September 12, 2016

Paris Accord on Climate Change: India’s Challenges

~ By Chandrachur Singh

It is seldom that national leaders willingly travel that extra mile in international negotiations especially on vexed collective action issues, where their own developmental claims and rights could perceptibly be at stake in doing so. In the light of such a yardstick, the Paris Climate Summit (CoP-21, December 2015) qualifies as a rare diplomatic feat. The summit recognised voluntarism, transparency, support systems and understanding between states and communities within them as the only way forward for any realistic and time-bound solution to the problem containing climate change. Mounted on the value planks of equity, integrity, vulnerability, specificity, capability and responsibility, the negotiations worked out at Paris clearly attempt to reconcile development with climate sensitivity on the one hand and balance capabilities with differential responsibilities on the other. And it was only in the right earnestness that our Prime Minister described it as a ‘win for climate justice’[1].

One unambiguously accepts and endorses Prime Minister Modi’s characterization of the Paris summit as a ‘win for climate justice’. If that indeed is a correct assessment of the Paris Summit, then the most important issue at hand is to work out things that India would have to do as part of its duties and voluntary commitments towards achieving the ideal entailing ‘climate justice’. A related issue then would be to figure out how Indians can act in accordance with such expectations.

In its latest report (2014) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has described India as one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts. The prediction that erratic and extreme monsoons would very severely impact India’s agriculture sector is really scary given the fact that nearly 70 per cent of India’s population is involved and dependent on agriculture and allied activities. The report outlines that the climate change impacts in India would affect not just land utilisation, agricultural production, food security and price stability but most significantly factors engendered by it i.e. rainfall variability, snowmelt, glacier retreat as well as evapo-transpiration. It also states that other acute such as fresh-water scarcity and the spread of both water and mosquito borne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera and malaria could prove as a big menace. The report largely confirms the assessment of the impacts done by the Postdam institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics on behalf of the World Bank in the year 2013.

Taken together, the two reports apprehend that Climate Change would severely impact most of the other major sectors of India’s economy such as energy, transport, tourism resulting in significantly slowing down of the efforts to reduce poverty as well as the ones targeted towards delivery of goods and services to its people especially those living in rural, far flung, as well as less accessible regions. Rampant poverty, highly imbalanced infrastructural preparedness as well as inadequate planning only adds to India’s vulnerabilities to climate change impacts.

Now let’s look at all these predictions in the light of certain other facts. The International Energy Association in its report published in the year 2013 states that India is now the world’s third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, having tripled its carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion between 1990 and 2011 alone. According to the IEA report with its rising economic and political status India’s emissions would increase by almost 2.5 times between 2008 and 2035.

In fact, such citations have been effectively used by the United States to evade from signing a legally binding treaty that would commit it to significantly reduce its GHG emissions which are disproportionately very high when compared to India’s share of emissions. For example, the per capita emission of India, with 17 per cent of world’s population, was one ton of CO2 emissions in 2013, whereas in the United States, with less than five per cent of the world’s population, per capita emissions were 17 t CO2 (IEA 2013). These facts compel us to investigate factors that plausibly account for the shifts in India’s climate change discourse.

It has been argued that there has been a growing realization amongst the policy makers and think tanks in India around the issue of ‘co-benefits’ i.e the development of policies and strategies that could, on the one hand, lead to a successful pursuance of developmental objectives, and, on the other, could be cited as good steps for addressing climate change impacts (Kapur et al 2009; Dubash 2011)[2]. However, complete reliance on the traditional stand would only result in international impasses that could well take it far away from both, the developed and the least developing economies (many of the vulnerable small islands as well as other countries in Africa). With its international leadership aspirations such as the permanent membership of the UNO soaring high, India would most certainly ill afford such developments.

Further, this is not only in tune with India’s preferred path of providing moral leadership by the way of ‘practicing the professed’ but would significantly allow it to play a weightier role in international climate negotiations. The warmth and mutual admirations that now characterize the Indo-US relationship could well be an additional important factor driving the shifts. The ever burgeoning Indo-US relationship definitely demand and require that both sides not only avoid mutual disagreements and antagonistic positions but to the best of their abilities, remain on the same page on some of the most critical issues that confront international politics today.

The shifts also to a large extent reflect the growing consensus amongst the global scientific community about the fact that the threats of global warming are real and here to stay. The impacts are in many instances already visible in India and that has propelled many civil society associations and other local institutions to deliberate, develop and urge the federal government to act. It also has fuelled initiation and development of alternative discourses of the developmental narratives that focus on living in consonance with nature.

The increased media coverage, the announcement of the Fifth Report by the IPCC, increased instances of climatic variations resulting in tragedies and natural disasters such as the one at Kedarnath in the year 2013 have all resulted in increased governmental activities on Climate Change. The establishment of the Prime Ministers National Council on Climate Change and the Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth by the Planning Commission (now the NITI Ayog) have increasingly domesticated the issue of climate change. It also means that new and more innovative ideas related to the issue would naturally surface up.

The primary shift in climate change discourses in India has been from a frame that externalized the climate change problem and solutions towards a “co-benefits” approach, where policies aim to align climate change with domestic priorities of poverty alleviation and economic growth. A shift in the emission trajectory, without compromising on the goal of increasing energy access, for example, through increased investments in renewables, and promoting energy efficiency, have thus emerged as common themes. Focus on the development of clean and renewable energy resources such as solar energy is not only in line with India’s quest for more equitable access to energy, it also provides it an ideal opportunity to surge ahead as the leader in what would most certainly be the key source of energy in future.


India’s responses to climate change have been built on the moral foundations of equity and fairness. As mentioned earlier, in the recent years however, it has been consistently displaying a very pragmatic approach, inherently characteristic of a deal maker. In fact, in the run up to the Copenhagen CoP, in 2008, India came out with a detailed policy document called National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC)[3], formally elaborating its key strategies for addressing climate concerns.

Motivated deeply by Mahatma Gandhi’s assertions of a self-sustaining life that is sync with nature, the NAPCC entails a bottom–up approach that seeks to realize developmental objectives through an increasing reliance on renewable energy resources harnessed through the use of cutting edge green technology. The idea is to usher in a new developmental framework that while being less carbon driven also supports indigenous mitigation and adaptation practices.

For an effective realization of the NAPCC, eight sectoral missions have been also been outlined.[4] These include the National Solar Mission; the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency; the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat; the national water Mission; the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem; the National Mission for a Green India; the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture; and the National Mission on Strategic Knowledge on Climate Change (PM’s Council on Climate Change 2008). The first three missions aim at reducing the emissions, whereas the later three are adaptation centric and the last two are designed to disseminate knowledge and responses on climate change. The objective of all these missions is to ensure that developmental priorities and plans are pursued in climate sensitive ways.

The climate concerns of India require it to make a judicious balance between pursuing developmental priorities on one hand and responding to mitigation and adaptation related responsibilities on the other. The task in hand is both simultaneously mutually reinforcing and complex. It is mutually reinforcing in the sense that socio- economic development is a must for ensuring that the vast majority of India’s poor people have access to basic minimum conditions of a rightful and dignified life. Interestingly, socio- economic development is also a prerequisite for saving millions of its people from the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The complexity of the task is however, related to reconciling the plausible contradictions between pursuing carbon-intensive affordable developmental plans and fulfilling mitigation related responsibilities simultaneously.

For India, coal is the most important energy resource because of its accessibility as well as affordability. It is not only world’s third largest coal producer[5] but the relative high cost of other non-conventional energy resources makes coal- fired energy plants most suitable for its developmental needs. It must be mentioned that India’s coal consumption has been projected to almost 1.5 billion (IEA 2015) metric tons by the year 2020[6]. With an annual consumption of almost 800 tons (IEA 2015), India is currently world’s third largest coal consumer, and the appetite is only to grow significantly in future as it moves ahead towards poverty alleviation and empowerment[7]. Given the fact that the Paris climate treaty has already been described by the Indian Prime Minister as being just and fair, what responsibilities will India undertake and how will it reconcile them with its existing developmental priorities are some of the issues that I take up next.


Socio economic development has always been India’s top priority and the additional imperative of negating the adverse impacts of climate change only strengthens and deepens them. In the aftermath of the Paris climate treaty, however, India will have to find a better way of aligning its developmental imperatives with climate sensibilities. It is obvious that India’s massive infrastructural deficiencies along with the imperative of securing minimum basic needs of a vast majority of its own population imply that it cannot completely give-up on its carbon-driven developmental model yet. However, the ever intensifying impacts of climate change also impel the establishment of a more open and robust technological and financial collaboration with the developed world. With the impacts of climate change already becoming evident, such techno-financial collaborations will not only enhance India’s access to greener technologies but also significantly aid its adaptation needs.

Adoption of economically viable mechanisms for production and conservation of green energy in terms of clean energy production and conservation is at heart of India’s mitigation strategies. India has already demonstrated its willingness and commitment to improve upon its carbon intensity by reducing, as far as possible, its reliance on carbon to propel its development and growth. In the run-up to the Paris Climate Meet, India submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the UNFCCC, for the period 2021-2030[8].

India’s INDC reflect its firm commitment to achieving and securing developmental goals like food security, poverty eradication, healthcare availabilities etc. in most climate sensitive ways – following low carbon pathways. It commits India to be propagating a healthy and sustainable way of living based on traditions and values of conservation and moderation and reducing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level; achieving  about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030; generating 175 gigawatts of renewable energy development by 2022 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF)[9]. It also proposes to create additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030[10]. It has also pledged to source 40 percent of its electricity from renewable and other low carbon sources by 2030 compared to 2010 levels[11]. Moving away from fossil-fuel driven developmental model and achieving these professed goals means that India will have to be open in establishing partnership and alliances aimed at effectively addressing challenges related to climate change, without giving up on its own developmental needs and priorities. The launching of the International Solar Alliance, by India at the Paris Climate Summit with the objective of technology sharing and finance mobilising is a testimony to its seriousness and resolve.

Access to technology is important for India’s plans for meeting its ever increasing energy requirements through more sustainable and climate friendly sources. Establishing an efficient transmission and distribution system would immensely help in improving energy efficiency and offsetting the growth in energy consumption (on account of continued developmental march). In any case, achieving professed goals mean that India will have to undertake actionable plans promoting its energy security and to that end it will have to reduce its reliance on hydro-carbons. By an estimate, India’s current capacity to generate solar energy is about 75 gigawatts per day[12] against the world standards of 227 gigawatts[13]. India’s current capacity to generate wind power is 23 gigawatts (IEA 2015: 32) which would be required to be increased by four times to balance the limitations of the solar energy.

In addition to emission reduction attempts, a key requirement for India is also to undertake adaptation centric steps. One major way through which this can be done is by greatly increasing its GHG sequestering capacities by expanding its forest covers. It has been argued that, in order to be able to absorb 2.5 to 3 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere, India will be required to enhance its dwindling forest cover significantly by almost 19-20 million hectares by 2030, while improving the quality of another five million hectares of forests. According to estimates made available by the World Bank, India will have to increase its forest cover by 10 per cent to take it to 33 per cent.

*Chandrachur Singh teaches Political Science at Hindu College, University of Delhi. At present he is the India Country Champion and Universitas 21, Doctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham UK.


[2] See Dubash, N. (2011). Introduction. In: N. Dubash, ed., Handbook of climate change and India: development, politics and governance, 1st ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp.1-27. Also refer to: Kapur, D., Khosla, D. and Mehta, P. (2009). Climate change: India’s options. Economic and Political Weekly, 36, pp.34-42

[3]  Government of India, ‘National Action Plan on Climate Change’ Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, 2008, available at Accessed on June 27, 2016

[4] ibid

[5] Accessed,  9 June 2016

[6] Accessed 9 June 2016

[7] ibid

[8] accessed on June 28, 2016

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] accessed on June 28, 2016

[13] Available on accessed on June 28, 2016


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