It was only in 1968 that environmental issues received serious attention by any UN organ. The ECOSOC decided to take up environmental issues as a specific item and decided to hold the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, endorsed by the General Assembly. This was held in Stockholm, Sweden from 5 to 16 June 1972, called the first Earth Summit. It was here that the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave a speech which resonated with the whole global South. She said, ‘we do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?’ Since then India has been instrumental in setting up early architecture of international climate regime.
India as the leader of Global South
India is credited with formulating one of the key idea of the climate policy, i.e., the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities. This policy ensured that no binding commitment was forced upon developing countries keeping in mind their development. If we look at the past India’s climate politics was largely formulated on the similar line of Non-alignment and national sovereignty. India’s larger point was that developing countries need room to grow and that any climate action should also consider financial support and technology transfer from the richer and developed countries. This stand was reiterated even at the recent COP-26 in Glasgow when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s pledge to cut its emission to net zero by 2070 while pointing out the rich and developed countries on their empty promises.
Keeping its traditional position intact, India has made some shifts considering its own potential and the changing geopolitics. A major shift was seen in the Copenhagen summit in 2009 when India came up with its own National Action Plan for Climate Change. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh voluntarily committed to bringing down its 2005 emission intensity by 20% by 2020 even if no agreement were to be reached in Copenhagen. It was an important step coming from India which was considered to by the ‘nay-sayer’ or ‘obstructionist’ to the binding agreements, always trying to keep its right to development practicable. There are three other reasons attributed for the Copenhagen shift; India wanted to strengthen its claim for greater power in global governance, similarly the move was also seen in context to India’s UNSC permanent seat aspiration and India has recently closed the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The Shift after 2014 and India as a Global Leader
A second shift could be seen in India’s global climate politics with Prime Minister Modi bring climate diplomacy to the forefront like never before.
India is extensively investing in clean energy and is one of the few countries about to meet its Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. India played a major role in making Paris Climate summit a success and Prime Minister Modi’s personal intervention was acknowledged by many world leaders. Recognising the frequent climatic events and the increased vulnerability to these extreme events, India has increased its share of energy from solar and wind. India is realizing the full potential of multilateral ties. India founded International Solar Alliance (ISA) with France in 2014, which is a treaty-based intergovernmental organisation. Earlier the organisation was for countries lying between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn but was later extended globally. ISA has the potential to help the country strengthen continental engagement (with the African Union), regional initiatives (with organisations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association) and also bilateral relations among member countries.
India also put foundation of the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure in 2019 at the Climate Action Summit in order to support the construction of climate-resilient infrastructure for sustainable development in different countries. Similarly; One Sun, One World, One Grid or OSOWOG was initiated by India along with the United Kingdom. It is based on the vision of building inter-regional energy grids for sharing solar energy across the globe.
India’s potential to lead the global South and the world is not yet fulfilled. India can still have more engagements with the African regional groupings such as South African Development Community, ECOWAS and the African Renewable Energy Initiative.
More recently, India has also shown keen interest in leading its neighbours in climate policy. India want to strengthen climate action and resilience in the Bay of Bengal region via BIMSTEC, keeping in mind the vulnerable communities of the region and the Maritime security. India has led the formation of disaster management mechanisms like Agreement on South Asia Rapid Response to Natural Disasters in 2011, the BIMSTEC Centre for Weather and Climate in 2014 and the South Asian Cooperative for Environment Protection in 2018.
India can use its technical expertise and commercial successes to impart capacity building, knowledge exchanges through multilateral and bilateral relations. India can also help developing countries prepare low-carbon development plans. And with its success in clean energy space, it can work in collaboration and develop innovative financial solutions.
India is home to the second largest population of the world and is vulnerable to different climate catastrophe from landslides in the melting Himalayas to the sea-level rise surrounding its large coastline. India has the natural role of a leader in any climate change discussion. India has always taken into consideration equity and development into consideration while talking about climate mitigation. Now the time is less for India and the global community to keep the earth habitable. India’s success in transitioning to a low-carbon economy can be replicated by other developing countries.
India emphasises that “global development, addressing climate change, and eradicating poverty are central to the planet’s future.” Thus, making climate justice and inclusive transitions the basis of the country’s climate diplomacy.