Why and What of Mitigation in India: arguments from the domestic debate

There is general agreement in India and internationally that India did not contribute to the current problem of climate change, but to what extent India should contribute to the solutions of climate change is an area of debate within India.

Av Kari-Anne Isaksen

This article is inspired by discourse theory where policy is seen as the product of discursive struggle.[1] From this angle, I argue that it is important to explore the different arguments for why India should mitigate climate change in order to understand the development of India’s current mitigation policy and possible further development of such policy. There are also, of course, arguments that contend that India should not mitigate, but this article does not cover that aspect. Based on literature and interviews carried out during fieldwork in Delhi,[2] I present three ideal typical arguments: the security argument, the inequality argument, and the high table argument.


The security argument: mitigation for our own good


“More than the international community, we have to show action to our own people—to those living in the Sunderbans, in the North East, in the Himalayas—that the government was serious about tackling climate change.”[3]


This quote illustrates what I call the ‘security argument’. The security argument entails that India is vulnerable to climate change and should, therefore, take action, not because the West or someone else tells India to do so, but because it is in India’s own interest. Among my interviewees, there seemed to be an agreement that economic development should be India’s first priority, but when recognizing India’s vulnerability to climate change, interviewees tended to argue that India should take action on climate change, which does not hamper India’s growth potential. The security argument claims that it is in India’s interest to protect its own population against climate change and that mitigation can serve developmental needs like ensuring energy access and energy security. Many of my interviewees highlighted the importance of the poor’s access to energy and suggested that the use of renewable energy sources could help in that regard, as well as increase India’s energy security and reduce emission growth. Another mitigation measure suggested by many was energy efficiency; interviewees pointed at how this will reduce emissions and at the same be economically beneficial for companies and individuals.


An interesting element of the security argument is the belief that climate mitigation policies can be beneficial to India’s development agenda. According to Atteridge,[4] India’s traditional stance on climate change has been characterized by a belief that social and economic developmental priorities, including energy security and energy access, would be compromised by taking on any part of the burden of combating climate change. The government has remained committed to its historic position, “the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty”, referring to the statement made by the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.[5] The security argument redefines the relationship between development and environmental protection, from contradiction to the claim of positive developmental effects with climate mitigation policies, and I argue this has been important for India’s choice to develop mitigation policies.


The belief in synergy between climate mitigation and developmental needs can be found institutionalized in, for example, the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). The NAPCC states that the eight missions are designed to address the urgent and critical concerns of the country with co-benefits of addressing climate change.[6] There seem to be some sort of consensus on India’s vulnerability and on her own interest in taking mitigation actions as the security argument is being widely used both inside and outside the government.


The inequality argument: mitigation in order to have a more just development


“If the upper and middle class [in India] do not manage to check their CO2 emissions, they will not only contribute to global warming, but will also deny hundreds of millions of poor Indians access to development.”[7]


The above quote is from a report titled Hiding behind the Poor which Greenpeace India published in 2007. The report presents data on emission disparity within India and argues that India is hiding behind its poor population when using its low per capita emissions as an argument for not having to initiate mitigation actions. Several of my interviewees pointed towards the disparity of emissions within India and argued that India could do more on the mitigation side if the rich sectors of the society are ‘targeted’. The inequality argument is also used in radical critiques of India’s growth strategy. In the book titled The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, Praful Bidwai criticizes India’s growth strategy from a climate change and development perspective.[8] He thinks that development should be India’s first priority, but argues that the growth model India is pursuing has not worked for India’s poor and cannot contribute to low carbon growth. Some of my civil society interviewees were similarly critical about GDP growth being the guiding principle for India’s development and were criticizing the so-called government’s belief in wealth trickling down and benefiting the poor. 


The inequality argument is, as demonstrated, embedded in a broader discussion of India’s growth strategy and hence is not on mitigation target alone. As opposed to the security argument, the inequality argument questions the liberal growth strategy and suggests a radically different development path for India. It is also interesting how the inequality argument challenges India’s equity position, by not only addressing inequality between developing and developed countries, but also intra-state. I find that the inequality argument is not as widespread in the Indian debate on mitigation as the security argument, but it is used by some civil society actors and often by people identifying themselves with the left end of the political spectrum.

The high table argument: mitigation in order to get a better reputation


“On one hand we want to be part of the G20 and we want the UN system to be changed so that we have a seat in the Security Council permanently. On the other hand we cannot only be a naysayer in the international discourse, so we have to have a different nuance to our [climate] position.”[9]


While the security argument and the inequality argument is motivated by domestic concerns, what I call the ‘high table argument’, like in the illustrative quote above, is rather motivated by expectations from the international community and ideas about how India should be perceived in the international arena. The core argument is that India as an emerging economy needs to take responsibility for climate mitigation because this is expected by other countries. Furthermore, it is argued that this will help India as she will be seen as a deal-maker and enhance ‘good will’ which will help India achieve other international goals. The high table argument got wide attention in India in December 2009 when a confidential letter from Jairam Ramesh to the Prime Minister leaked to media. In the letter, Ramesh suggested changes in India’s climate stance based on concerns on India being seen as a bugbear by the developed countries.[10] Ramesh argued that India should bring itself closer to more powerful countries, G8 and G20 and find itself comfortable around the high table with them. I find that the high table argument is not necessarily combined with concrete suggestions about what kind of mitigation measures India should choose. However, it seems like the argument at times is combined with advocating for, like the security argument, measures that can address both mitigation and developmental needs.


The high table argument can be understood in the context of India’s economic development and following new expectations from the international communities regarding actions by India on climate change. Many of my interviewees argued that, in addition to the increased awareness about the effects of climate change and India’s vulnerability, pressure from the international community was a crucial driver for the development of the NAPCC. Several of my interviewees also pointed at the fact that India launched its intensity target shortly after China (and actually after all the BASIC countries) had announced an emission intensity target, and implied that the Government of India feared being isolated in the climate talks. The high table argument, like the inequality argument, does not figure as often as the security argument in the public debate and is not reflected in policy documents on climate change. However, it is sometimes used by civil society actors and government officials when arguing for greater mitigation actions by India.


Concluding discussion

By presenting the three arguments, I have demonstrated that perspectives on the Indian debate for climate mitigation are diverse. The security and the inequality argument are grounded in the domestic developmental context, where the security argument implies compatibility between India’s development strategy and climate change mitigation while the inequality argument provides a more radical critique of India’s growth strategy. The high table argument is rather grounded in the foreign policy context and ambitions about how India should be perceived by others.


The security argument seems to be widely used and is institutionalized in policy documents while the inequality argument and high table argument seem to be used more rarely. The two latter arguments stem from different spheres of influence, the civil society and political elite, respectively, and can, hence, be assumed to have different degrees of influence. Interestingly, all the three arguments somehow respond to the long-standing position that India did not cause climate change and it is, therefore, not reasonable that India should take mitigation actions; India first and foremost needs to protect its space for growth. The security argument responds thus: Yes, but it is in our own interest to mitigate climate change because we are vulnerable and mitigation can actually have positive effects on our development. The inequality argument states: Wait a second, is our growth actually benefiting the poor? We need a rather different growth path. Lastly, the high table argument holds: Yes, but we need to make sure that we are perceived as a deal-maker and should, therefore, take some mitigation actions.

This article was published in The Energy and Resource Institute's newsletter Mitigation Talks, Volume 3: http://www.teriin.org/projects/nfa/pdf/NAMAs_newsletter.pdf


[1] For discourse theory used in the context of environmental politics see, e.g., Hajer M A. 1995. The Politics of Environmental Discourses, Oxford University Press, Oxford and Dryzek J S. 2005. The Politics of the Earth, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[2] During seven weeks in Delhi August–October 2012, I took 20 interviews with key actors in the debate on climate change policy in India: civil society actors, journalists, researchers, bureaucrats, and business actors. This article is partly based on preliminary findings from this field research.

[3] Jairam Ramesh. 2009. The Indian Express, 4 December. Details available at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/india-2020-2025--cuts-in-carbon-intensity/549811/2

Jairam Ramesh is the former Indian Minister of Environment and Forests. This quote is from the time when he informed the Parliament about India’s intensity target—20%–25% cut in emission intensity of production (GDP) by 2020 over 2005 level.

[4] Atteridge A., Shrivastava M K., Pahuja N. and Upadhyay H. 2012. “Climate Policy in India: what shapes international, national and state policy?”, Ambio 41: 68–77.

[5] Billett S. 2010. “Dividing Climate Change: global warming in the Indian mass media”, Climate Change 99:1–16.

[6] Government of India. 2008. National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), New Delhi.

[7] Greenpeace India. 2007. Hiding Behind the Poor. A report by Greenpeace on Climate Injustice, Bangalore, p. 2.

[8] Bidwai P. 2012. The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi.

[9] Quote by one of my interviewees when discussing India’s role in the international climate negotiations.

[10] The Times of India, 19 October 2009. Details available at http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-10-19/india/28079441_1_greenhouse-gas-emission-reduction-climate-negotiations-change-negotiations