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Putting the Paris Agreement into Action in India

This article originally appeared at the Yale Data Driven website.

Solar energy in India

In the words of Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “COP21 was a success, but that was the easy part.”

COP21, otherwise know as the Paris Climate Conference, generated the first legally binding, universal climate agreement in over 20 years of UN negotiations this past December. More than 133 countries have indicated that they will sign the agreement on April 22, the first day it is open for signatures. If these nations keep their word, their participation will set a new record for the number of countries to sign an agreement on its opening day.

Yet the agreement’s most significant tests lie ahead, as countries begin to wrestle with implementing the climate commitments they submitted ahead of the Paris meeting. Two events in India this February, held by the Research Observer Foundation and Climate Parliament, turned attention towards how the Paris Climate Agreement will take shape on the ground.

The Research Observer Foundation’s roundtable, Road from Paris: Ensuring effective and equitable climate action, focused on discerning the agreement’s implications for adaptation and resilience; the role energy transitions and technology innovations will play in meeting global climate goals; and the impact of the growing engagement of cities, states, businesses and investors. The Climate Parliament workshop brought members of the research community and representatives of the Bangladeshi and Indian parliaments together to discuss the Paris Agreement’s key outcomes and the implications for ongoing climate and development goals.

Understanding Climate Change’s Impact in India

Both events highlighted the unique development challenges India faces, in light of the country’s huge population, geography, and its need to grow the economy while reducing its carbon intensity and while adapting to climate change impacts. India is both a major emitter of carbon — the fourth-largest in the world — and a nation especially vulnerable to climate change. Its economy is closely linked with natural resources including arable land, water and forests. More than 60 percent of India’s agriculture is rain-fed, and a rise in global temperatures could make monsoon seasons unpredictable. One study estimates a 2°C to 3.5°C jump in global temperatures could cost India’s farmers 9 to 25 percent of their incomes, lowering the country’s overall GDP by 1.8 to 3.4 percent. Rising sea levels would also threaten the people living along the country’s 8,000 kilometers of coastline.

India needs greater access to adaptation funding and research to handle these threats. The Climate Policy Initiative estimates that meeting the national climate plans put forward at the Paris Climate Conference will require $13.5 trillion of investment in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies, a large jump from the $1.1 trillion spent between 2011-2014. Speakers at both conferences noted a mismatch between “toad’s eye” research, focused on local adaptation, and the big-picture, or “eagle eye” view, offered by most scientific studies. Regional adaptation networks and South-South partnerships would benefit local communities, providing information that addresses local problems. These collaborations could also shed light on the economic benefits that enhanced adaptation brings. One panelist at the Research Observer Foundation roundtable, for instance, mentioned a study finding that installing cable cars was a quicker and cheaper, in addition to more energy efficient, alternative to constructing rounds across Nepal’s mountainous landscape.

Turning Big-Picture Goals into Reality

Like other rapidly growing nations, India must find a way to carve out a development path in a carbon-constrained world. The country’s national climate action plan, also know as its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), focuses heavily on renewable energy as a strategy for simultaneously expanding energy access and limiting emissions. The country’s ambitious solar power goal has raised eyebrows and capital. India aims to add 100 gigawatts of solar capacity to the country by 2022, a more than doubling of the global solar capacity in 2014. This achievement would be vital for the country to achieve its goals of sourcing 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 and lowering its GDP emissions intensity 33 to 35 percent (compared to 2005 levels) by the same year.

At the Climate Parliament gathering, parliamentarians quized Dr. Ajay Mathur, the new Director General of The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), about the ways these headline-making goals would take shape on the ground. He noted the need to lower the cost of renewable energy, unlock new techniques for storing renewable energy, and leverage energy efficiency projects to help ensure more reliable energy service. Both Dr. Mathar and the parliamentarians shared success stories of locally-focused solutions, trading notes on light bulb replacement schemes in India and progress towards establishing a fund for renewable energy through the Bangladesh Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA). The group also noted the need for more – and more readily accessible – examples of successful solutions.

Much of India’s climate future will be determined in its rapidly-expanding cities. As urban areas grow, decisions around transportation systems, heating and cooling systems, energy systems, and the construction of new buildings will nudge the world towards a most sustainable path or these choices risk “locking in” infrastructure that will produce high-emissions for years to come.

Climate action from cities and regions is on the rise. As of February 2016, the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), a repository for city, state, company and investor climate commitments, recorded pledges from 14 Indian cities and regions, representing approximately 28 million people. Their pledges focused on renewable energy, energy access and efficiency, and resilience. NAZCA’s snapshot captures only a fraction of the global activity currently underway, as cities often lack the capacity to record and report their climate activities to climate action networks. Development activities that lower emissions and foster resilience to climate change are also often overlooked. Strengthening avenues for funding and monitoring and implementing city-level strategies would help more municipalities implement and pilot innovative climate initiatives.

Achieving the Paris agreement’s goals, whether for adaptation, renewable energy, or city-level action, depends on the ability of countries, communities, and sectors to implementat big-picture plans. The Research Observer Foundation and Climate Parliament events are signs of early engagement with this process, even as they lay bare the challenges ahead for the next phase of global climate action.

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