Engaging India on Climate

A new development in northern India sheds some light on how to engage developing countries on climate policy.

Via the Times of India, along comes the news that the state of Himachal Pradesh, just south of Kashmir, says that it will present a plan to become a carbon-neutral state. I’ll believe it when I see it, although the state seems to have a reasonable business strategy: reforest thousands of acres and sell carbon offset credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (which gives carbon emitters the opportunity to purchase offset credits in developing countries.).

Even with implementation issues, and the well-documented corruption problems with CDM, it is good news that someone in India is moving ahead forcefully on climate. It also points to a significant problem with the standard scholarly outlook on international climate issues, which holds that 1) climate is best addressed in one fell swoop through a binding international agreement to avoid carbon leakage; and 2) this agreement should be based on binding emissions caps through a cap-and-trade system.

First, along with Gujarat’s recent issuance of a solar power policy, it is clear that in India at least, the action is occurring in the states, not at the federal level. While this might seem odd, because climate policy often entails concentrated costs and diffuse benefits, it makes sense politically in India, because of a changing political culture, where regionally-based parties are gaining strength. These parties will resist fiats from Delhi, but will have fewer problems with initiatives from the bottom up.

Second, it casts doubt on the possibility of persuading developing countries such as India and China to go immediately with binding caps. Instead, the task should be to find co-benefits of climate-friendly policies to attract developing country partners. In HP, this involves using the CDM, but the general notion is to try to use development assistance to reduce emissions. Similarly, a carbon tax might be a fiscally attractive option for Indian states, most of which are in the midst of a public finance crisis. Technical assistance to jumpstart energy efficiency is another key point.

Climate change scholars, particularly the economists, love to talk about international climate change architecture. That might work well for economists, but for the rest of us it will resemble more like a Rube Goldberg contraption. I hope that that’s good enough. It might have to be.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.