25 APRIL 2016
Building on the Paris Agreement
The 174 countries and the European Union that signed up to the Paris Climate Change Agreement in New York on April 22 have committed themselves to the decision that a range of actions must be undertaken to keep the rise in global average temperature well below 2° Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The debate on climate change shifted after the climate summit in Paris in December from whether scientific evidence is strong enough to warrant making aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, to how this should be achieved without hurting economic growth in developing countries such as India. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change accepts differentiated responsibility for developing nations, which are not responsible for the accumulated stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as opposed to rich countries that historically had the benefit of the unfettered use of fossil fuels. What makes carbon emissions particularly problematic, however, is that polluting local flows have a global effect over relatively short periods, and far-flung countries, such as small island nations, suffer the impact. India's estimate of its share of global greenhouse gas emissions submitted to the UN for the Paris treaty is 4.10 per cent, but it faces a double jeopardy: of having to emit large volumes of carbon dioxide to achieve growth, while preparing to adapt to the destructive effects of intense weather events, such as droughts and floods, linked to climate change.
After Paris, the challenge before India is to implement its pledge - to sharply cut emissions intensity of GDP by 2020. A small reduction was achieved between 2005 and 2010, and the effort now should be to maintain the trend. Energy, transport and infrastructure are key areas where sound national policies are needed. The doubling of the cess on coal in the Budget, and the general policy to keep fuel prices high using taxation are welcome, but they must translate into funding for green alternatives. It should be possible, for instance, to unlock middle class investments in renewable energy with an effective grid-connected rooftop solar subsidy programme. In the absence of strong backing from State governments to ensure net metering and transfer subsidies, progress in this area has been slow. New buildings should also be required to conform to energy efficiency codes in all States. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan aims to put about seven million electric or hybrid vehicles on the road by 2020, but for this to happen, the creation of charging infrastructure and introduction of consumer incentives are vital; greening public transport bus fleets will give the Mission a face. Once the Paris Agreement is ratified, funding for such initiatives should come from the wealthy countries, which are required to raise at least $100 billion a year. The pact requires them to provide even higher levels of assistance. The success of the climate compact will ultimately depend on whether rich countries, including the U.S. - where a conservative President and Congress could reject it - fund innovation and open-source their green technologies to developing nations.
To Brexit or not to Brexit
It should not have needed a visiting U.S. President to puncture the arguments of eurosceptic Britons, who believe their country is better off outside the European Union (EU). But so strong is the hold of Britain's history as an imperial power that the prospect of a destiny inside Europe, that too one driven by a dominant Franco-German alliance, is deeply unpalatable to sections of the political class. For all the fury and noise over the referendum in June, the question whether to stay inside or leave the bloc has cast a long and troublesome shadow on a country that joined the EU in 1973 under a Conservative Prime Minister. When the Labour leader Harold Wilson won public approval for that step in a 1975 referendum, the hope was that the overwhelming mandate would be irreversible. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the debate is far from over. Years on, Prime Minister David Cameron finds himself in Wilson's shoes. His Conservative backbenchers forced his hand on a U.K. vote on continued EU membership and prominent Cabinet colleagues are now spearheading the leave campaign. Now, as in 1975, the main argument against membership is the perceived loss of national sovereignty. At the heart of the issue is what Brexit could mean for the workforce. There are over two million EU immigrants working in Britain today, a body of people that not only provides it with critical skills but also contributes to its tax kitty. Could Brexit lead to an exodus among such people? On the other hand, immigration has become a key element in the eurosceptic armoury, acquiring renewed potency following the large inflow of refugees from Syria into the EU. The exit camp is exploiting the cracks in EU policy over their rehabilitation to frontally attack the free movement principle underlying the Schengen borderless travel zone.
The objectives of the U.K.'s membership of the EU have always been primarily economic rather than political. It is apparent that these interests are better served if London assumes its rightful place at the European high table. Non-EU members Norway and Switzerland have access to the bloc's internal market, but no voice in shaping its laws. Such an arrangement may not befit a country with the wealth and influence of Britain. As a result, a measure of euroscepticism has existed side by side with London's desire to stake out special positions in key areas. This was reflected most recently in the package that Mr. Cameron negotiated ahead of the referendum to protect London's status as a financial hub. The exemption from adopting the single currency and participation in the Schengen area are the other major opt-outs from common policies. The champions of Brexit have taken exception to the U.S. President expressing his opinion on the referendum. But they would surely know that from Washington's standpoint the "special relationship" with Britain would carry real meaning only if it translates into an effective voice inside the EU, the world's largest single trading bloc.