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The Future of India’s Climate Diplomacy: Trump, China and Other Factors

22 December, 2016
Dhanasree Jayaram

The uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump's climate policy has side-tracked the debate on climate governance. One player observing the rapidly changing landscape is India. Dhanasree Jayaram takes a look at current international dynamics, the divergences between India and China, collaboration on clean energy development, the Kigali negotiations and the question who is really responsible to resolve the conundrum.

The changing landscape of global climate politics

If there is one major global governance issue that could take a hit with Donald Trump’s electoral victory, it is climate change. The uncertainty surrounding the President-elect’s climate policy, both at the domestic and international level, has side-tracked the debate on climate governance, as multiple questions have been raised, ranging from ‘will Trump’s presidency stall progress on global environmental action?’ to ‘who will become the next world climate leader?’

In the wake of vitriolic rhetoric against any form of climate action initiated by outgoing President Barack Obama, during his election campaign; and appointment of the Oklahoma attorney general and a well-known climate sceptic, Scott Pruitt, to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one does not necessarily need to seek a second opinion regarding the President-elect’s natural predilections on climate change.

Obama’s exit is expected to leave a vacuum in global climate politics, depending on whether or not Trump decides to shift the US away from the global climate scene, and thus from its global responsibilities.

One player observing the rapidly changing landscape, whilst meanwhile being observed, is India. During the Conference of Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, India is said to have maintained strategic quiet on various issues.

According to some analysts, this may be due to India’s apprehensions regarding the future of the Paris Agreement under Trump’s presidency, taking into consideration his non-committal attitude towards the agreement during the election campaign. Since then, his position has moderated mildly, acknowledging “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, and that he would want to “look into” the Paris Agreement (rather than pull out of it).

First of all, it is too early to predict Trump’s moves on climate policy. It is even more important to understand that countries like India, which is known to play by the moral cards at international negotiations, is least likely to jeopardise the Paris Agreement, after having signed and ratified it in good faith – that too based on another country’s election results. This was made amply clear by Anil Madhav Dave, India’s Minister of State (MoS) for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), “We have to go ahead with implementation of the agreement. We already have over 95% of the laws necessary to do so.”

India and China - an issue of South-South divergence?

In no time, many reports have cropped up, putting China on a pedestal and pinning hopes on it to deliver as a potential global climate leader – lauding its progressive and proactive action on the Paris Agreement and the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Climate cooperation between China and the US is said to have single-handedly made the Paris Agreement possible, as these two have been possibly the largest holdouts in climate change negotiations in the past.


Similarly, China’s decision to support the US to phase-out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), breaking away from the developing world, also struck a chord with most climate pundits. India is still, however, being viewed as a problem in global environmental governance, “delaying the Kigali agreement” and adopting climate-unfriendly policies such as doubling coal production.

South-South divergence in the global climate negotiations is not new. The BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) grouping, which stood at the pinnacle of success at the Copenhagen Summit back in 2009, fissured the very next year when conflicting interests overpowered shared ones.

Therefore, divergences between India and China have grown over the years – except on clean energy development, deployment and promotion; the bottom-up approach to climate action; and to some extent, climate finance, the two countries have been at variance on many points including peaking of emissions and emissions reduction commitments.

From India’s perspective, it would not want to be equated with a country that is the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter (in aggregate terms) and whose per capita emissions are far higher than its own. Taking these very factors into consideration, former Special Envoy of the Indian Prime Minister on climate change, Shyam Saran, pointed out that if China had agreed to peak its emissions in 2030, then India could agree to do the same 15-20 years after 2030.

Likewise, when discussing the Kigali amendment, one estimate suggested that, “Even in 2050, India’s HFC emissions under business as usual would have been 7 per cent of the world total against China’s 31 per cent.” These arguments point towards the reality that China has to act sooner, as its contributions are much larger quantitatively and qualitatively in comparison to that of India.

However, this does not mean that India has far less responsibility in resolving the conundrum. This does not imply either, that there are no hindrances within India to effective development and implementation of climate policies. It only means that this type of comparison does not help reach any conclusion.

A linchpin in global climate governance

One needs to fact-check some of these reports and articles that place India on a defensive position. Take for instance, the existence of a completely different narrative, describing India’s role in these international negotiations. Although not very ambitious, India had put up a proposal to phase-out HFCs, which only three other parties did.

After having changed its negotiation strategy to one based on “reciprocity” (so that the advancement of its baseline for the HFC phase-out is complimented by a similar move as well as greater technological and financial support by the developed world), India “announced voluntary action to eliminate emissions of HFC-23 with immediate effect,” much to the surprise of China and the US that are “responsible for most of the global HFC-23 emissions.”

The baseline acceptable to India (2024-26) with HFCs freezing in 2028) was agreed with a clear focus on affordability (cost burden) and technological alternatives. Not only did India announce a “domestic, collaborative R&D programme to develop next-generation, sustainable refrigerants”, involving key stakeholders like the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research and its allied institutions, Department of Science and Technology and Centre for Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences among others in September 2016; it also agreed to cooperate with the US to phase-out HFCs in a joint statement when Obama visited India in January 2015, long before the Kigali meeting took place.

Even on the question of coal, while it is being trumpeted that China’s consumption of this most-polluting fossil fuel might have dropped by 3.7 percent in 2015, compared to 2014 levels, other reports suggest that “China’s coal power generation capacity will grow as much as 19 percent over the next five years.”

However, in order to maintain its coal-fired plant capacity below 1,100 gigawatts (GW), it might have to cut about 150 GW of coal-fired power from approved and under-construction projects. As far as India is concerned, while India’s plan to double coal production has got a lot of international attention, many other proposals have not received as much attention as one would imagine.

First, with the aim to reduce pollution, the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC Limited) intends to phase out thermal power plants that are more than 25 years old and replace them with modern energy efficient supercritical ones. Second, a December 2016 report – draft National Electricity Plan – has come out with a plan for the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), for “zero new thermal power generation” before 2027, thereby facilitating a massive shift to renewable sources.

This draft plan is not only open for public consultation but also predicts that the share of hydel, nuclear and renewable sources in the country’s energy basket will grow much faster (46.8 percent of electricity generation by 2021-22) than what has been committed in the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) (40 percent by 2030).

Even if these proposals cater to just optics and signify less of intent and/or action, the fact remains that both countries are heavily dependent on coal; both are increasing their coal power capacity while proposing to phase it out eventually; both are making the right noises but one is being heard more than the other.

Whilst it is extremely important to take China into the fold, India is a linchpin in global climate governance too. It is rather inappropriate and unfair to say that the European Union (EU) or China or India can be the next world climate leader, which takes the international community back to a parochial view of climate leadership based on hegemonic stability.

The three actors along with the other pivotal ones (who have played a far bigger role in steering climate change negotiations than what is advertised) have to ensure that a potential change in the US’ stand on the Paris Agreement and/or other climate policies does not derail the global climate change negotiations and climate action by not adopting any regressive steps in their own climate diplomacy.

India and China - an opportunity for collective leadership?

Collective leadership would be required to maintain stability in the global climate order. On the one hand, the divergences between India and China are growing day by day and on the other, Trump’s flip-flops provide an opportunity for countries like India and China to bridge these differences in order to collectively invest in green R&D and reduce dependence on the outcomes of negotiations as the only driver of global climate action.

A Global Times report, entitled “Non-committal Trump may push China to work with India in fighting climate change,” states, “China and India should encourage scientific institutions, environmental groups and firms to cooperate on research to develop environmentally friendly techniques that are tailored for both countries.”

Another reason why this report resonates well with the current dynamics in international relations is that Trump has sent shock waves by questioning the one-China policy, thus shaking the foundation on which the much-talked about G-2 relationship developed between the two powers even on the climate change front.

International dynamics aside, India still has a lot to do in terms of research, whether it is in science, technology or economics, or other sectors impinged by or associated with climate change. Whilst one group of scientists have dismissed any connection between December 2015 deluge in Chennai and human-induced climate change, another group of scientists have concluded that the 2015 heat waves in India and Pakistan were exacerbated by climate change.

This uncertainty and many other aspects need to be studied, and appropriate measures need to be taken at the national level in order to advance India’s climate diplomacy in the future.


This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy. The Climate Diplomacy Initiative is a collaborative effort of the German Federal Foreign Office in partnership with adelphi.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

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