Global focus back on climate

Without China, no multilateral initiative is likely to have much credibility

Global focus back on climate

IN ACTION: The summit hopes to re-establish US leadership on climate change. Reuters

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

US President Joe Biden has convened a virtual climate change summit later this week at which 20 top world leaders, whose economies contribute 80% of the global carbon emissions, are expected to be present. It is still not clear whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will avail of Biden’s invitation. Though his special climate change envoy, John Kerry, recently visited China and held talks with his counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, no assurances were forthcoming. The US insists that climate change is a ‘stand-alone’ issue and should be insulated from other contentious issues in US-China relations, such as the raising of human rights issues in China’s Xinjiang and Tibet. More recently, the issue of Taiwan has also surfaced as a source of tension. China has objected to former senior US officials being despatched to Taiwan by the Biden administration to convey support to Taiwan’s security. The US Congress is considering legislation that would restore official level contacts between the two countries. This has further angered China. The Chinese spokesman has categorically rejected the US position that climate change should be considered as a stand-alone issue for cooperation between the two countries, asserting that the whole gamut of relations is interlinked.

Modi must draw attention to the importance of adaptation to developing countries and the need to arrange multilateral finance and technology for their efforts on this score.

On the eve of the Washington summit, Xi Jinping held his own virtual trilateral summit with President Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany with climate change on the agenda. This, too, seems to put in doubt whether Xi Jinping will eventually avail of Biden’s invitation. If he does not, Biden’s initiative to re-establish US leadership on climate change will receive a major setback. China is the largest emitter of carbon emissions, responsible for 30% of the global total. The US has half this volume, while India is half again of the US figure. So without China, no multilateral initiative is likely to have much credibility.

During his recent visit to India, John Kerry made it clear that one of his key objectives was to get India to announce its adherence to the goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2050, which the other major emitters are expected to endorse. China has already declared that it will achieve a peaking of its carbon emissions ‘around 2030’ and carbon neutrality by 2060. These Chinese targets are being leveraged to put pressure on India to follow suit with similar targets. We should not fall into this trap. We should welcome a global target of carbon neutrality by 2050 but to be achieved through national contributions based on the principle of common and differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. PM Modi should make the point that one cannot treat a country with only 7% of global emissions in the same manner as a country responsible for 30% of such emissions. This is the occasion when India should be ‘decoupled’ from China. The world should not expect India to match commitments that are expected from China. This does not mean that India and China cannot work together on climate issues where their interests converge. Recently, the group of BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, China and India) released a joint statement opposing the European proposal for a border carbon tax.

PM Modi should use the summit to draw the attention of his summit partners to the parallel importance of adaptation to developing countries and the need to arrange both multilateral finance and technology for their efforts on this score. The frequency of extreme climate events is rising. The world’s ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, as are our own Himalayan glaciers. These are affecting weather patterns and ocean currents. There are both current impacts and the prospect of future, even more serious impacts, with the developing countries being the most vulnerable. Even if global emissions become zero, climate change will continue to affect our planet since it is the stock of emissions in the earth’s atmosphere which is the cause of climate change and this stock will diminish only gradually over several decades, even a century or more. And yet, the focus is singularly on mitigation of emissions. Adaptation, which is a bigger challenge for most developing countries, continues to be neglected. India should mobilise international opinion to redress this relative neglect.

India pioneered the International Solar Alliance at the Paris climate summit in 2015 to promote international collaboration on harnessing the infinite power of the sun to provide clean and renewable energy. India has made impressive progress in promoting solar energy and its own experience can be an example for other developing countries. It should be a signal achievement if PM Modi succeeds in obtaining the adherence of all participating countries in this ambitious project, the US and the EU as a community in particular.

From Kerry’s remarks, one gathered the impression that there will be little by way of government-level finance available for climate change action by India. He stressed the importance of private capital and technology flows. Whatever commitments India will make at the summit, these will have to rely on domestic resources. Thanks to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s economic prospects have dimmed and are likely to remain uncertain for some time to come. We should commit India to a ‘green recovery’, making certain that we put in place an alternative economic strategy of sustainable growth. The current trajectory of our economic development will lead to a dead-end. International credibility will be earned by the formulation and adoption of a sustainable growth strategy, which puts India on the path of low emission growth rather than through the announcement of ambitious targets for the achievement of which the wherewithal is missing.

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