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Lessons from the G-20 Summit for Future Climate Diplomacy: A Perspective from India

In an unprecedented move, the G-20 minus 1 decided to include three separate paragraphs on climate change in the final communiqué – one spelling out a general pledge to tackle climate change, a boxed one on the US’ (rather the Trump administration’s) rejection of the Paris Agreement, and one on the rest of the leaders’ reaffirmation of their unconditional support to the Paris agreement. This was reportedly after the US’ demand of inclusion of fossil fuels in the communiqué was rejected by others.

On the one hand, it is unfortunate that the G-20 summit’s coverage was largely hijacked by analysis of Trump’s defiance and other leaders’ “rebuke” of him on the issue of climate change, especially on the final day. And on the other, it is a welcome step that leaders are doing what they are supposed to do, breaking the barriers of the much-hyped “consensus”, which is a difficult ideal to achieve in the current international system.

After all, the G-20 communiqué and official statement at the summit are only pronounced expressions of intent and help set the tone for decision-making on issues pertaining to global governance. At the end of the day, it is up to individual countries to act upon their commitments. Even within the US, the voices are divided as certain states, civil groups and corporations have pledged to carry on with climate change action. Therefore, the split at the G-20 summit need not be blown out of proportion as it is unlikely to have much of an impact on climate diplomacy in general. What is perhaps a cause for concern is the increasing trend of disregarding principles of multilateralism, as seen in the way the G-19 leaders failed to impress on Trump the need for the world’s major countries to stick together on an issue like climate change.

Climate diplomacy is undoubtedly beyond the Paris Agreement and the US. However, the geopolitics of climate change should not supersede global climate action itself; and this would require countries to join together in various endeavours, and not just act by themselves or bilaterally or through small groupings. This is important especially when it comes to developing countries like India that bank on climate finance and technology transfer to a great extent. Perhaps, this is why the Indian Prime Minister Modi called for setting up “an international coalition of countries that can identify technology, develop systems and build capacities” at the G-20 summit. He did not stop at just proposing this idea but also asserted that India would willingly lead such an effort.

The US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has raised some concerns over how India’s bilateral renewable energy programmes with the country as well as investments would get affected by this decision. Although the Indian renewable energy market presents enormous amount of investment opportunities for the US-based firms, if the bilateral negotiations with the US on this issue reaches gridlock, the question of who would fill the gap would have to be addressed. India’s rather ambitious renewable energy targets cannot be met without sufficient financial stimulus from the developed countries. 

Modi’s proposed “coalition of the willing” could be the answer to eliminating various uncertainties – by establishing an institutionalised network of planning, designing, creating and implementing solutions, even if it is a loosely built one. One of its aims could be to ensure that countries would not always have to depend on the outcomes of the G-20 and other such multilateral summits for deciding the future of climate action. Another objective is to not allow any type of leadership void, which may surface at any point in time in the future also with changes in leaderships in various countries, to affect global climate action. The third and most important goal is to take the discussion beyond the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations and concentrate on result-oriented approaches.

This is critical as the world cannot rely solely on climate agreements, if the planet needs to be saved from climate and the much larger environmental change (which goes mostly unaddressed); more so because these negotiations take far too long to achieve any consensus, only to be torn apart by a leader who abruptly decides that the agreed-upon-framework is not in his/her country’s national interest.

Another point emphasised by Modi at the G-20 summit is that the role of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is extremely vital in dealing with issues such as climate change. Although the cliché way to look at it would be to label it as a change in the world order, in which emerging powers are likely to have a bigger say; Modi’s statement, in addition to this interpretation, reflects the business opportunities that developing countries could generate in the field of climate change by raising the bar for climate action amidst rise in protectionism the world over.

The Paris Agreement is “irreversible” and India is keen on enhancing the effectiveness of initiatives such the International Solar Alliance. The EU as a whole, and Germany and France in particular, and BRICS can together unleash a new era of climate diplomacy that brings all the “willing” countries – small and big – into the fold of meaningful and coordinated climate action, taking into consideration their requirements and capacities.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate at the Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University