Climate Change: A vital foreign policy tool for India

Originally published in The Pioneer here

Written by Sourajit Aiyer

India’s climate change fight gives it an opportunity to broaden its global sphere of influence and deepen bilateral ties in many strategic areas

Climate change has woven itself into India’s foreign policy in recent years, right from its leadership to operationalise the International Solar Alliance (ISA), to Prime Minister Narendra Modi raising the climate threat at the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the UN General Assembly (UNGA), or the Indian Navy positioning itself as a relief-services provider during natural disasters in the region. Historically, economic growth had been critical for nations with large populations, given the massive burden of job creation that they have. However, due to its susceptibility to climate risks owing to the diverse ecology and geography, India was compelled to take cognisance of environmental degradation and climate change that arise due to our current model of economic growth. Moreover, participating in global climate discourses not only gives the country resources to tackle those risks, it also gives India an opportunity to enlarge its role on the world stage.

India’s foreign policy outreach itself has seen a renewed boost under its current Government, focussing on a multi-polar engagement model. It deepened its ties with larger global powers like Russia, the US, Japan and China while also taking firm steps of friendship with the middle-level powers like Australia, the European Union, the ASEAN under its ‘Act East’ policy, South Asia under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, the Middle East under its ‘Link West’ policy and with Africa, by setting up the India-Africa Forum. Climate change cooperation has been on the agenda on many occasions in the bilateral meets with most of these countries. One of the objectives for this was to convey India’s pro-activeness in taking the climate discourse  forward, especially as it was presumed this role would be largely limited to the developed countries. It also reaffirms India’s standing as a responsible global actor, ultimately auguring well for its role on the world stage.

India is positioned to leverage climate change-related policy in furthering its geopolitical outreach with the developed countries, especially those making concerted efforts to address this risk. That would give it better mileage to deepen those bilateral ties into further areas of strategic cooperation, be it investment, trade, defence or counter-terrorism. In short, climate can be the fodder to create further dividends from those relationships. A pertinent example is India’s ties with France, which strengthened across multiple sectors following their cooperation to set up the ISA.

Apart from developed nations, the fight against climate change gives India leverage with the developing countries as well. Since it could never match China’s wallet when it came to funding hard infrastructure in low-income nations in Asia, Africa or Latin America, New Delhi resorted to soft infrastructure building in key areas like health and education with such partners.

Climate change cooperation now offers the country another avenue in this soft diplomacy approach and expands its geopolitical influence with the developing world. At the global climate negotiations, India has pursued a policy of common but differentiated responsibilities when it comes to emissions, the aim being to hold the developed countries more responsible owing to their decades-long industrialisation drive. Thus, just like it was a flag-bearer of the developing world during the Cold War era’s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it is now seen as a flag-bearer for the developing countries at the global climate table.

An issue that remains in this context is the intertwining of India’s global climate agenda with energy security, to meet the energy needs of its billion-plus population. While energy poverty is as important an issue as economic growth to India, its climate agenda must become more expansive. Other sectors should be part of the country’s agenda in its climate negotiations. One example is agriculture, critical for a country where a large proportion of the workforce is still farm-dependent. It is also a major cause of emissions and a victim of climate risks. In conclusion, climate change is now a vital tool in India’s geopolitical efforts. It gives the country an opportunity to broaden its sphere of influence and deepen its bilateral ties in various strategic areas. Moreover, it allows it to achieve foreign policy gains without the commensurate need to always expand the security domain, which had traditionally been one pillar for expanding foreign relations. As climate negotiations become more enmeshed in global geopolitics, it would help India further solidify its brand as a responsible global actor. But the true test for India would be the quantum of climate finance flows it is able to win from the developed countries. The largest multilateral climate fund, the Green Climate Fund, has a limit for India which is far dwarfed by its actual requirements to address climate risks. Time will tell how much dividend was realised by leveraging climate change in India’s geopolitical strategy.

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