At a discussion in Washington DC this spring, I was quizzed with a degree of annoyance on the multiple messages coming out of New Delhi with respect to India’s position on a global agreement to combat climate change. In the same discussion there was also an exasperated inquisition on why Indian needs and priorities must hold the world to ransom (as if there were a consensus) and why India imagines that it merits a special space, attention or exception in the climate arena.

The response to these two central propositions on India and climate change must of course come from the officialdom at Raisina Hills, home to Delhi's executive offices. However, as we move down the road to COP 21 in Paris, it is crucial that any response, if formulated and then communicated (a bigger 'if'), would need to engage with the most important climate proposition put before India by the world, and its interplay with the country’s development/growth imperatives.

Viewed from New Delhi, and after sifting through the chaff, the proposition for India's climate change response posed by a large section of OECD countries, and certainly from the influential capitals in Europe, is fairly straightforward:

  1. India must be the first country in the world (of size and significance) to successfully transition from a low-income, agrarian existence to a middle income, industrialised society without burning even a fraction of the fossil fuels consumed by other developed countries. China was the last country to enjoy this privilege. India will be the first that will have to cede this option and of course this may well be the new template for other developing countries to emulate.
  2. The scale of this transition and the current economic situation in some parts of the world, alongside the complex and privately controlled innovation landscape, means that there is limited ability for the Annex 1 countries (the developed world) to offer any meaningful support in terms of financing or technology transfer. Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a small fraction of what is necessary today, and India will therefore need to mobilise domestic resources to power the non-fossil-fuel-fired Indian story.
  3. Even as India adopts this ‘exceptional’ approach to industrialisation, and creates the necessary financial and commercial arrangements to achieve it, mostly through its own endeavors, the developed world and others want to retain the right to judge Indian performance. India will be monitored with an increasingly extensive system of compliance verification, and will be criticised for its missteps on the journey despite the novelty and scale of its undertaking.

My response to the thesis of 'Indian exceptionalism' therefore is that India does not seek to be an exception, but the demands imposed upon it that will require it to be exceptional. This is a truth for others to accept, and the climate reality for which India must discover creative policy. Three distinct narratives among various actors in India have so far shaped its response.

The first set of responses is from a group of people I like to call India’s 'cold war warriors'. This group believes that no matter the contemporary political, economic and environmental reality, an alternate universe can be constructed through the mandate of the UNFCCC. These persons are the architects of the global intergovernmental processes and have faith in them. They believe that an agreement in Paris this December at COP 21, that is sensitive to Indian needs, will somehow assist in the transition required by India and will ensure that India only needs to make incremental changes to its 'business as usual' approach to economic growth and development. This group has ignored the changing economic system, which is increasingly disinvesting from fossil fuels politically, and in terms of financial flows and promoting green energy markets. The ‘green’ economic and market realities that will shape India’s future are seen as something that can be circumvented by creatively crafted text and clauses in a legal (read weak legal agreement) agreement in Paris. Despite 20 years of failure to achieve this 'world of equity' with 'differentiated responsibility' they continue to believe that a global agreement is the end in itself.

The second set of strategies to the proposition facing India are advanced by a group I refer to as the climate evangelists. They believe that 2050 is already upon us. Commercially viable clean energy solutions are available, and these hold the answer to both our immediate and future energy woes. The opportunities that exist in the creation of a new green economy must be grabbed with both hands. This group wants subsidies and incentives for clean energy technology, and taxes and regulation of fossil fuels. These green pioneers are sanguine that sufficient ‘push’ and ‘pull’ will deliver technology innovation and development on the requisite scale. They reject that fossil fuels are necessary as baseline sources of energy and instead insist that the technological revolution is already here, and that India must get on board or be left behind. Their argument is often a moral one: we have a moral obligation to save the earth for its own sake and for future generations – ignoring the fact that at this level of income disparity, inequality and differential access to the right to life, the planet is in fact being saved for the rich to flourish.

The third set of responses is from the group I call the climate realists. The realists understand that the global climate proposition is inherently unfair, and that India could and probably should push back against such an imposition by the developed world. However, they also recognise that no matter how hard they try to construct a ‘fairer’ agreement in Paris, the combined forces of the market, society and technology are all pointing towards a ‘greener’ transition. The political economy of climate change necessitates a transformation, and it is not necessarily in India’s interests to fight against it. Instead, the realists understand that there is an opportunity to lead in constructing a green economy. They believe that this moment can be used to reshape the tax, financial and global governance systems. They also see no contradiction in also ensuring continued flow of investments and emphasis on lifeline sources of energy for India’s poor.

Analysis shows that India does better than Germany, the United States, China and others on per capita coal dependence, with about a third of the consumption levels of the greenest among these three. It also already commits, as a proportion of its GDP, more towards renewable energy off-take than most (except Germany). It therefore does not need to defend its coal consumption. On the other hand, it must certainly be the champion to encourage ‘greener’ performance from others. The equity that it seeks lies in this. The rich must continue to invest more in renewables. This must be demanded and enforced.

Prime Minister Modi’s recent statements suggest that he may be such a realist as well. He is promoting an aggressive renewable energy thrust, while being uncompromising on the point that lifeline energy will continue to rely on coal for the foreseeable future. When he takes coal off the discursive table, he is not foreclosing the right to use coal; instead he is sharpening the focus on India’s impressive credentials around green growth. He invokes religious texts, civilisational ethos and clever political word-play as he seeks a leadership role for India in global climate policy, and sets the agenda with ambitious plans for transitioning to a new energy paradigm. The 'house always wins' is a golden Las Vegas adage with a lesson for global politics too: unless we see strong political leadership of the kind being displayed by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, the house – in this case national officialdom(s) and global bureaucrats – will prevail again. They will construct a new world order with words, commas and full stops, where nothing, not even the climate, can ever change.

 (Photo by Flickr user DFID - UK Department for International Development, used under a Creative Commons licence.)