December 15, 2023


Governing the Climate

An interview with Navroz Dubash on COP28, the history of international climate diplomacy, and the developmentalist turn in climate politics

The twenty-eighth UN climate change conference, which took place in Dubai over the course of the last two weeks, has now come to an end. Like previous conferences, this COP took the form of a series of negotiations between countries to find an effective and legitimate approach to reducing dangerous warming. The entire architecture of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was built around differentiating between the rich industrialized OECD countries of the global North and the developing countries of the global South, attempting to account for the different needs and responsibilities of various nations. Conflict over money, machines, and how soon countries should phase out coal, oil, and gas have once again been at the forefront of negotiations. Remonstrations of the conference outcome’s gross insufficiency in the face of the climate crisis have come from many quarters, especially since the full phaseout of fossil fuels has not been enshrined as a requirement.

The shared goal of negotiators at Dubai is to triple renewable energy globally by 2030. Such a commitment implies breaking through the financing barriers for developing countries, and creating political coalitions that can drive necessary national policy changes. At stake is something more fundamental: can the world historical process of “uneven and combined development” be decarbonized under the terrifying acceleration of anthropocenic crises?

Navroz Dubash is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and has been a key figure in international climate diplomacy for as long as there has been such a thing. Dubash was instrumental in setting up the Global Climate Action Network in 1990, and recently was coordinating lead author of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment on Climate Change. He is the author of India in a Warming World: Integrating Climate Change and Development (2020) and Tubewell Capitalism: Groundwater Development and Agrarian Change in Gujarat (2002). Tim Sahay spoke with Dubash about the changing narrative of climate-oriented national development, and how past mistakes might inform a more resilient future.

An interview with Navroz Dubash

TIM SAHAY: You’ve been involved in international climate diplomacy since 1990, when the Cold War was nearing its end and the unipolar world was taking root. Now that we exist in a messier, multipolar world, how is climate diplomacy changing?

Navroz Dubash: In the early years, there was a very strong cognitive lock regarding the design of the process. It was expected that we would simply follow the Montreal Protocol, which encouraged richer countries to produce substitutes for ozone-depleting chemicals, while transferring technology to poorer countries. 

That somewhat simplistic protocol was later applied to the climate process, and I think it was damaging. In the case of the climate crisis, it’s of course not about finding substitutes for one chemical. It’s about ending the historical coevolution between fossil fuels and industrial development. 

That line of thinking led to the top down approach of carbon rationing, set out in the Kyoto Protocol. When the US Senate unanimously refused to ratify Kyoto in 1998, arguing that it violated US sovereignty, it became clear that it could not work politically. That led to a period where climate negotiations were oriented around finding a way for the US to be brought back in. I think that was damaging because, as I like to say, other countries have politics, too. During that window—say from about 1998 to 2008—China was coming up in the rearview mirror. It was becoming the most important global determinant of whether we would be able to address climate change, and we weren’t thinking enough about how to structure the agreement so as to incorporate China.

With little money or technology being transferred, much of the developing world saw the agreement as dysfunctional. The industrialized countries, for their part, wanted developing countries to prioritize cutting emissions. This resulting impasse led to the agonizing failure at Copenhagen’s COP in 2009. The negotiators still produced a statement because, as a former Indian negotiator once told me, the first rule of climate negotiations is that they never fail. But between Copenhagen and Paris, the only question that was possible to ask was: how do you get everybody on board? 

What enabled the breakthrough at Paris in 2015 was a pre-deal between the US and China. The key phrase was “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities.” They added a clause that basically said, as national circumstances change, this has to shift. And that language was carried verbatim into the Paris Agreement.

TS: Since there is no planetary leviathan that can enforce decisions, the Paris Agreement was entirely bottom up and iterative. Countries submit a voluntary plan to cut emissions, they take stock every five years and ratchet up their ambitions. Much of this agreement was underpinned by a “G2” deal between the US and China. Is it the case that once the US and China stop agreeing on things, the Paris Agreement will blow up?

ND: I agree that the guardrails of the Paris Agreement were set by the US and China. But it does not follow that their weakening relationship means blowing up the deal; we do still have the Paris Agreement. It has multilateral buy-in from a lot of actors—it survived the setback of Trump pulling the US out of it. That suggests Paris has a “political ratchet” mechanism in addition to the bottom-up ratchet. How smoothly those are implemented is, of course, affected by the US-China geopolitical confrontation.

As it happens, I was in an India-US Track 2 meeting, when we got word of the pre-Paris China-US agreement. In the meeting we agreed on a bottom-up approach that would involve each country making Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). However, very soon the “High Ambition Coalition” of small island countries, which were very worried about the existential threat of climate change, intervened to alter the agreement. Thanks to their work, instead of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the Paris Agreement insisted on the need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Source: Global Carbon Project

This had the effect of bringing the deadlines forward. This is because to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, everyone’s emissions would have to peak sooner and fall more steeply. The wager behind the Paris Agreement was that countries would come up with very generous NDC pledges and, upon implementing them at home, find that cutting emissions is in fact cheaper than they had initially thought. This would in turn contribute to a new green economy that would foster political coalitions domestically—going on to stimulate competition between countries, which would prompt some to go faster than they otherwise would have. At the next COP, their pledge would become even more ambitious.

For some, this all relied on naming-and-shaming those that don’t meet their pledges. To me, the domestic implementation of NDCs—the national churn—was the more important part of the story. Once the target became 1.5 degrees, there wasn’t enough time left for that national churn. So, as soon as countries came up with their pledges, everybody was asked to up their pledges before anyone could get home to actually figure out their politics of implementation. 

As for the current COP, I think there is a reckoning because we’ve now realized that the 1.5 degree target is really out of reach. We are in an overshoot scenario, and as soon as you get to an overshoot scenario you could overshoot by a little, you could overshoot by a lot. So that forcing mechanism of having a target—in a sense, it’s no longer there. To my mind, that means refocusing attention on the national story.

Linking national development and climate action

TS: How do different priorities of North and South play out? India often speaks in terms of climate justice, arguing that it has polluted very little over the course of its history and so deserves “carbon space” for development. Meanwhile, the lead US climate negotiator Todd Stern infamously once said “if equity is in, we are out.”

ND: As you say, India has been the standard bearer, both at the governmental and the non-government level, for climate justice. Very early on, in 1991, Sunita Narain and Anil Agarwal wrote a pamphlet called “Global Warming in an Unequal World,” which had a huge impact. Even today, India continues to argue that there is a finite carbon budget that should be allocated to less developed countries. 

For my part, I think the fact that the North has historically emitted much more than the South has consequences for how we should proceed. That said, I’m not sure that allocating a global carbon budget is the best way to operate. First of all, how do you allocate who gets to emit how much? The most important thing is to ensure that countries have access to the carbon required to meet their developmental needs while pivoting to a low-carbon future. 

This is important because if a country gets locked into a high-carbon future, it will probably be an uncompetitive economy within ten or twenty years. Too much carbon now means shooting yourself in the foot with stranded costs, failure to develop new technologies, and so on. If there’s only so much fossil fuel we can burn and the rest we have to keep in the ground, then the principle should be maximizing global welfare, which means that if Nigeria needs to exploit some of its gas as a bridge measure, it should have first dibs on doing that, not Norway. 

Where the rubber really hits the road is in figuring out ways to have capital infusions going from the North to the South. Climate action is going to be highly capital intensive. One of the implications of the climate equity story is how do you manage these massive transfers.

Let me come back to a hobby horse of mine. So much of the climate conversation is dominated by Northern analysts—that’s where the research money is—so their interests end up dominating the discussion. For example, there is much more research on decarbonizing heating than on cooling, but given that the majority of buildings in tropical, developing countries are yet to be built, the future of cooling is the much bigger story. 

To take another example, there’s a lot of conversation about pathways to net zero, which makes sense if you’ve already peaked. But for those who haven’t, they need to avoid locking-in at a high peak. Emissions trajectories should look like a hill, not a mountain. We should be thinking in terms of the idea of avoided emissions. What you do from a policy point of view to avoid emissions is quite different from what you do to reduce emissions. A carbon tax or a cap and trade system, for example, isn’t going to do much to help you avoid emissions because much of that is actually from infrastructure yet to be built like power, urban construction and transport. If 80 percent of future emissions are going to come from the developing world, we need to frame our questions accordingly.

TS: Everybody’s talking about linking climate and development. You’ve written a book on the topic, but “co-benefits” like economic competitiveness or reducing air pollution are now broadly linked to national goals. Many countries are embarking upon a green project as one of national development. What do you make of these new varieties of governing climate?

ND: I definitely see the shift in countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, and China thinking about climate as part of a larger project of remaking national economies. In a sense, I think that’s productive. The old framing of a “collective-action problem” that sought to distribute the “costs” of climate action was never going to work. Arguably, many of the developed countries have not delivered on climate finance or on phasing out fossil fuels first, so the North-South tensions have come roaring back. 

I think co-benefits are a productive turn, but it’s yet to be seen how they will work. Broadly, we have two competing approaches. One is a European-led narrative that says the mitigation imperative is an existential one, and so should be first priority. We have, however, seen in the UK and Germany for example,  the extent to which climate goals by themselves are politically fragile. When something like the Ukraine war happens, or when energy prices spike, climate goals seem to take a back seat.

The other approach is the idea that developing countries like India would pursue low-carbon development projects—public transport, for example— that would make for more liveable cities. This approach to climate is convergent with development; the choice between roads or railways are development choices but also climate choices. What’s really interesting to many of us is that the US Inflation Reduction Act implicitly adopts this approach; it wasn’t just for the developing world. This approach, what I call embedded—as opposed to standalone—climate framing, is an alternative to the European carbon-centric regulatory model, which is based very heavily on counting up and pricing carbon.

TS: For decades the neoliberal project has gutted state capacity. A really interesting aspect in your work is the question of how states must be re-energized for green world-building. Bidenomics has called for a “whole-of-government” approach. A national developmental state is one thing, but one of the ways we’ve been thinking about the polycrisis is that the twenty-first century state needs to develop new eyes, ears, arms, and hands to intervene, listen, predict, and actually change the ways in which states are organized. What does that “climate-ready state” look like to you?

ND: If a state wants to push a particular development agenda, it needs to have state capacities that can see the project out. A good example of such an institution is the Climate Change Committee in the UK, which is tasked with recommending five-yearly carbon budgets. It doesn’t have executive authority, but it has a kind of normative authority to set those budgets, which ministries are meant to align with; Parliament plus a few external actors drawing on the CCC’s analysis to hold those ministries to account. It charts a course not because it’s empowered to do so, but because it’s a place where a lot of ideas get digested and then injected into the public discourse with some credibility. Of course, that kind of vision isn’t enough. You need a strategy-setting body, but that has a much more complex analytical task.

Another feature of such a state would be putting an end to what are currently siloed ministries, be they transport, or agriculture, or water usage or what have you. These departments need to work together. Take transport, for example: building transport infrastructure relies on a combination of urban planning and technology, plus, importantly, behavioral shifts. All this can’t just be dumped in the lap of a national transport ministry. In countries that are federated, it’s even more complex, and you have to also think about relationships between federal and provinces.

Given all this, how do you develop mechanisms to coordinate? One way to do it is around existing epistemic communities. In the US, these take the shape of climate “task forces.”

It is important to realize that there will be winners and losers as a result of these low-carbon transitions. Big shifts are on the horizon: phasing out the internal combustion engine, for example, means a whole new set of economic actors coming in around battery technologies and manufacturing. Land usage is bound to change, which is tied to powerful political interests. In the wake of Covid, there is also a shake-up of commercial real estate. How can these distributional conflicts be negotiated? 

Some countries do a better job of this than others. South Africa has a deliberative tradition coming out of the post-apartheid era that can be used to work through thorny questions. In South Africa, the future of their electricity-mineral complex Eskom needs careful discussion. If it is to be dissolved, how is that going to happen in ways that bring labor unions along? South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission has been a really interesting experiment.

This returns us to earlier debates about varieties of capitalism. How does the nature of the capitalist enterprise in different countries make it easier or harder to make the green transition? In each case, one needs to start with the historical institutions that already exist, whether it’s corporate structures or forms of voting, first-past-the-post systems or proportional representation.

TS: Developing countries at COP28 have pushed hard to get financing for a Global Goal on Adaptation. Adaptation to extreme climate, unlike energy transition, is not going to make anyone money. It requires a lot more grants, as everyone seems to agree. Has the political economy of adaptation gotten enough attention or is it just assumed that governments have an obligation to save citizens’ lives?

ND: It is, I think, under-baked. Adaptation is distinct from loss and damage which received a political fillip at the last COP. Adaptation is, in many ways, conceptually much more complex than mitigation, which can be measured with an emissions trajectory. You can’t measure your progress towards adaptation using a single metric. You have to build a more resilient economy and society.

The message coming  from the North is, we’re reasonably happy where we are, so we want to have systems that allow us to bounce back in the event of climate extremes. In the developing world, you already have massive loss and damage from floods, from weather events, and so on. It’s not about bouncing back, but about developing and building economic and social systems in ways that make it more resilient to both non-climate-triggered and climate-triggered shocks, understanding that one exacerbates the other. 

To bring it back to the question of state capacity: it’s imperative to anticipate areas of vulnerability upfront. You might have to rethink your entire pattern of what, in India, we call minimum support prices for agriculture. Which crops are you supporting and therefore incentivizing? India’s Council of Agricultural Research has done good work on identifying climate-resilient crops. The government typically incentivizes rice and wheat, and there’s a big push towards incentivizing millets, which are more resistant to weather events.

Similarly, water resources planning is going to be huge for South Asia going forward. There’s an existing debate about surface water versus groundwater, about so-called river interlinkage projects, whether large storage structures like dams make sense or not in the context of heavy rain runoff. All these developmental questions are inflected with a climate imperative, and part of that is the coordinating story I talked about earlier. 

There are, to use the terminology of  my colleague Sharad Lele, multiple stressors and multiple objectives. The multiple stressors—in addition to climate change, you have land use, industrial usage, urban patterns, and so on— are currently dominating, though they will soon be surpassed by the climate tipping points. The multiple objectives carry over from mitigation, things like job creation, urban livability, and so on. This, and the question of adaptation, implicitly raises important questions: What kind of development do you want? What kind of economy and society do you want to build?

The Polycrisis is a publication focusing on macro-economics, energy security & geopolitics.

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