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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertive stance on the need for all countries to walk the talk on climate change action is to be welcomed as a signal of India’s own determination to align domestic policy with its international commitments. Mr. Modi’s comments at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York have turned the spotlight on not just the national contributions pledged under the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), but also the possibility of India declaring enhanced ambition on cutting greenhouse gas emissions under the pact next year. Several aspects place the country in the unenviable position of having to reconcile conflicting imperatives: along with a declared programme of scaling up electricity from renewable sources to 175 GW by 2022 and even to 450 GW later, there is a parallel emphasis on expanding coal-based generation to meet peaks of demand that cannot be met by solar and wind power. The irony of the Prime Minister telling the international community in Houston that his government had opened up coal mining to 100% foreign direct investment was not lost on climate activists campaigning for a ban on new coal plants and divesting of shares in coal companies. No less challenging is a substantial transition to electric mobility, beginning with commercial and public transport, although it would have multiple benefits, not the least of which is cleaner air and reduced expenditure on oil imports.

Advancing the national climate agenda in the spirit of Mr. Modi’s action-over-words idiom requires the Central government to come up with a strong domestic action plan. The existing internal framework, the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) is more than a decade old. It lacks the legal foundation to incorporate the key national commitment under the Paris Agreement: to reduce the emissions intensity of economic growth by a third, by 2030. Without an update to the NAPCC and its mission-mode programmes, and legislation approved by States for new green norms governing buildings, transport, agriculture, water use and so on, it will be impossible to make a case for major climate finance under the UNFCCC. It is equally urgent to arrive at a funding plan for all States to help communities adapt to more frequent climate-linked disasters such as cyclones, floods and droughts. There is, no doubt, wide support for India’s position that it cannot be held responsible for the stock of atmospheric carbon dioxide influencing the climate; even today, per capita emissions remain below the global average. Paradoxically, the country is a victim of climate events on the one hand and a major emitter of GHGs in absolute terms on the other. In New York, Mr. Modi chose to rely on the country’s culture of environmentalism to reassure the international community on its ability to act. In coming years, national actions will have to be demonstrably effective in curbing carbon emissions.


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