India and the Fight Against Climate Change: From a Domestic Issue to Global Leadership

While Donald Trump took a step backward by pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not shy away and stepped forward to reaffirm India’s strong commitment to the accord. The Paris Agreement was reached at the COP21 United Nations climate change conference in 2015. It aims at providing a global response to climate change by preventing the average global temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The deal is an opportunity to tackle the international challenge of climate change, which is also a domestic issue for India. More so, the convention is part of an environmental, international regime for which India could assume a leadership role.

While climate change is an international issue, it is in India’s national interest to abide by the Paris agreement since global warming has already had many adverse effects on India’s environment. The World Bank published a report exposing the consequences, some of which include: impacts on the monsoon season, reduced rates of rainfall, and intensified droughts. These phenomena induce water shortages and damage agriculture.

Furthermore, glaciers are melting, thus prompting disruption of rivers’ flow and impacting irrigation capacities. The country is also susceptible to heatwaves, killing thousands of people each year. Along with food and water scarcity, rising temperatures may cause the spread of diseases like malaria, more easily transmitted in warmer climates. The sea level rise threatens India’s many coastal areas and cities like Mumbai or Kolkata are likely to experience frequent and larger floods with 40 million lives at risk.

Yet, India is a developing country that needs the industrial and urban development undertaken decades ago by developed countries. Millions of Indians still do not have access to electricity with many living in poverty. However, the path to progress has the chance to be different and environment-friendly. This is where renewable energies come into play as they do not produce CO2 emissions and present other advantages.

Unlike coal and oil, renewable energies can be homegrown. Although reliant on the weather, these energies are not at the mercy of international politics or prices fluctuations. Renewable energies fit India’s search for strategic autonomy from other nations. These energies can also be decentralized, which is an asset in a large country with many remote villages. They also consume less water, reducing the risk of water shortage. Above all, leaving aside the cost of energy storage, renewable energies are economical as solar power is now cheaper than coal power.

Under the Paris Agreement, India pledged, among one of its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), to produce 40 percent of its electricity through renewable energies by 2030. The government has been eager to turn to these energies and claimed that by 2027, the nation would have already achieved a rate of 57 percent. India must also reduce its CO2 intensity (greenhouse gas emissions per GDP) by 33 to 35 percent by 2030. To do so, the government has chosen to accompany the modernization and urbanization of the country with various green schemes to promote energy savings and pollution reduction.

India first launched the Street Lighting National Programme, which aims at replacing conventional street lights by less energy-consuming LED lights. The Minister of State for Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy and Mines, Piyush Goyal, launched the Energy Conservation Building Code 2017, which sets energy-performance standards for new buildings. The program would lead to 50 percent energy-savings by 2030. The minister also stated that every car in India would be electric by 2030, thanks to government subsidies.

All these steps taken in the direction of a greener society contradict the image held by India prior to COP21. PM Modi arrived at the conference displaying the usual rhetoric of juxtaposing developing countries against developed nations, declaring that climate change was the product of developed countries during the Industrial Revolution while countries like India were paying the costs. Yet, his later behaviours contrasted with his discourse; he signed the deal, took measures to implement it, pledged to go beyond, and reaffirmed this stance several times.

This marks a shift in India’s stance towards international regimes. To borrow Randall Schweller’s typology, India has often been deemed either a spoiler, by blocking the talks at the World Trade Organization’s Doha round, or a shirker, for reaping the benefits without bearing the costs of UN bodies. This time, India could be a supporter or even a leader of the environmental regime. A premature example would be India’s fulfilling of its NDCs earlier than required. By doing so, the country shows its good faith, as well as sets an example to other countries by demonstrating the proof that development and renewable energies can go hand in hand. However, India could also be getting ahead to claim the moral high ground or, more pragmatically, to be able to export its environment-friendly technologies to other developing nations.

This proactive stance goes further with the International Solar Alliance (ISA). PM Modi, along with French President Francois Hollande, launched the organization during COP21. The alliance, mainly composed of developing countries, aims at promoting solar energy in sunshine countries with India as the steering wheel. India has a tradition of leading alliances of developing countries, as done before in the Non-Aligned Movement or at the WTO, but this practice takes another shape in ISA. The goal is not to endure or to contest the international order anymore, but to actively fashion it, in order to create an international environmental regime matching India’s demands.

The US has backed off, but India is not the sole contender inclined to take control of the international environmental regime. China has expressed its willingness too. The other Asian giant was proactive at COP21 and has remained so since then. China has reached out to developing countries, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, and is already the largest producer of solar energy. India wants to lead the fight against climate change, but it may have to share the pilot seat.