CICERO - Center for International Climate Research
foto: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation / creative commons (2017)

foto: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation / creative commons (2017)

Indian prime minister Modi is re-elected. What now for climate policy and mitigation?

News - News from CICERO

Published 24.05.2019

India is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is set to become the world’s most populous country by 2025, thus it is by sheer size one of the most important actors in global climate governance. What will five new years of Modi/BJP government mean for climate policy and measures?

India’s election is over, and the governing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister Narendra Modi has won a majority and will reign for another five years with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. The election outcome has global significance since the World depends critically on India’s ambitions and actions for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change.

Modi: A green global leader?

Modi and India have been hailed as a global green leader. Just Wednesday former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme Erik Solheim commented on Modi’s excellent leadership skills (DN 22.5.19). Solheim points to India’s economic growth and how Modi has managed to turn the country from an ‘environmental laggard to environmental leader’. Solheim’s perspective of India is shared by many in the international political environment.

Among other things, the successes of India’s rural electrification program and heavy investment in the solar industry and renewable energy supply has been noticed internationally. However, India and Modi’s position and leadership on climate and environment is far from clear-cut. India has been a leading voice in the international climate negotiations since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 but has also been reluctant to commit itself under the Paris Agreement.

In international negotiations, India argues for a clear differentiation between developed and developing countries, as under the Kyoto Protocol, which put no obligations on India. India promotes this position through various negotiation blocks within the international climate negotiations such as the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC), Group of 77 (G77) and the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China).

Especially the LMDC group often takes a hardline position, demanding leadership from developed countries before committing to reducing their own emissions. However, Modi has taken steps to increase bilateral climate cooperation, especially in areas where the government sees growth possibilities. The primary example being the International Solar Alliance launched by India and France in 2015.

Still, the global climate regime has become more fragmented and bottom-up oriented, and the variety of climate actors and initiatives at several governance levels increased considerably compared to the situation ten years ago, and the question is how this enables the development of new forms of leadership and the role emerging global powers like India can take.

On the note of leadership, the Modi government has been heavily criticised for increasingly autocratic governance and for being implicit in and legitimising ethnic-religious violence. There has been a rise of targeted attacks on Muslims from Hindu-nationalist groups, and the perpetrators have rarely been prosecuted, leaving an impression of the government condoning the acts. In addition, more and more oppositional voices are being silenced in intricate ways combining threats, internet trolling, banning of foreign donations to NGOs and more, which in practice brings a form of censorship even though the legislation provides freedom of speech.

These things bring into question whether the Modi government is able to steer the needed low-carbon transition of society within the bounds of social justice. As an example, the consideration for equity in climate policymaking has declined with the Modi government. Environmental NGOs and other civil society groups have been less involved in policymaking, and climate policy focusing on adaptation and local resilience have been poorly implemented.

Balancing emission with economic growth and social well-being

Modi and India’s capacity to take on global green leadership depends largely on how the government manages difficult trade-offs between low carbon transition and social objectives such as fulfilling SDGs on eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, achieving energy access for all and ensuring decent work opportunities and economic growth. Despite impressive growth and GDP, the unemployment rate has increased steadily since 2014 and creating jobs is high on the political agenda. The benefits of growth have been unequally distributed, and marginalised groups such as Adivasis, lower castes, Muslims and women are not only not receiving a fair share, but are also heavily exploited, as their cheap labour, stripped of social security measures, enables the growth to happen.

Securing jobs for the increasing working-age population will be essential to achieve development and political stability but will undoubtedly affect increasing energy demand and continued dependence on coal.

India has made a huge achievement in ensuring electrification for all. Electrification is important for development as it enables education, health benefits of switching from Kerosene, and communication technology, which will undoubtedly lead to better welfare and prospects for rural communities in particular. The success of rural electrification is a continuation of many years of efforts by successive governments, and Modi has been a little lucky in being prime minister when the goal was met. Though all households in India are now electrified on paper, there has been controversies over the reporting and the supply is far from stable and reliable. In addition, about 835 million people are still dependent on biomass fuels for cooking and heating (IEA), and the population is increasing. In sum, this means that there will be an increased electricity demand, some of which will have to come from coal.

Putting the faith on renewables?

One dimension the Modi government has been eager to front is their commitment to expanding the share of renewables in India. Still, wind and solar produce a very small share of India's electricity and there is a long way to go before renewables in India will unseat existing coal power. While the growth in wind and solar has helped to reduce building of new coal plants sharply, the coal plants that are there will continue to burn coal for decades to come, contributing to domestic air pollution as well as global emissions. The former is responsible for a staggering amount of death and disease.

The Indian government is encouraging new development of wind and solar, but this is mostly driven by economics: the cost of new wind and solar is lower than the price of new coal. Moreover, solar and wind capacity can be installed much more quickly than coal power, given permitting constraints as well as coal shortages.

Meanwhile, the Modi government is working hard to make it easier to build coal power stations, to develop new coal mines, and to transport coal to market. Power stations have been allowed to pollute above legal limits for years, and the government put in place new rules to limit pollution. But when the deadline came at the end of 2017, the government simply extended it another five years. The additional costs associated with reducing pollution from power stations would be another support for renewables, so delaying these regulations not only maintains the enormous health consequences of that pollution but delays the transition to low-carbon generation.

While the building of solar in particular has been strong in recent years, the Modi government has curtailed this growth by putting a 25% import tariff on solar panels from China, substantially increasing the cost to developers. Moreover, state governments running tenders for solar generation have regularly cancelled these after the fact when the lowest tenders were not low enough, despite them being substantially cheaper than new coal.


Expanding the share of renewables also reproduces some of the same dilemmas known earlier concerning coal. India has a long history of competing demands on land and water resources and has also lately experienced constraints and deployment of large-scale wind and solar energy. Social land conflicts are expected to increase, such as tensions between environmentalist groups and Adivasi (indigenous) movements over land and forest rights.

While substantial wind and solar generation capacity has been added in recent years, coal dominates total generation and will do for years to come.

Where do emissions go?

The Modi government will most likely

continue its efforts from its first term. There has been considerable focus on reducing hindrances to economic growth, although its success has been somewhat mixed. This effort includes streamlining processes for obtaining environmental permits, substantial road building, and more industry. Under the Paris Agreement, India has made only weak promises, and even without significant policy will probably achieve those climate goals. In fact, those goals translate to a substantial increase in India's emissions in the decades ahead. If the Modi government instead removes barriers to solar and wind, and ceases to protect coal power from environmental regulation, then India's future emissions pathway could be much lower. But we must remember that this is a country with enormous poverty, and the path of global development that India follows has long been paved with fossil fuels, fuels that have considerable government support in India.

And while India is one of the world's largest emitters, other countries have already developed on the back of enormous historical emissions. A strong focus from developed countries and international NGOs on India's responsibility for mitigation will therefore likely continue to hit rock bottom in the Modi government, and focusing on bilateral cooperation may be a more fruitful strategy for actors wanting to enhance India's climate change mitigation.

India's annual emissions of CO2 by source. India is the world's third-largest emitter of CO2, and its emissions are expected to grow for years to come.