emissions pledged and what is required by science. This is why the update and ratchet mechanism is essential; it is designed to stimulate a virtuous cycle of more ambitious pledges, greater investment in low emissions options, and lower costs and barriers to implementation of those options, leading to yet more ambitious pledges. If this works, and it does result in enhanced collective action to limit climate change, then India will be a substantial gainer.
For a robust energy policy

But will this work? The answer rests, as it probably should, in national political processes in all countries, including India, rather than in the international arena. For India, the imperative now is twofold. First, we should make sure the ratchet mechanism sustains pressure on developed countries to ramp up their efforts. This will require and upgrading our ability to analyse other country contributions and actively shaping the fine print of implementing language for the Paris Agreement in the coming years.
Second, and perhaps more important, we have to build a robust and ongoing national process to examine our energy and climate future, to replace India’s current ad hoc, disconnected, process of energy planning and policy. This requires a more cogent system of energy information gathering and analysis. It also requires exploring actions that bring synergies across development and climate outcomes (such as energy efficiency and public transport) and those that come with direct costs to the economy. We also need answers to longer-term questions salient to future pledges, such as: how much additional coal energy do we anticipate needing; and, to what extent can we urbanise while limiting high carbon lock-in?
Looking at both sides of the ledger, India has limited losses because the Agreement preserves space for greater energy use, but with the caveat that we have to better justify our actions through a national process that will also be subject to international scrutiny. Moreover, we can and should use these same mechanisms to hold others to account. On the positive side, there is a plausible, if challenging, pathway to improved global action to limit climate change and its harmful impacts. And, the Paris Agreement offers the not trivial benefit of inducing India to establish a more robust domestic process for energy planning and policy. In my opinion, the balance is, on net, positive.