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Published on August 13th, 2015 | by Tobias Engelmeier


A New Climate Policy For India? (Big Leak)

August 13th, 2015 by  

India, the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon and one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, is a key player in global climate negotiations. Now, in the run-up to the Paris climate negotiations in October and November of this year, its negotiating position might be evolving dramatically. In an internal document, addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government’s Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, suggests that India should abandon old positions and seek new allies.

In what was described as a “scoop,” the document came to the notice of journalist Nitin Sethi at the Business Standard. My comments are based on his article. I have not seen the original document.

While, of course, such a document would not constitute a final and official position, it seems to reveal a new pliability and readiness to think differently. (The same newspaper had earlier reported that India might, in view of the climate talks, reduce its solar goal downwards again to 20 GW.)

Rethinking Everything

In the past, India’s negotiation strategy was to firmly deny any responsibility for climate change (based on low per capita and historical emissions), to fight for a comfortable right to emit (“carbon space;” India’s energy mix is dominated by coal, which is also a plentiful resource domestically), to shift attention from mitigation to adaptation and to avoid any binding commitments (although the previous Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, somewhat vaguely declared that India would never emit more on a per capita basis than the developed countries).

A tough negotiation position centred around “climate justice” was carried by a wide consensus amongst the Intelligentsia at home. To support it, India had previously sought alliances with “like-minded developing countries,” especially China.

The new position document now seems to suggest a radical departure: India should focus on actively reducing its own emissions and should no longer hold on to the segmentation between rich and poor countries. These are positions traditionally advanced by the US and the EU and, according to Subramanian, would help Mr. Modi position himself as a global leader and support India’s claim for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Also, to fight climate change, India should push the G7 countries to adopt a carbon tax.

From Idealism to Pragmatism

Reactions in India were largely negative: Is India caving in to the developed world? Is it failing to protect its national interest and right to emit, and thus develop? The leaking of the document to the public was certainly a tactical disaster (a “Climategate”) as you don’t want your bargaining chips revealed ahead of the discussions. (Since so much is at stake, there might conceivably be intention behind the leak.) That being said, there are some good points in Subramanian’s note.

First of all: Change in India’s climate position would be a good idea per se. While the past position has been a success in that it avoided any emissions targets being imposed on India, it was a failure in that it contributed substantively to the fact that there is no strong global deal, something which India needs more than many other countries.

Subramanian says as much: “India has a greater stake in climate change mitigation than most rich countries, which will likely be less affected and better able to cope with consequences.” For details, refer to this recent climate risk assessment document.

Subramanian also believes that getting money or substantial help from developed countries is unlikely and therefore India should stop asking for it. Transferring money from rich to poor countries might by ethically sound, but it just doesn’t happen nearly enough.

He writes: “Are the commitments of cash-strapped advanced countries plausible? After all, the US cannot muster the will and ability to contribute a few hundred million dollars (chump change really) to increasing the International Monetary Fund’s resources.” Or, look at the sorry state of the promised $100 billion climate fund.

So this could be a new pragmatism, leaving behind ideology and the question of justice to instead look at what needs to be done, trying to achieve substantive results rather than score polemical points. That would be great. (Although is is harmful to communicate such a shift now, as “justice” is India’s strongest bargaining chip.)

The Ambiguous Role of Coal

Such a shift, of course, would dovetail with the changing global and Indian energy world. While emissions and carbon space remain a concern for India (emissions will rise as the population grows and consumes more) there is a growing understanding among India’s decision-makers that a transition towards a low-carbon energy system is not a “tax” that would delay development and growth, but rather the best and fastest way towards it.

For instance, many energy efficiency measures make sense from an economic and energy security point of view as much as from a global climate point of view. Also, local pollution and water usage from coal fired power plants are threatening the health and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Indians.

At the same time, renewables (especially solar power) have become cost competitive in generation terms both at the grid and at the socket (albeit not yet in terms of reliability). What is more, these can be implemented much more quickly than large conventional power plants and they attract significant international investment.

However, coal still has a prominent place in the strategy Subramanian outlines. He writes that India should ally itself with coal-producing countries such as Australia or the US and push G7 countries to invest into “clean coal” technologies.

These statements, which appear to conflict with the other ideas, reflect the fact that coal still has a very strong lobby in the Indian government. And it is, indeed, difficult to imagine how India can do without coal in the next couple of years.

Hopefully, Subramanian’s ideas will be discussed within the Indian government and help create a flexible, engaging and constructive negotiating position, one that allows for the substantive result India needs.

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About the Author

is working towards a low carbon world. He believes that this is a great opportunity rather than a sacrifice and that it will be driven by business and economic fundamentals rather than by political directive. Developing countries, who can still make a choice about their future energy infrastructure, are in a particularly good position to get the most out of the renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions available. The good news is: A global energy transition is inevitable. The bad news is: current market designs in most countries are not conducive enough and could delay this inevitable transition for just too long to save our climate. So that is what we need to work on: better market designs. (Disclaimer: views in motion...) Companies I am involved with: TFE Consulting ( (sustainability solutions for India), (helping consumer go solar in India), (the business platform for the global renewables industry).

  • Angus2100

    This is very good news!

  • JamesWimberley

    Subramanian is an economist not a diplomat, so did not mention the key factor that China has abandoned India’s “our turn to trash the playground” position. In the crucial deal with Obama, it has accepted the need for an absolute cap on its own emissions, followed by steep reductions. US diplomats also peeled off Brazil from the Copenhagen united front, so India will be isolated if it sticks to this obsolete line.

    He’s right to be sceptical of promises of money from rich countries. Poor ones should plan their energy transitions on the assumption that there won’t be significant concessionary finance, whatever the Paris agreement says. Creditworthy countries like India, with a reasonable approximation to the rule of law, will be able to finance renewable energy projects commercially. IMHO concessionary finance should be targeted on the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and the vulnerable island nations.

  • Matt

    I hope they get their wish “Also, to fight climate change, India should push the G7 countries to adopt a carbon tax.”. Because if G7 did a carbon fee/dividend system, with WTO approved tariffs at the boarder, China and India would likely have to join also.

  • eveee

    Its interesting that the same mistakes are repeated everywhere. This same baloney was used to excuse the US and Chinas GHG intransigence. Too costly. Well not anymore. China had the same excuse as India.
    Honestly, its a stupid idea to want to use coal because other nations have done it. China used that. Now look where they are.
    And the idea that coal is good for poor people? Blithering nonsense.
    Clean coal? CCS? All BS.
    With the low costs of renewables today, there is no excuse for coal expansion.
    Its a completely foolish idea. Indias cities now have worse pollution than China.
    Thats not something to covet.

    • I’m tired of breathing air that’s been burned 17 times before i get to use it.

  • Indian

    I cannot understand what good author is doing by further spreading leaked document that could very well further compromise India’s negotiating capabilities!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Perhaps self publicity…

    • Bob_Wallace

      Since someone else has already published the leaked document the other participants in the negotiation will have already read it in full.

      Secrets aren’t secrets after they’ve been told.

  • Kevin McKinney

    I certainly hope that this position gains some traction, as the ‘Singh scenario’, in which Indian per capita emissions approach developed nations levels, would be a recipe for climatic suicide. It’s certainly true that India has great climate vulnerabilities in terms of public health and agricultural security both. Let’s hope that minds focus on those, and not just on the short-term costs of change.

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