Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Apr 26, 2021
Championing a climate and development agenda in India’s bilateral, regional and multilateral collaborations can help boost trade, drive investments to inclusive solutions, and foster progress towards sustainable and resilient transition.
Strengthening climate diplomacy: An imperative for Indian climate in the new decade This article is part of the Global Policy-ORF publication — A 2030 Vision for India’s Economic Diplomacy.
Climate change is among the biggest challenges currently facing nations. Over the last decade, a drum beat of dire reports have highlighted the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. In 2010, it was estimated that countries had 30 years to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by half; today, this must happen in less than 10 years<1>. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018 analysis shows that the window of opportunity to limit temperature rise to 1.5oC to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is rapidly declining<2>. The average global temperature rise in 2020 is projected to be about 1.2oC above the pre-industrial period<3>. The last decade also saw exceptional global heatwaves, retreating ice and record sea-level rise caused by GHGs as a result of human activity<4>. A recent study finds that the climate impacts have increased the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and cyclones over the Indian region, and are likely to worsen in the future<5>.

The multiple simultaneous crises — health, economic and environmental — foreshadow what countries will have to deal with if they do not comprehensively act on climate change.

If the last decade was marked by increasingly dire impacts, decisive climate ambition — while ensuring that communities are not left behind — needs to be the call-for-action of this decade. The year 2020 has marked a critical point. According to estimates, the COVID-19 pandemic has already caused over a million deaths and pushed millions more into poverty. The global economy shrunk by 5.2 percent<6> and hundreds of millions lost their jobs<7>. The pandemic surged against an ominous backdrop of extreme climate events across the world — raging forest fires in Australia and the US, super-cyclones in the US and India, locust attacks in South Asia, and extreme heatwaves in US, Europe, Russia and India. Extreme climatic events have also wrought havoc, costing millions to the global economy and destroying lives and biodiversity. The multiple simultaneous crises — health, economic and environmental — foreshadow what countries will have to deal with if they do not comprehensively act on climate change. Globally, there are signs of reinvigorating and accelerating collaborative climate action. The UK declared climate change as a national emergency in 2019<8> and has put in place ambitious carbon neutrality targets<9>. The European Union has also announced a mid-century net-zero carbon emissions target and is considering a carbon-border tax for its international trade agreements<10>. The US rejoining the Paris Agreement in January 2021 will spur greater action. Importantly, the two parallel processes of the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals are converging. Meeting climate goals needs to ensure “leaving no one behind<11>.” The move towards viewing the climate crisis as an international peace and security issue is also likely to grow<12>. This is evidenced by the push to include climate change on the United Nations Security Council agenda<13> and the by US’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s remarks that “America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat that it is<14>.” It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change has become an integral part of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

The move towards viewing the climate crisis as an international peace and security issue is likely to grow.

For India, large development and growth needs have been a policy priority, with climate seen as a co-benefit. India has made huge strides in lifting millions of people out of poverty while transitioning its economy to a low carbon future. India is investing in clean energy transitions because it makes economic sense, creates jobs and helps in mitigating impacts on climate change, and is one of the few countries on track to meet its Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement<15>. India has also stepped up its international climate and clean energy diplomacy by establishing the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in 2014 and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure in 2019. India’s experiences in transitioning to a low-carbon economy can provide replicable examples for other developing countries. Given the magnitude of the climate challenge and the transboundary impacts of climate disasters, individual country-level efforts are not sufficient. Climate and clean energy collaborations are particularly important for developing countries, which face multiple challenges of low energy access, high growth and employment needs, and worsening impacts of climate change. In the coming decade, India can emerge as a global climate leader by guiding developing countries on balancing multiple objectives, such as creating jobs, meeting development and growth objectives, and preventing high carbon lock-ins while mitigating climate change and protecting communities.

For India, large development and growth needs have been a policy priority, with climate seen as a co-benefit.

Moving towards an inclusive low-carbon future

The 2015 Paris Agreement, a landmark in global climate policy, was ratified by 196 countries with the aim to limit temperature rise to “well below 2oC” and who agreed “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5oC.” Additionally, 192 countries pledged to reduce emissions<16>. Globally, there are positive signs — 126 countries have committed to net-zero emissions by mid-century<17>, representing 51 percent of all GHG emissions. This will increase to 63 percent if the US announces a carbon neutrality or net-zero target. Investors with more than US$ 9 trillion of assets under management have committed to transitioning their investment portfolios to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050<18>. As countries now focus on reviving their economies in the aftermath of COVID-19, studies show that investing in a green recovery can create more jobs, boost economic growth, and help mitigate climate actions<19>. While carbon neutrality targets are a good start, they need to be backed with strong capacities and actions on-the-ground to develop and implement pathways to achieve these goals. For developing countries, the task is even more complex. They will need to balance enabling climate transitions and building resilience while meeting large development needs. First, achieving universal energy access is a critical goal. For instance, around 580 million people lack access to electricity among African countries<20>. Second, infrastructure needs are huge, with a large portion of the infrastructure required for the future yet to be built. For instance, over half the buildings required by 2030 in India have not yet been built<21>. Third, employment generation to lift people out of poverty and provide decent livelihood opportunities is critical. Fourth, investment and capacities required to meet the current and future needs are also large. For instance, ensuring reliable electricity to all Africans is likely to require US$ 120 billion a year through 2040<22>. Drawing from its domestic experiences, India can play a pivotal role in bringing together the needs of developing countries to mobilise cooperative climate actions.

While carbon neutrality targets are a good start, they need to be backed with strong capacities and actions on-the-ground to develop and implement pathways to achieve these goals.

India’s co-benefits-focussed climate actions

Growth, development and security have historically been the central tenets of India’s energy policy decisions, with climate considerations as an important, albeit secondary, co-benefit. In 2009, India set up the National Action Plan for Climate Change and eight missions to promote sustainable development and action on climate mitigation and adaptation, centred around “co-benefits<23>.” Since 2009, the eight missions, particularly the solar and efficiency missions, have expanded significantly in scope and scale. They predicated India’s NDCs. When ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2016, India submitted eight NDCs, three of which are key with quantifiable targets<24>:

• To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 percent to 35 percent by 2030 from the 2005 level.

• To achieve 40 percent cumulative electric installed power capacity from non-fossil-fuel energy sources by 2030 with the help of technology transfer and low-cost international finance including support from the Green Climate Fund.

• To create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

India is one of the few countries on track to achieve its NDCs and is likely to achieve two of its three quantifiable targets before time. First, India’s emissions intensity has reduced by 21 percent over the period 2005–2014<25>. By 2030, India’s emission intensity is expected to be even lower, between 35 percent to 50 percent<26>. Second, India’s non-fossil fuel capacity, which includes renewables, large hydro and nuclear, is very close to its NDC target, at 38.5 percent as of January 2021<27>. India will also achieve this target before time. However, there is more work required on India’s carbon sink target. For instance, the forest and tree cover has increased by only 5,188 sq km, yielding a 42.6 million tonne carbon sink increase<28>.

India is one of the few countries on track to achieve its NDCs and is likely to achieve two of its three quantifiable targets before time.

Internationally, India has stressed on the need for common but differentiated responsibilities in the fight to address climate change. India has reiterated the need to ramp progress by developed countries on their climate actions, substantially increase new climate finance and enable more technology transfers to developing countries as conditions for raising India’s climate ambitions<29>.

Strengthening India’s climate diplomacy

India has a unique opportunity to set and lead a development-centred, climate and clean energy agenda by increasing its domestic ambitions and international engagements. This can be done by boosting multilateral, regional and bilateral diplomatic efforts to help coalesce action on inclusive low-carbon transitions, develop climate resilient economies and communities, and mobilise climate finance.

Coalescing international action on inclusive low-carbon transitions

India’s approach to multilateral action is anchored in five ‘S’s — samman (respect), samvad (dialogue), sahyog (cooperation), shanti (peace) and samriddhi (prosperity)<30>. India has also emphasised that “global development, addressing climate change, and eradicating poverty are central to the planet’s future<31>.” Thus, ideas of climate justice and inclusive transitions should form the basis of the country’s climate diplomacy. India is a world leader in the solar and wind sectors, ranking fifth and fourth, respectively, in cumulative capacity installations in 2019<32>, and has made huge gains in improving the energy efficiency of its economy. The ISA, a treaty-based intergovernmental organisation created by India and France in 2015, can play a pivotal role in boosting low-carbon transitions among its member countries; 90 countries have signed ISA’s framework agreement and 73 countries have ratified it. Through ISA, India has set its foreign policy compass in the right direction. ISA can 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 has pledged US$ 26 million to create a corpus fund for ISA and has opened lines of credit worth US$ 1.39 billion for implementing 27 projects in 15 ISA member countries, 13 of which are African states<33>.

India’s approach to multilateral action is anchored in five ‘S’s — samman (respect), samvad (dialogue), sahyog (cooperation), shanti (peace) and samriddhi (prosperity).

Going forward, India can promote climate diplomacy in a few ways. First, increasing climate diplomacy with regional African groupings and programmes, such as the Southern African Development Community, Economic Community of Western African States and the African Renewable Energy Initiative, can help in strengthening ties with the region, and help develop solutions to address energy poverty and promote growth. Second, India’s technical expertise and commercial successes in renewable energy and energy efficiency (see Box 1) can be leveraged through capacity building, knowledge exchanges through its multilateral and bilateral relations. Third, through ISA, India can help countries develop inclusive low-carbon development plans. Fourth, India’s commercial success in the clean energy space, particularly wind and solar, provide opportunities for collaborations, investments and developing innovative financial solutions. Fifth, India can integrate its diplomatic efforts to spotlight inclusive, development-centric multilateral arrangements to enable low-carbon transitions in international climate negotiations. This can help grow the domestic renewable energy sector, enhance energy security, promote sustainable development and improve energy access for all. Box 1: Examples of India’s Successful Climate Policies

Growing renewable energy

In 2009, India launched its solar missions with a modest target of 20 GW of installed solar capacity by 2022. In 2015, it dramatically increased the renewable energy target to 175 GW of installed capacity by 2022<34>. The target was further increased to 450 GW by 2030, more than India’s current total installed capacity (377 GW)<35>. Meeting the 175GW target can employ over 300,000 workers, creating over a million jobs in the grid-connected utility-scale and rooftop solar and wind sectors<36>. As of January 2021, with 92.5 GW of renewables, representing 25 percent of total installed capacity, India is halfway towards meeting its 175 GW by 2022 goal<37>. India has added more renewable capacity than thermal power year-on-year since 2017<38>. Annual investments in renewables have also regularly been higher than thermal capacity for more than the past four years<39>. Solar tariffs have routinely touched INR 2.4 per unit<39>, 20 percent to 30 percent below the cost of existing thermal power in India<40>. Supportive government policies backed by strong industry interest have helped in growing India’s renewable energy sector.

Improving energy efficiency

India’s progress in improving energy efficiency has been remarkable. The standards and labelling programme of the Bureau of Energy and Efficiency (BEE) covers mandatory and voluntary schemes for 26 major appliances<41>. The government has successfully reduced costs of LED bulbs and efficient fans, making them more accessible by aggregating demand and bulk procurement carried out through the state-run Energy Efficiency Services Limited. For instance, through the Ujala programme, 366 million LED lights have been distributed, resulting in an annual emission reduction of 38.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent<42>. To improve efficiency in high-emitting energy-intensive industries, BEE established a regulatory and market-based energy efficiency trading mechanism, Perform Achieve Trade (PAT), under the National Mission for Enhanced Efficiency. Over five cycles, ning from 2012 to 2022, the PAT scheme has expanded to cover 11 sectors, such as aluminium, cement, iron and steel, thermal power plants and petrochemicals. Implementing the programme has led to significant energy savings and avoided emissions; the first PAT cycle (2012-2015) led to energy savings of over 6.6 million tonne of oil equivalent, avoiding emissions around 31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent<43>.

Improving energy access

India has several successful initiatives that have helped in providing improved lighting, clean cooking and clean energy solutions. To expand electricity access, building on past efforts, the Saubhagya Yojaana aimed to electrify all households by December 2018<44>. According to government estimates, India has achieved nearly 100 percent household electrification<45>. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana was launched in 2016 to improve access to cleaner cooking sources and reduce exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants by providing 80 million liquefied petroleum gas connections to women from low-income households by 2019. India exceeded this target ahead of time and has further expanded the scope of the scheme to cover 10 million more households<46>. India also launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan in 2018 to promote solar-based irrigation for agriculture and boosting farmer incomes. The scheme aims at creating 10 GW of ground-mounted grid-connected decentralised renewable energy plants, installing around two million off-grid solar, and 1.5 million grid-connect solar powered agriculture pumps<47>.

Developing climate resilient economies and communities

According to the 2020 Climate Risk Index, India and its neighbouring countries are among the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change<48>. The South Asian region has experienced an average rise of 0.1oC -0.3oC per decade in the last five decades. This is expected to increase by 1.5oC to 2oC by 2065<49>. The growing frequency and intensity of extreme heatwaves and cyclones highlight the need to increase cooperation on climate resilience. Carbon neutrality conversations risk a focus on mitigation-centric actions and policies. Adaptation is critical for developing nations, which have contributed the least to the climate crisis. India can lead efforts on climate adaptation through diplomatic actions and draw greater international focus. In 2019, India launched the International Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) at the Climate Action Summit to support the construction of climate-resilient infrastructure for sustainable development in various countries<50>. CDRI, which has 22 member countries, aims to promote the resilience of new and existing infrastructure systems against climate and disaster risks in support of sustainable development<51>.

Adaptation is critical for developing nations, which have contributed the least to the climate crisis. India can lead efforts on climate adaptation through diplomatic actions and draw greater international focus.

More recently, India has taken a leading role in asserting long-term strategic interests in its neighbourhood through climate diplomacy. India is keen to strengthen climate change and resilience across the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) region to protect vulnerable communities and improve maritime security. Apart from opening lines of credit to neighbouring countries, India is also tapping into its blue economy potential with regional partners in the Indian Ocean region. This has included advancing technical, logistical, technological and regulatory measures to develop climate resilient ports, and promote renewable energy for ports and the shipping industry. India has also led the establishment of disaster management mechanisms, such as the 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. Emphasis on disaster management cooperation in BIMSTEC also led to the formation of BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise. However, these have been largely dormant institutions<52>. These initiatives point to an emerging focus in India to address environmental emergencies and natural disasters through multilateral engagement. In the coming decade, India should prioritise climate resilience in its diplomatic engagements through its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Four measures can help.

First, strengthening joint disaster response mechanisms by risk identification, awareness, mitigation plans and operating procedures in existing institutions to deploy rapid responses in case of disasters.

Second, developing common frameworks on adaptation measures to protect communities against extreme events through sharing best practices and information. For instance, India’s Heat Action Plans<53>, the first of its kind in South Asia<54>, and the Air Information Response Plan<55>, which can help protect communities and vulnerable groups from heatwaves and incidences of high air pollution, respectively.

Third, increasing cooperation on building resilient infrastructure and strengthening existing infrastructure, particularly ports. For instance, Security and Growth for All in The Region (SAGAR) is at the centre of India’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean Region<56>. Developing a regional climate mitigation and resilience strategy, promoting renewable energy for ports and all infrastructure projects, and innovating financial mechanisms to help transition can help achieve SAGAR objectives.

Fourth, coalescing India’s various bilateral, regional and multilateral climate diplomacy efforts can help mainstream action on climate resilience. Through CDRI, India can help develop institutional mechanisms to foster collaboration, create a knowledge and investor pool for countries to tap into, develop opportunities to channel investments, and establish knowledge exchange platforms.

Mobilising climate finance to enable climate resilience and adaptation measures

Perhaps the most important aspect of climate action is the finance required to implement mitigation and adaptation strategies globally. Financing needs are particularly critical for developing countries. For instance, meeting India’s renewable energy targets will require at least US$ 20-US$ 30 billion annually<57>. However, the access to and availability of international climate finance has not been adequate. Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries have committed to providing US$ 100 billion a year in new and additional climate finance to developing countries by 2020 to enable them to expand their climate change action. But actual flows were only around US$ 79 billion in 2018<58>. An increase in climate finance has been one of India’s key asks at climate negotiations. This will help mobilise funds for other developing countries, particularly small and medium countries, and small island developing states.

An increase in climate finance has been one of India’s key asks at climate negotiations.

Simultaneously, India has also undertaken efforts to improve market access and credit facilities to various stakeholders across the clean energy spectrum. Domestically, India has boosted its renewable energy sector through innovative financial solutions. Institutions such as the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, National Agriculture Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, Solar Energy Corporation of India and private sector firms like Tata Cleantech Capital Ltd. are at the forefront of India’s green financing efforts, and have successfully developed solutions such as credit enhancement scheme, alternate investment funds and payment security mechanisms to improve project economics and help project developers attract lower cost, long-term financing<59>. Internationally, ISA aims to mobilise US$ 100 billion to promote solar energy by 2030, and plans to set up a World Solar Bank to help achieve this goal<60>. ISA can help aggregate demand for solar projects among its member nations to bring down costs, help finance and boost investments, particularly for the smaller countries. India can play a critical role in helping channel finance and attract private sector investments through integrating its climate and economic diplomacy efforts. A few solutions can help. First, promoting the development of catalytic financial institutional frameworks, such as green banks, can help in boosting finance for climate transitions. India can support the development of catalytic finance institutions, share knowledge and eventually develop innovative solutions using its development assistance and lines of credits. Catalytic financial solutions leverage low-cost public (national and international) funds, which are typically limited, to attract greater private capital for identified sectors. In 2019, India announced that it will be setting up Green Windows, a green bank-like structure, to grow the underserved renewable energy sectors and new technologies<61>. Solutions such as aggregating, warehousing, and co-financing offered through catalytic finance institutions can help in improving project economics to attract private capital. Second, through its various bilateral, trilateral and multilateral engagements, India can help aggregate demand for clean energy or resilient infrastructure to bring down costs and boost private investments. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and smaller states elsewhere find it difficult to attract affordable finance because of their disaggregate demand and its size. ISA is implementing such measures by aggregating regional demand and issuing a global tender to bring down costs of solar. Third, India’s experiences on green bonds can also be extended through knowledge exchanges on financial solutions. Despite the country’s nascent bond market, green bond issuances are steadily growing, reaching a total of US$ 11.2 billion in 2020<62>. These experiences can be extended through bilateral and multilateral engagements.

India can play a constructing role by boosting cooperation on climate finance in its external relations while simultaneously highlighting the need to increase climate finance from developed countries.

Financial solutions need to be tailored to the developing country contexts. India can play a constructing role by boosting cooperation on climate finance in its external relations while simultaneously highlighting the need to increase climate finance from developed countries.


The new decade will be key in determining the world’s fight against climate change. Policy decisions taken today will determine whether the world moves towards a sustainable future “leaving no one behind<63>.” To do this, bolstering both domestic ambitions and fostering greater international cooperation will be important.  India has the potential to become a lighthouse for the world on inclusive climate action. Championing a climate and development agenda in the country’s bilateral, regional and multilateral collaborations can help boost trade, drive investments to inclusive solutions, and foster progress towards sustainable and resilient transition. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity for the world and India to avoid the devastating impacts of climate change and safeguard the future. The time to act on collaborative, ambitious and resilient solutions is now.


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Madhura Joshi

Madhura Joshi

Madhura Joshi is an energy and climate change policy specialist with a decade of experience in managing research and implementing large multi-disciplinary projects. She led ...

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