India Has The World’s Fate In Its Hands

Once aloof in environmental debates, the emerging economy is striving to make them work in its favor.

(Source: Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

Once upon the time, India looked upon international climate meetings with something akin to distaste. 

Indira Gandhi played the role of malcontent at the 1972 Stockholm conference that kicked off modern environmental diplomacy, characterizing such concerns as a luxury for rich countries that poorer nations couldn’t afford to indulge. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until the last minute before deciding to even attend the Copenhagen UN climate summit — and then faced criticism from the opposition BJP for doing so. 

That attitude is changing. Right now, the developed countries that have long been in the vanguard of efforts on climate look to be falling behind. India is taking the initiative, fueled by the growing self-confidence of a country that’s the world’s most populous and seeing the fastest economic growth this year among the Group of 20 major economies.

Consider the outcome of the Group of Seven meeting last month on climate and energy — the appetizer to this weekend’s G7 summit. It was a squib, rejecting a push to end unabated coal power generation by 2030.

That’s disappointing, but hardly surprising. The US has a 2035 end-date and Poland, a key member of the European Union at the G7, still plans to keep burning coal in 2049. Host nation Japan is pinning its hopes on gasification and ammonia co-firing projects that would prolong the life of existing coal plants at extortionate cost and slender environmental benefit. It even managed to get language on its ammonia policy into the official communique.

The backsliding isn’t just words in statements. Despite G7 leaders last year pledging to end public support for international fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022, the US government’s export credit agency this month approved a $100 million loan to expand an Indonesian oil refinery. Japan, meanwhile, is still building coal-fired power stations, with about 1.8 gigawatts due to start delivering to the grid in the next few months alone.

The contrast with New Delhi is striking. India has made green development, climate finance and sustainable lifestyles its number one priority in its G20 presidency this year, and has reportedly weighed joining the Climate Club proposed by Germany’s G7 presidency last year as a way to reduce industrial pollution.

“India must become one of the first countries in the world to industrialize without carbonizing the world,” Amitabh Kant, who’s coordinating the country’s G20 policy, said in a speech this week in Delhi. 

It’s also convened a group, chaired by former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, to reform multilateral lenders such as the World Bank. Summers last year called for shifts in the Bank’s model and capital base to drive an extra $100 billion in annual lending, directed mostly toward the energy transition.

It would be wrong to think these shifts are disinterested. India itself would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a change in development banks’ lending policies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country alone would need $1 trillion in funding from rich countries this decade to meet its target of reaching net zero by 2070.

Similarly, India’s enthusiasm about joining the G7’s Climate Club may well represent an attempt to sail with the shifting winds of trade policy and geopolitics. One objective of such a clique would be to prevent “carbon leakage” — the move of industrial activities away from countries implementing green policies to take advantage of lower costs in places that don’t price their emissions.

Becoming a key member of the Climate Club, fueled by cheap World Bank finance for decarbonization, would put India in an emerging quasi-trade bloc alongside the rich world. That would help meet its ambitions to rival China as a center for global manufacturing supply chains. It could even use membership of the club to water down rules that might be too arduous for its own firms to implement.

India hasn’t even made up its own mind on the path it’s going to take. A report earlier this month that the country was about to halt approvals of new coal-fired power plants appears to have been dashed, after the electricity regulator issued plans calling for a net 14.1 gigawatts beyond what’s currently being built. It’s working alongside China to introduce the concept of “multiple pathways” to net zero in G20 negotiations, unnamed officials told Reuters this month. That could function as a way of resisting calls for a coal phase-out date from rich nations.

The uncertainty about the direction New Delhi is taking just emphasizes how the center of gravity is shifting. India’s emissions likely overtook those of the European Union last year to be the largest in the world after China and the US. Within five years, it should have the third-largest national economy, too.

With the world’s fate increasingly in its hands, India can no longer afford to stand aloof from climate debates. Instead, it’s working out how to shape them to its own ends.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

  • India’s Leaders Don’t Seem to Believe in Indians: Mihir Sharma

  • Climate Fight Arises as a Geopolitical Power Play: Liam Denning

  • The World Will Never Agree to Phase Out Petroleum. And That’s OK: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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