Is India A Hero Or Villain In Climate Justice Debate?

When PM Modi made a pitch for climate justice for the Global South at COP28 in Dubai, he followed a tried and tested Indian approach on climate mitigation, but, for the world, India is a different country now

In its pursuit to be a developed economy, India became the third-highest annual emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world in 2019, just behind the US and China and overtaking the European Union. Stark as it may be this piece of data hides what is at the core of the discussion on climate justice. 

At COP28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the issue when he said, “India is striking a balance between the economy and ecology. We have 17 per cent of the world’s population but contribute less than four per cent of the global carbon emission.” 

The idea of per capita emissions, the impact of climate change on vulnerable countries and classes of people and the differentiated ability of many countries to become active players in climate control define the discourse on climate justice. However, while global thought leaders and executive heads of states offer platitudes at all possible climate forums, the gap between action and concept has achieved alarming proportion. 

Whose Burden is Climate Justice? 

The idea of climate justice seeks fairness in distribution of burdens and benefits of climate change among countries. The contention is around how to generate consensus on delivering the core principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) between the developed and developing blocks of countries. 

The proposal of differentiated responsibility contained in the CBDR has been India’s stand ever since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), from which emerged the Conference of Parties (COP) structure. Way back in October 2002, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the COP8 delegates in New Delhi, “... [O]ur per capita Green House Gas emissions are only a fraction of the world average, and an order of magnitude below that of many developed countries. This situation will not change for several decades to come. We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per capita rights to global environmental resources.”  

When Modi made noise about climate justice in Dubai, he was voicing the concern raised by developing countries, including that of India. He often pits the Global South against the Global North at such meetings of global leaders, something he highlighted during the recently concluded G20 summit in New Delhi as well. In Dubai, Modi urged the rich nations to reduce their carbon footprint by 2050 and stride towards making tangible climate finance goals. 

National Liability 

American institution Dartmouth published a study in the Climate Change journal in 2022, in which it computed the damage caused by big emitters of greenhouse gases on other countries. It found that five nations cumulatively caused $6 trillion in global losses on account of warming from 1990 to 2014. As expected, the US and China led this list with a combined loss of $1.8 trillion in the stated period.  

Even without support from such data, developing countries have been pressing the developed world to absorb liability for climate justice since it is the beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution that created the problem in the first place. However, the developing world has realised that the principle of climate justice is easier to agree upon than be executed in practice. 

Broadly speaking two approaches shape up the discussions on climate change, one being mitigation and the other adaptation. Mitigation seeks to reduce human impact on environment by reducing greenhouse emissions, which becomes the conversation among world leaders when they meet for summits like COP. On the other hand, the adaptation approach is more focused on how to brace up to face the challenges that climate change is bringing about. 

The choice between mitigation and or/adaptation strategies is fraught with disagreements, but adaptation is imperative as the world faces the impact of climate change every day. The formulations of adaptive strategies are deeply political, because while the catastrophe of climate change is to be faced by the world at large, it is particularly unjust for those who are marginalised and vulnerable. Geraldine Terry in her 2009 article titled, No Climate Justice Without Gender Justice, wrote “climate change does not happen in a vaccum. This is the reason why it is difficult to disentangle the connections between gender and development from climate change issues.”   

However, framing the question of climate justice in the duality of the Global North and the Global South betrays intranational power dynamics. The differential among social and regional groups’ capacity to be adaptive to climate change and the national commitments to meet climate action is nowhere more visible than in the discussion around just transition.

“India being a large country with immense diversity across regions and communities, in terms of climate vulnerability as well as access to resources for mitigation and adaptation, it is extremely important that our policies for sustainable development and energy transition ensures that opportunities and benefits are fairly shared with poor and marginalised communities, who have contributed the least towards environmental degradation and emissions," said Dipankar Ghosh, Partner & Leader Sustainability & ESG, BDO in India.

India, for example, has made stupendous strides in generating non-fossil energy output, which has climbed up to 43.2% on May 31, 2023. However, its policy on just transition is skewed in favour richer western and southern states while punishing the coal-rich regions of central India. (Read “Coal Killer”, an extensive story on India’s just transition muddle in the September 2022 issue of Outlook Business.) Curiously, developed nations have no role to play in India’s policy on just transition, and, thus, this issue falls beyond the purview of the idea of climate justice articulated by Modi and his predecessors. 

One could argue that the global discussion around climate justice has tried to right the wrong by articulating commitments to climate change within a framework of justice, but these commitments need to be made to clearly stated principles of equity, responsibility and capacity both internationally as well as within national policy frameworks. 

International Transfers 

The dominant thought on climate justice today stresses on the forward movement through multilateral agreements around finance, technology and knowledge transfer. The ongoing COP28 in Dubai made operational on the very first day a Loss and Damage Fund that was announced at COP27 in Egypt in 2022. All developing countries are eligible to apply for this fund and all countries can make contribution to it. 

While the announcement is a positive development, developing countries need to be wary of grand intent from the side of the developed world. As they have seen, in 2009, the richer nations had pledged $100 billion per year to poorer countries which are badly affected by climate change. The fund should have become operational in 2020, but all we have in 2023 is a vague statement from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made just before COP28 was held, which said that the developed world may have met the $100 billion target in 2022. Interestingly, the OECD said that the effective requirement to mitigate climate effect for poorer nations could be $1 trillion by 2025. 

Beyond funding, the technological and knowledge transfer from the developed countries to the developing world are the other two considerations for effective climate justice. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines technology transfer “as a broad set of processes covering the flows of know-how, experience and equipment for mitigating and adapting to climate change amongst different stakeholders, such as governments, private sector entities, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and research/education institutions.” 

Such transfers, though, are not meant to create a one-way street. The Kyoto Protocol mandates joint action and supervision of the transfer and implementation process through the three pillars of clean development mechanism, joint implementation and emission trading. The developing countries also play their part in this exchange. For instance, in Dubai, Modi stated the importance of being unfailingly committed to national targets set by each country. India announced an increase in its renewable energy target by launching a global biofuel alliance under its G20 presidency, which facilitates the use and trade of sustainable biofuels, sharing of technical support for national biofuels programmes worldwide and implementation of best practices, which shows what developing countries can bring to the table in such exchanges. 

India’s commitment to creating a clean energy supply chain, the launch of green credit and the ongoing infrastructure resilient initiative work in 13 countries to which India gave its commitment in Glasgow are all stated as the part it is playing in energy transition in an equitable way. 

India in Climate Justice Value Chain 

Modi wants India to be seen as a champion of the Global South in the climate justice debate. At the same time, India cannot hide the fact that it is the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases and, in absolute terms, a source of climate change. The Dartmouth study mentioned above has calculated that India’s emissions are responsible for causing an estimated loss of more than $500 billion in the 25-year-period under consideration and is bracketed with Russia and Brazil just below the US and China. 

The dominant political opinion in India on the issue is that it should be given a leeway to grow rapidly and not compared with the developed world in the global emission regime. Echoing this thought, Vajpayee had said at COP8, “We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per capita rights to global environmental resources.” 

The per-capita narrative suits India well. However, with an expanding economy that is slowly overtaking individual European powerhouses, the per capita talk may be replaced by the absolute harm a national economy causes to climate, and that is where India may find itself cornered in the next climate justice forums. 

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