A new climate summit, COP28, will be held later this month in Dubai. The climate pledges and actions of countries will be scrutinised. Many will be criticised for falling far short of targets deemed essential to contain the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees C. The summit will end with stirring speeches on how climate change is the greatest threat to humanity and must be solved.
Enter Donald Trump. The latest opinion polls suggest that he will win the US election next November. Most states have fixed views, so both Republicans and Democrats are certain of winning a number of states. Elections are won and lost by swing states that can go either way. The latest US opinion poll shows Trump beating Biden in five of six swing states, more than enough for victory.
A year is a long time in politics. Much could change by next November. But a Trump victory is entirely possible. He is the front runner today.
Trump calls climate change theories a hoax. He withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in 2020. Then Joe Biden became president and reinstated the US. But if Trump wins again, he will surely exit again. That may render the Paris Agreement useless.
A recent Pew Institute poll found that only 23% of Republicans view climate change as a major threat, against 78% for Democrats. Overall, barely half of all Americans take climate change seriously.
In such circumstances, future Republican presidents may well follow the Trump line. If the US exits the Paris Agreement every time it gets a Republican president, its Paris targets will become a farce.
In that case, all sacrifices made by others will become useless. The US is such a large emitter of greenhouse gases that combating climate change is impossible without its participation. The Paris Agreement has no penalties or incentives. It relies entirely on moral force and collective action. It is less an agreement than a hope and prayer.
If India meets its targets and others do not, our sacrifices will be in vain. Equally, if the rest of the world met its targets and India did not, the climate problem would be solved anyway. India’s share is too small to drag down the whole world. So, in theory, India — or any other country — can be a free rider, getting benefits without making sacrifices.
In practice, it will not be so simple. Countries fulfilling their targets could impose sanctions on defaulters. The European Union has already proposed import duties on steel made mainly using coal. However, this is violative of the rules of the World Trade Organisation, entitling India to retaliate. So, the moral issue of rule-based action is complicated. What seems certain is that if the US opts out, global emissions will shoot up regardless of what others do.
What should India do if Trump becomes president again and exits the Paris Agreement? Optimists may hope that Trump will be a rare exception and future US presidents will stick to the Agreement. Alas, many future Republican presidents will probably call climate change a hoax too.
If India meets targets and others do not, our sacrifices will be in vain. Equally, if rest of the world met targets and India did not, the climate problem would be solved anyway.
What then should India do? It will not be diplomatic to walk out of the Paris Agreement, saying the US has killed it. But India should reconsider its transition path. It need not move faster than the rest of the world and should not make major sacrifices. It should continue using coal, which others object to, as long as that is needed for baseload generation.
Technological improvements have hugely reduced the price of solar and wind energy. These can be produced as cheaply as Rs 3 per unit whereas future coal-based thermal plants will require Rs 5 per unit. But solar and wind energy are intermittent.
Power is needed when there is no sun or wind. Battery storage of renewable power can be used to smooth out fluctuations, but this is still too costly. Maybe technological changes could soon make this economic. But coal, dirty as it is, will still be needed by India for baseload generation.
India should rapidly develop solar and wind energy, the energy drivers of the future. But it need not rush to meet Paris targets. Let the transition be as gradual as required. Avoid sacrifices that may be in vain. Do not try to change faster than the rest of the world. Use coal as long as required.
India’s big environmental problem is not carbon but filthy air and water. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are covered in toxic smog. It’s not just air. Unsafe drinking water is stunting the growth of children and even leading to their deaths.Aquifers are being drained by overpumping that is encouraged by free electricity for farmers. India should give top environmental priority to these issues over decarbonisation.