Main page content

India’s Road to Paris Agreement Ratification and the Nuclear Energy Option

India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Syed Akbaruddin (left), shakes hands with UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson while General Assembly President Peter Thomson looks on in a ceremony held at the UN Headquarters on 2 October 2016.

After weeks of speculation, India finally ratified the Paris Agreement on October 2, 2016 which is also the anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, more popularly known as the “Father of the Nation”. This symbolic gesture by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team makes India the 62nd country (out of the 180 countries that signed the Paris Agreement in 2015) to deposit its legal instrument of ratification to the United Nations (UN) Secretary General.

The Paris Agreement states that it would come into force 30 days after 55 states, accounting for 55 per cent of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, have ratified it. While the 55-state mark was crossed a while ago, the 55-per-cent-emissions mark had not been reached until India (4.1 per cent of the emissions) and the EU (on October 4) ratified the agreement. This means that the Paris Agreement will come into force on November 4, before the Conference of Parties (COP)-22 in Marrakech on November 7, 2016.

Stalemate about Climate Agenda at the G20 Summit

It is interesting to note how India reversed its stance on the Paris Agreement after the G20 Summit hosted by China in Hangzhou, earlier in September. At the G20 Summit, India refused to commit itself to ratifying the agreement by December 2016, citing domestic processes and its unwillingness to set a deadline for ending fossil fuel subsidies (which the zero draft of the communiqué has specified as 2025). Since India was not alone (countries such as Turkey were on the same side), it managed to avoid any mention of either of the deadlines in the 7000-word communiqué. However, within a couple of weeks India decided to ratify the agreement despite asserting at the G20 Summit that, although it was preparing to ratify it as soon as possible, it was not in a position to do so by the end of this year.

This change of mind is far from surprising, considering that the real reason behind India’s reluctance to agree to the terms set by the G20 countries like the US and China is being linked to China’s move to block its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in June 2016 (based on norms set by the grouping, according to China). For China, the presidency of the G20 Summit is a matter of prestige and it clearly wanted to push the agenda on climate change forward. It partially succeeded in doing so by jointly ratifying the Paris Agreement with the US. India, clearly annoyed by China’s actions against India, did not want China to put a stamp on its term by clinching the deal of an end to fossil fuel subsidies during its presidency. Neither did it “want the credit for the climate breakthrough to accrue to China, which was eager to announce a spectacular outcome at the end of the summit in Hangzhou” according to some sources. Sadly, these were the same countries that negotiated hand-in-hand as a part of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) against Annex-I (industrialised) countries at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, and subsequently shared similar positions on various issues at the COP summits thereafter.

The Paris Agreement and Nuclear Energy

While this provides more of a geopolitical context, it could be extrapolated to provide a deeper understanding of India’s position at the G20 Summit. On the face of it, one wonders what prompted India to link its NSG bid to the Paris Agreement ratification, considering nuclear energy has previously never overtly been on the agenda of COP negotiations. Even the Paris Agreement does not prescribe nuclear energy, but since it is non-prescriptive in terms of the nature and form of climate change mitigation actions/plans, it does provide flexibility to each nation state to choose them according to its national circumstances, thereby giving room for nuclear energy as a potential solution. While to say that the Paris Agreement cares only about the end result and not the means might be considered a sweeping statement, it does lean more towards this position on mitigation commitments, which was necessary to reach a consensus in Paris in 2015.

Logically, it might seem that there is no connection between the two developments, but India does take the nuclear option very seriously, as do France, the US, Canada and a few other nations. A White House Factsheet (released in November 2015) states, “As America leads the global transition to a low-carbon economy, the continued development of new and advanced nuclear technologies along with support for currently operating nuclear power plants is an important component of our clean energy strategy.” This clearly points towards the US’ thrust on nuclear energy as a tool for combating climate change. 

India’s Nuclear Energy Policy

The Indian establishment believes that nuclear energy has a key role to play in both its energy security and climate change mitigation strategies. In its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), India has pledged to reduce the carbon-emissions intensity of its economy by 33-35 per cent and source 40 per cent of its energy from renewable and clean sources, including nuclear, by 2030, with greater emphasis on tapping solar and wind energy sources. And as many experts argue, it will be impossible for India to achieve this target without using the nuclear energy option. Already, the government has announced that the country would “double coal production within four years even if private companies do not contribute to the effort.” This is not good news for the climate but in order to offset its impact, the government has introduced coal cess/clean energy cess to generate finances for clean energy projects. Therefore, it is also ramping up investments in and/or luring investors into the solar energy sector. Adani Green Energy unveiled the world’s largest (648 MW) solar power plant in Tamil Nadu.

Still, this will not be enough to ‘sustain’ yet another objective of this government, which is “100 per cent electrification for all by May 1, 2017.” It must be noted that, according to this objective, a village is considered “electrified” if the basic infrastructure (distribution transformers and lines) is set up, even though a real electricity connection or supply is not provided to the households. Furthermore, if the public places in the village and 10 per cent of its households have electricity access, it is deemed electrified. Therefore, the objective might be achieved, but to take it to the next level, wherein uninterrupted power supply is assured to all the households and the different sectors that contribute to the growing economy, and where this supply is sustained – this will certainly not be an easy task. This is where nuclear energy, with all the baggage associated with it, becomes more or less an inevitable choice.

India’s Road to NSG and Climate Diplomacy

As a part of its larger energy security strategy, India has signed civilian nuclear deals with several countries, including the US, France and Australia. While the US Company Westinghouse has started preparatory work on site in India for six nuclear reactors, Australia (possessing 40 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves) has agreed to start supply of uranium to India “in a relatively short span of time.” With French collaboration, India plans to build six nuclear reactors in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Like Australia, Japan too had major reservations about signing any nuclear agreement with India since the latter is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), but sources reveal that Japan is well on its way to ink a civilian nuclear agreement with India when Modi visits Japan in November.

From these instances, it is apparent that nuclear energy inevitably finds a prominent place in India’s climate diplomacy with the rest of the international community. Therefore, it could be inferred that India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement is contingent to a large extent on its ability to exploit the nuclear energy option. One of the ways in which its nuclear trade and commerce could be enhanced is through the 48-member NSG, which ironically was formed to deny India access to nuclear technology, from an Indian perspective. While the jury is out on what India could gain from membership in the NSG, one factor that is consistently being considered is India’s commitment to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Although the current agreements with various countries (signed as a result of the 2008 NSG waiver granted to India) could fetch some of the desired results, there are some technologies that could still be denied to India if it remains outside the NSG. It also provides “greater certainty and legal foundation to India’s nuclear regime” as in the future India does not want to be hostage to any rules of transaction set by the grouping.

Even though India ran its nuclear energy industry almost single-handedly – without any foreign support in terms of fuel (uranium) or technological assistance – if it wishes to have 14.6 GW nuclear capacity on line by 2024 and 63 GW by 2032 (along with supply of 25 per cent of electricity from nuclear power by 2050), it needs investments from external sources as well as uranium imports. This has placed India in a precarious situation. So much so that one of the alleged reasons why India initially kept the option of waiting till December to ratify the Paris Agreement, was so that it could still enter the NSG if a special plenary of the grouping is held before the end of 2016.

India’s Commitment to Climate Action

While India’s entry into the NSG remains uncertain, as China flexes its muscles, the former has chosen the right path of being a part of the solution by ratifying the Paris Agreement. It goes without saying that if India had taken a hardened position, it would have found itself in the company of a group of states that would miss the boat. A case in point is Japan, which did not anticipate that so many countries as well as the EU would ratify the agreement so soon; and instead gave priority to ratification of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal among twelve of the Pacific Rim countries. It came as a surprise to many states that the EU ratified the agreement so quickly. Now that the Paris Agreement has come into force, those who do not ratify it before COP-22 may find their roles limited in terms of their ability to influence negotiations regarding the specifics of the agreement.

As a result, without much dilly-dallying after the G20 Summit, the Indian government held its cards close to its chest, evaluated the global response so far (which was overwhelming) and decided to take the plunge so that it does not get isolated, since the agreement could have come into force anyway without India’s ratification, when a few other states also ratify. To add to this, India also played a proactive role in bringing the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol into existence on October 14, 2016, which is aimed at phasing down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), making it “the first legally-binding climate treaty of the 21st century.” The global warming potential (GWP) of HFCs is hundreds to thousands of times greater than CO2 and considering that India is the second largest manufacturer of HFCs among developing countries with the largest being China – in fact, only these two developing countries manufacture HFCs – it weighed its options (based on reciprocity) and reached an agreement (based on differentiated treatment).

When it comes to achieving the goals set in its NDC, the road ahead might not be easy for India, regardless of whether or not it expands the share of nuclear energy in its energy basket. However, it has set foot on the path towards a new era of global/multilateral climate governance and expectations are high!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram, Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India