India is once again being labelled a global climate laggard, despite making significant progress in encouraging renewable energy. At the G-20 conference in Naples earlier this year, its negotiators prevented an agreement on combating emissions, publishing an eye-catching dissent calling for the group to focus on reducing high per-capita emissions in developed countries. India was the only one of 51 invited countries to skip a ministerial conference aimed at preparing for the upcoming global climate change summit. Its authorities are clearly resentful of pressure from rival China to set a deadline for lowering net carbon emissions to zero.
However, the West's focus on India's lack of a net-zero aim could be misguided. It runs the danger of missing a potentially significant movement in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always taken climate change seriously, but he hasn't made it a priority in his domestic policy agenda. His recent Independence Day address was notable for its uniqueness. PM Modi uses the speech, which he delivers from the ramparts of Delhi's Mughal-era Red Fort, to lay out his government's major policy priorities for the following year. His "Make in India" manufacturing initiative and his proposal to improve India's sanitation and hygiene were both announced in previous talks.
PM Modi's focus this year was on climate change. He crafted the message to fit his hyper-nationalist persona, portraying the energy shift as a question of "environmental security," just as important as protecting against China and Pakistan. He urged greater self-sufficiency, citing India's dependency on petroleum imports as an example.PM Modi discussed a new "National Hydrogen Mission" to produce green hydrogen and fuel cells, as well as the electrification of India's vast rail network. He could have also cited the government's new electric car subsidy, which could make electric two-wheelers more appealing to India's large scooter and motorcycle population.
Foreign diplomats and climate campaigners are unlikely to have influenced India's government's turn to greener discourse. PM Modi is more than likely aware of India's need for a compelling new growth narrative. Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, India's development engines had slowed. PM Modi's major industrial push had failed to pay off, with private investment at historic lows. Over two decades of disappointment, India's early-2000s optimism that it would be the next China, the world's new factory, has faded.
In fact, India's economy no longer has growth stories that can entice both voters and investors. PM Modi is hoping to reclaim this with his new green growth narrative. Fortunately, focusing on greener growth may also be effective. In previous decades, unsustainable low domestic prices for basic resources like iron ore and coal aided in the acceleration of growth rates. Accusations of corruption and cronyism, as well as opposition from many residents near extremely polluted mining and industrial regions, brought the boom to a halt. PM Modi must develop a less exploitative growth strategy from a political standpoint.
Focusing on green opportunities could potentially be a solution to India's lack of private investment. Nobody expects India's cash-strapped government to build new urban transportation networks, housing stock, or energy-efficient factories on its own. The commercial sector will be required to assist. PM Modi's government could turn around its terrible economic record if it can minimise investment risk in these greener industries and activities, making them attractive investment propositions for global and domestic capital.
Instead of expecting India to fit inside its own constraints of climate action, the rest of the world should focus on whether it follows through on these new commitments. While pledges about green new agreements should always be taken with a grain of salt, I'm feeling a little more optimistic this time. In other nations, "green growth" is frequently a clumsy attempt to reconcile the opposing priorities of politicians who prioritise jobs and environmentalists who prioritise the environment. It is the only game left in town in India, as we may have lost all of the others.
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