India, Africa and climate diplomacy

Written by S Shaji and Arvind Susarla

Over the past few weeks, there has been a fresh impetus among countries to respond collectively and/or collaboratively to address climate change. For example, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, the US “joined” the agreement on climate change signed five years ago in Paris. Another instance comes from the EU countries, which in December 2020 agreed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent of their levels prevailing in 1990 to achieve carbon neutrality. Globally, in other words, there are hints at jump-starting collaborative responses, given that scientists warn that evidence on climate change is stronger than ever. Countries are increasingly facing risks of climate change. For India, the frequency of extreme climatic events and the magnitude of losses have increased in the past decade According to the Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2020, which captures the level of exposure and vulnerability to extreme events, India was fifth-most affected country in 2018. Recognising the urgency of the situation, India has increased its share of energy from solar and wind. It is also evident that isolated efforts by countries to mitigate the effects of climate change have met with limited success. There is a need for a robust collaborative initiative, and it is believed that climate change is emerging as a significant arena of multilateralism.

There is a growing opportunity to realize the full potential of multilateral ties. Given the magnitude of problems arising from climate change, going forward, one of the core areas of India’s foreign policy should be climate diplomacy. India co-founded with France a treaty-based intergovernmental organisation — International Solar Alliance (ISA) — which is a step in this direction. According to media reports, thus far around 90 countries have signed the framework agreement, and 70 of them have ratified ISA. India’s foreign policy, especially climate diplomacy, could rely on ISA to consolidate multilateral arrangements. We illustrate this point further by taking the example of India’s relations with countries in Africa.

Given the geo-economic and geopolitical significance of the African region, of late, climate diplomacy has been reasonably visible in India’s relations with Africa. A majority of the African states, around 34 countries, are already part of ISA, and this is in tune with India’s engagement with Africa at multiple levels — continental (with African union), regional (with organisations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association) and bilateral (states like Congo, Rwanda, and Mali, to name a few). ISA is attracting significant attention in African countries, which are endowed with abundant solar energy (also called “sunshine countries”). There is an opportunity to bring power supply to approximately 600 million people by tapping solar energy.

In this context, India’s technical expertise and diplomatic initiatives may coalesce to realise a high degree of success, given that India may achieve the targets committed to under the Paris agreement. The cost per megawatt of solar energy has dropped to as low as Rs 1.80. At this price point, solar energy is competitive and is getting cheaper than energy generated by coal. The price of solar energy may drop further as this energy transition gets consolidated. Multilateral arrangements may contribute further to this success by allowing unprecedented economies of scale with respect to solar energy.

India has deepened ties with African Union (AU), regional economic groupings (where both India and Africa are involved) through multilateral routes, besides strengthening bilateral collaborations with states. At the September 2020 mid-term review meeting of India-Africa Forum Summit (IASF) III, a wide range of policies and programmes were accepted to increase involvement through ISA. Similarly, the Indian Ocean Renewable Ministerial (IORM) meeting and collaboration with the African Development Bank are instances of climate diplomacy through the multilateral route. India’s commitment to African countries is evidenced in financial terms — an initial pledge to the tune of US$ 26 million to create a corpus fund. Additionally, India earmarked through Lines of Credit (LoC) US$ 1.39 billion for implementing 27 projects in 15 countries; of which 13 countries are from Africa. Projects in Niger, Senegal, and Somalia are either nearing completion or completed.

India through ISA and other such initiatives has positioned the compass of foreign policy in the right direction. There is, however, a need to balance priorities by developing unique platforms or frameworks for the participation of India and countries in Africa to advance multilateralism. Such a framework may allow for compatibility between regionalism (aligning multiple regional economic groupings on climate issues) and multilateralism that calls for deeper institutionalisation. India may initiate pointed climate diplomacy in its relations with African regional groupings such as Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) and so on. In addition, India can collaborate with other multilateral initiatives on renewable energy in Africa such as the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), an African Union initiative; endorsed by African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC). The broad objective of the initiative is to generate 300 GW of renewable energy by 2030. Other initiatives of the African Union such as African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) can be thought of as a new platform which ISA can align with, in the future.

India can be at the forefront in identifying opportunities to significantly enhance the use of solar energy, especially throughout Africa. India’s inclination to partnerships, African developmental concerns, adds promise to climate diplomacy in Africa. The experience of engaging deeply with countries from Africa in ISA suggests that non-traditional security issues — climate change, just as disaster management and migration — are significant to India’s relations with Africa. ISA, India’s “softer and collaborative diplomacy” is a step towards building a lasting relationship through climate diplomacy.

The path of multilateralism for India is viable in the arena of climate change. A few decades ago, India, along with China, was perceived by many countries to be part of the climate change problem. This has now changed. India proactively increased the share of solar and wind in its energy portfolio. Similarly, efforts are underway to start a multilateral bank to advance the goals set forth under the ISA. India’s climate diplomacy through a multilateral route may bring huge dividends, especially by placing Africa at the core of its operations.


Shaji is assistant professor, political science and Susarla is associate professor, regional studies at University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.

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