October 11, 2015

India’s INDC for Paris Climate Summit


INDIA finally announced its mitigation pledge last week, its so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC for the approaching Climate Summit in Paris in December this year which is expected to conclude an international agreement to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions so as to rein in, and hopefully in time reverse, runaway climate change. India’s INDC has been broadly welcomed including by many civil society groupings. However, a closer examination reveals both good and bad news, and shows that preparation of what is really a sketchy outline is perhaps the easier task, whereas much fresh thinking and hard work would be required in the months and years ahead to develop and implement an equitable low-carbon development pathway for India, one that encapsulates both environmental sustainability and social justice.   




First, the good news. The headline announcement in India’s INDC is that it would reduce its Emissions Intensity of GDP (ie, emissions per unit of GDP) by 33-35 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030, thus avoiding the dubious reputation it had acquired in international negotiations of avoiding taking on serious emissions reductions.

Indeed, in the run-up to the INDC announcement, many influential voices in India were calling for a retreat from its earlier pledge made at the UNFCCC summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and later formalised in Durban in 2011, namely to reduce its emissions intensity of GDP by 20-25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and for a reprise to India’s do-nothing position of the 1990s. The argument advanced was that India, with very low per capita emissions, high incidence of poverty and extremely poor development indicators that show it standing alongside sub-Saharan Africa, carried no historical or contemporary responsibility for climate change and hence did not require to, and should not take on, any emission reduction commitments or “contributions.”

Regular readers would recall that this column has for long, in fact since release of IPCC/AR4 in 2007, been an almost lone voice in the wilderness advocating that while such a stand by India might have been all right when the climate treaty was first being negotiated in the early 1990s starting from Rio, it was no longer acceptable well into the third millennium when India is the third largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity, among the fastest growing economies in the world, a prominent member of the G-20, staking a claim to regional if not global leadership, vying for UN Security Council membership and, importantly, the world’s third highest emitter of GHGs. Even in 2007, the IPCC had not only called for developed countries to undertake deep emission cuts from 1990 levels, since they have primary responsibility for climate change by virtue of having contributed over three-quarters of accumulated atmospheric GHGs, but had also called upon developing countries, especially large ones such as China and India, to “deviate below the baseline” trend of rising emissions which were acknowledged as being necessary at this stage of their development.

That this basic premise has now been accepted across the political spectrum including by two successive governments is good news indeed and reflects a broad commitment by India to be part of the global climate solution even though it has not been part of the problem, a credo repeatedly invoked in these columns.




However, that is only one side of the problem and, unfortunately, where the good news stops.

These columns had faulted the then UPA government for agreeing at Copenhagen to the US formula of all countries adopting a common framework of reducing emissions through a dubious “pledge-and-review” rather than target-based system, virtually ignoring historical responsibility and almost abandoning the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), and for having made a unilateral emissions reduction commitment without extracting commensurate deep emissions cuts by the US and other developed countries. At that time, this UPA policy stance was clearly dictated by the burgeoning US-India strategic partnership and the Copenhagen formulations were preceded by similar formulations at various G8-plus meetings led by the US. This trend of India going along with the US in the international climate negotiations has regrettably continued in the present BJP-NDA dispensation as well.

Part of the reasoning in advocating a pro-active Indian position offering emissions reductions had always been that this would give India the moral stature and leverage to demand deeper emissions cuts by the US and other developed countries. Unfortunately this aspect has been completely ignored by both UPA and NDA governments with the intention of cozying up to the US and adopting a collusive approach of India not pressing the US to take on higher commitments in exchange for the US not putting pressure on India regarding its emissions. With India having made fairly serious emission reduction pledges, India should have been able to mount pressure on the US and others, but has chosen not to do so.

One could put this down to pragmatism and realpolitik. After all why waste effort when no results can be expected? Besides, no other large developing country, China included, has put any pressure on the US either, preferring to strike a bilateral “non-interference” stand instead.

Speaking for India, and for the billions around the world especially in developing countries and island nations, it is indeed disappointing that India has also chosen to travel down this collusive road. It is well known that, with all the pledges on the table for the Paris Summit, the total international emission cuts will fall far short of what is required to restrict global temperature rise to 2 degrees C which is the agreed goal. The shortfall of around 9 billion tons of GHGs even at this early stage, with few assurances of not worsening in coming years, means that temperatures may rise as much as 3-3.5 degrees C by mid-century with horrendous climate impacts and consequences.

Can India be happy with this? Yes the INDC is silent on this aspect, and does not express the concern necessary from a country which is among the worst affected regions in the world. Clearly, India will not press for greater ambition at Paris, almost as if this did not matter. Why is India leaving it to others such as the EU, the Least Developed Countries and Island Developing States to push for deeper emission cuts as required by the science? For whose benefit?

The US is the leading defaulter in committing to the required deep emission cuts. Its INDC announcing a 26 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 is a shameful pittance from the world’s largest, arguably most advanced economy and second highest emitter. This pathetic US pledge amounts to barely 9 percent below 1990 levels which is the accepted baseline, compared with the EU’s pledge to reduce 40 percent below 1990 levels. In terms of GHG tonnage, the US emission cuts will be only around half the emission reductions pledged by the EU. Japan, Canada, Australia have followed the US in this race to the bottom. There is little sign that the Paris summit will be able to go beyond the voluntary pledges and raise total emission cuts by all nations to the levels required for the 2 degree C goal. India is of course playing no role in making this happen. That will be kicked even further down the road. And the whole world will suffer.




And now for the bad news.

It must be noted that the headline INDC announcement of reducing emissions intensity of GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels is good, but not overly ambitious. It is not much more that an extrapolation from the pre-existing pledge of 20-25 percent by 2020 and that too more or less along the same curve, representing Emissions Intensity of GDP declining roughly a little under 1.5 percent per year. The INDC itself states that India’s energy intensity declined from 2005-12 by around 2.5 percent per year through various measures, which is expected in a growing economy that is also adopting newer technologies and energy efficiency.

The INDC promises a ramping up of electricity generation from non-fossil fuel sources up to 40 percent of the total by 2030, including 175,000 MW of solar and wind energy, four times greater than present levels, besides hydro and a huge amount of nuclear power of up to 63,000 MW conditional upon India obtaining fuel from abroad. When there is so much emphasis on solar and wind power, and much talk of falling costs, such ambitious targets for nuclear power is extremely surprising given its high costs and enormous risks. The INDC also talks of aggressively pushing hydro-power which again is questionable given resource availability constraints and enormous associated social and environmental issues.

The INDC reiterates the earlier Mission goals of 33 percent forest cover but also continues to bracket this with tree cover and casually speaking of “compensatory afforestation” for various infrastructure or industrial projects.

Everyone knows that a forest is far more than a bunch of trees. The ecological services performed by a forest are not merely carbon sequestration in trees but also by the vast diversity of flora and the soil. Loss of forest therefore simply cannot be “compensated” by planting trees somewhere else. Contrary to the rosy picture painted in the INDC, the present government is pursuing policies for dismantling environmental regulations, especially pertaining to forests, in order to favour extractive and other industries, infrastructure such as highways and so on. The notorious TSR Subramanian Committee Report, rejected by the relevant parliamentary committee after public uproar but sought to be implemented through the back door, recommended restricting “no-go” forest areas to only those areas with over 70 percent canopy, which would have opened up all but 5 percent of forests to ruthless exploitation supposedly to be offset by planting trees elsewhere. A recent government circular recommends handing over so-called degraded forest lands to industries for commercial forestry and other purposes. How can the 33 percent forest cover target be taken seriously in such circumstances?      

The INDC is replete with such contradictions and missed opportunities, not withstanding the accompanying rhetoric. For example, air quality in the country especially in cities, and the reluctance to restrain the automobile industry. Same with ambitious highways projects, “smart cities” and urbanisation programmes, unregulated building construction that will lock-in carbon for several decades whereas climate-friendly building materials and codes could substantially reduce energy consumption and thus emissions in residential and commercial buildings. In all these, the grandiose promises in the INDC stand in stark contrast to the policies and practices witnessed under the present government. In many ways, bulk of the headline target of reducing emissions intensity may be achieved just through shifting energy sources from coal to renewables, while other sectors will continue in their carbon-extravagant and environmentally unsustainable ways. If these latter too had been seriously tackled, the INDC target would, and should, have been substantially higher.




The INDC document has all the usual homilies about equity between nations, about the vast differential between the consumption patterns, lifestyles, energy use and emissions of the average person in developed countries and India, and argues for “climate justice.” But that term means a great deal more that India’s INDC puts forward. Put simply, climate justice suggests that the problem of climate change cannot be solved or even addressed merely by tackling emissions in an overall sense and especially through technical means, but requires an approach combining low emissions, environmental sustainability and socio-economic equity. These columns have long argued that India’s INDC or emission reduction targets should not respond only to international burden-sharing and related concepts of equity between countries but should be anchored in social justice and environmental sustainability domestically. India’s INDC is sorely lacking on this count.

There are only passing references, with little thinking or detail, to mass public transport within cities and towns, and inter-modal shift from road to rail for passenger movement. As brought out even by the not so detailed discussion in the former Planning Commission’s Low-Carbon Committee Report, these measures are expected to have significant impact on reducing emissions. More importantly, they would go a long way in ameliorating the huge inequities in energy access that currently bedevil this country. If the average American consumes more than 17 times the energy used by the average Indian, the figure is no better for the poor rural Indian and his rich urban counterpart. This implies to electricity, cooking fuels and transport.

Much is made in the INDC of the dedicated rail freight corridor which, undoubtedly, will significantly reduce emissions by shifting freight to rail from road transport. But what about movement of people, almost 80 percent of whom today travel by road and not by rail, at huge cost to the environment and to themselves? And 90 percent of rail passengers travel in lower classes?  Surely the INDC should have had a plan to significantly shift passenger movement from road to rail. Also, most cities in India, leave alone Tier-2 and 3 towns, lack any public transport worth the mention, but there is scant mention in the INDC on this issue. The smart cities and urban renewal programmes focus on fancy infrastructure, on the middle-classes and the well-off, but leave the poor to fend for themselves.




India’s INDC provided a great opportunity to recast the development trajectory in India away from urban-centred, GDP-growth and trickle-down trajectories. But this chance has been missed. India has always waxed eloquent about equity between nations, but has consistently failed to address inequity at home. If the word development is to mean something, it should mean both environmentally sustainable infrastructure and lifestyles, and also more equitable access to resources and energy. The idea of a “nationally determined” contribution to global emission reduction was for countries to have an intensive internal dialogue about an alternative development pathway that could deliver such emission reductions while simultaneously improving the local environment and sharply reducing inequality in energy access. India’s INDC is a purely top-down exercise which does not reflect the peoples aspirations nor chart an alternative path. It is only business as usual.