India & climate change: Need for updated plan

The recent Sino-US joint communiqué on climate change has triggered off a spate of media articles and comments on the question of our own climate change policy and our contribution to the climate change agreement that is expected to be finalised this year in Paris.

The Sino-US communiqué has been described as "a historic deal," paving the way for an "ambitious agreement in 2015". In fact, the communiqué is not a deal at all, nor is it historic in terms of the levels of ambition. The targets were independently determined by the United States and Chinese authorities. It was not the outcome of a negotiated deal. Moreover, the US target is essentially a projection based on existing regulations and the existing administrative executive regulations in the country. In other words, it is really a business-as-usual scenario.

The target also reflects a level of effort that is much below the level of commitment of the European Union, which itself falls severely short of the required level. The Chinese target is certainly noteworthy since it includes a new element in the form of an approximate peaking date for carbon emissions, namely 2030.

It must be borne in mind, however, that by 2030, the identified peaking date, China's per capita emissions will be comparable to the current level of European emissions. So there is nothing startlingly new about it. In fact, for the past several years, there has been an ongoing debate among Chinese specialists as to whether China will peak by around 2025 or 2030 and the Chinese authorities decided on the more conservative target.

The Sino-US communiqué is important not because of environmental but because of political reasons. Relations between the superpower and its challenger are marked by both contestation and cooperation. Now that the two major global powers have joined hands on climate change, the stage is set for a global agreement in Paris. The Paris agreement will essentially be a compilation of constructive but unspectacular nationally determined contributions. Indeed, some developed countries, including Canada, Australia and Russia, are unlikely to meet even minimal expectations. It is unrealistic to expect the agreement as a whole to reflect the degree of ambition required to contain global warming to a 2 degree Centigrade feeling. It will never come near that goal and that goal will have to wait another day.

National response to climate change
India's climate change policy must be based on a national compulsion, not the exigencies of international negotiations. Our response to climate change must encompass measures to cope with or adapt to the impacts of climate change as well as mitigation measures designed to restrict growth of our greenhouse gas emissions without compromising our development imperatives. What can this mean in practice?

Considering that climate change is expected to lead to changes in monsoon patterns, therefore, the way forward is climate-proofing agriculture by improving water storage, reducing water consumption through conservation techniques such as drip irrigation or shifting to drought-resistant crop varieties.

We will have to create new infrastructure on a vast scale in order to protect our coastal cities from sea-level rise and to cope with the impacts of increasingly frequent typhoons and other extreme weather events. Disaster-relief preparedness will have to be raised to new heights to cope with climate change impacts.

Education levels will have to be raised to enable our people to effectively adopt new technologies. In short, building up our capacity to adopt to climate change will require massive reinvestments in infrastructure, human resource development and research and development. Without accelerated development, we will be unable to generate the resources required for such adaptation measures. For a developing country, rapid and inclusive growth is the essential requirement for an effective climate-change policy.

In the words of the UN framework convention on climate change: "Economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developed country parties." Sustainable development has been defined as meeting the needs of our present generation without sacrificing the prospects of future generations. Likewise, cost-effective renewable energy options can simultaneously promote energy security and long-term development as well as mitigation. Solar energy in particular has a vast potential for a sun-drenched country like ours. So what should our nationally determined contribution be for Paris? We already have a 20-25 per cent target for reducing our energy intensity by 2020 or 2022. We should now consider fixing a target for 2025 or 2030. Secondly, we should also consider adopting a 2025 or 2030 target for renewable, or specifically solar, energy.

The renewable energy target should be expressed in absolute figures rather than as a percentage of our total energy consumption because it is easier to forecast and monitor a target that is expressed in absolute terms. It does not involve additional projections of the total energy consumption on that date. The question is, can we announce a target date for peaking of carbon emissions, following in China's footsteps?

In theory, it may be possible to conjure up a date, say 2045, on the basis of long-term projections, but the assumed parameters in the projection are unlikely to bear anything like a close resemblance to reality over such a long period of time. I feel, therefore, that we should avoid a purely academic exercise and stick to realistic targets, which are more predictable.

We should point out, if necessary, that our per capita GDP energy consumption and carbon emission figures are a fraction of China's, not to mention Brazil or South Africa or other countries in the basic group. We may be able to offer a forecast when our figures reach current Chinese levels, which will be still some time away. To conclude, our intended contributions in Paris can only be a modest component of an updated national action plan for climate change. The latter covers both adaptation and mitigation, but adaptation must remain the principal focus. We cannot afford to divert scarce resources from our development imperative and can adopt only those mitigation options that are fully compatible with inclusive development. Our mitigation targets should therefore take the form of the emission intensity for 2030 and then the absolute target for solar or, more specifically or more generally, renewable energy for 2025 or 2030.