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India must build its international climate narrative against that core objective and around four themes: Planetary impact; equitable differentiation; upgraded nationally determined contributions (NDCs); and contingent commitments.
First, rather than be defensive, India should speak for the planet. What matters is atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs). CO2, once emitted, stays in the atmosphere for a long time, so historical and future emissions matter.
Whereas the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that the world should aim for net zero emissions by 2050, the same cannot apply to all countries. No race is won by all participants reaching the finishing line at the same time. Climate justice would dictate that the largest cumulative emitters achieve net zero before 2050, giving smaller and poorer developing countries additional years of carbon space to aim for net zero after 2050. This approach would also put a premium on near-term actions in developed countries.
Such ambitions must be enshrined in policy to send credible signals to the market. Moreover, India should translate these targets into emissions intensity reduction commitments. If India managed 450GW of renewables by 2030, it would mean 54% reduction in emissions intensity against 2005 levels (far above the 33-35% reduction India has promised).
India should not declare 2050 as net zero but a year in the future. But it should make the commitment contingent, which would give certainty (for net zero), credibility (by declaring a peaking year sooner than later) and flexibility (by reviewing and revising decisions based on market developments).
India needs hundreds of billions of dollars for investment in renewables, e-mobility, industrial energy efficiency and shutting down dirtier power plants. These investments would have net benefits in terms of avoided costs of pollution and damages from climate crisis. But available capital is insufficient and expensive. India should propose a green finance platform to deepen financial markets at home but demand that public money be used to de-risk international institutional investment.
Our approach to climate negotiations should create opportunities for an economic transformation, not just an energy transition. For sustainability to shift from the margins of environmental negotiations to the mainstream of political discourse, we must reimagine our economy of the future.