Climate change mitigation in India


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THE only serious and viable approach for engaging developing countries in global efforts to tame global warming is one that aligns with their own core interests. Those interests are complex, but in general these countries put a high priority on economic development and energy security. Exploiting synergies between climate change benefits and the core interests of developing countries is necessary for effective climate change action.

In the Kyoto Protocol (KP) – the existing international climate change regime which is set to take a new shape after 2012 – developed countries can emit more than their GHG emissions caps if they can offset those extra emissions by achieving emissions reductions in developing countries. This offset mechanism, called the CDM, is the only mechanism in the KP involving developing countries. Admissible emissions reductions in the developing countries are granted Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) by the CDM Executive Board, a United Nations body. If developed countries emit more than their caps, they are allowed to meet their obligations through the purchase of CERs in international carbon markets.

The CDM uses market mechanisms (the ‘carbon markets’) to direct funding from developed countries to those projects in developing countries that lead to reductions in emissions of warming gases. The central purpose of the CDM is twofold. First, the CDM enables the use of low cost emissions reductions opportunities in developing countries to reduce the cost of legally binding climate change mitigation efforts in developed countries. Second, by incentivizing climate friendly projects in developing countries, the CDM also acts as an instrument for engaging developing countries in global efforts to tame climate change.


The CDM intends to grant CERs only for those projects that represent emissions reductions that would not have happened in the absence of the sale value of the CERs. Such reductions are called additional reductions. In contrast, reductions inherent in the normal developmental course of countries’ emissions (baseline emissions) are anyway reductions. By definition, such reductions are not additional. This is because developed countries emit more GHGs domestically by an amount equal to the volume of CERs traded in the CDM. So if the projects that generate the CERs in developing countries do not represent additional reductions, then the end effect will be more emissions than allowed by the caps. Thus, ensuring the additionality requirement is fundamental to the use of the CDM in an environmentally responsible way.

While the logic behind the CDM is great in theory, its incentive structure is fundamentally problematic. Buyers want cheap supplies of CERs. As any CER is legally valid there is little incentive for buyers to ensure that CERs come from genuinely additional projects. That is, the quality of the CERs is largely irrelevant in the existing CDM framework. For the suppliers of CERs, withholding information about project costs and baseline emissions can only increase the chances of being awarded the CERs. Thus, CDM rewards and incentivizes the ability to portray ‘anyway’ reductions as additional reductions.1 The issue of perverse incentives applies not only at the project level but also at the country level. In order to receive CDM money, countries might delay adopting policies to improve industrial efficiencies, as higher emissions baselines creates opportunities to reap larger CDM funding. Due to these perverse incentives inherent in the CDM many analysts have seriously questioned CDM’s environmental integrity.2


Scalability is the other key deficiency of the CDM. It was hoped that the CDM’s market based incentives would enable capturing the benefits of a large number of small projects with climate benefits. But huge transaction costs associated with CDM projects have dampened those hopes even at the moderate scales of the CDM market today. CDM projects have to be approved and registered with the CDM executive board before they are granted CERs.

For each project, however small, the registration process involves a series of protocols and interactions between the project developers and a number of administrative and oversight bodies.3 The money spent on those activities – the transaction cost of the CDM registration process – is significant.4 The institutional complexity of CDM makes it an unlikely candidate to deliver on that requirement as well. Overall, the CDM has led to a significant overpayment by developed countries for largely dubious emissions reductions in developing countries. It is thus increasingly clear that the CDM is not an effective instrument for engaging developing countries in climate change efforts.


The fundamental limitations of the CDM process, namely perverse incentives and huge transaction costs, will always loom large, thus restricting CDM’s utility as a viable post 2012 offset mechanism. Recognizing this, the designers of the post 2012 climate change regime should seek fundamentally different and sound alternatives to the CDM. Based on research at Stanford University’s PESD, a framework called Climate Accession Deals (CADs) has been suggested to provide the right incentives to elicit necessary information on emissions baselines by exploiting overlaps between developing countries’ core interests and environmental benefits.5

The CADs framework begins with the observation that there are several large ‘sectors’ that align well with the deeper interests of developing countries, but that also provide significant leverage on GHG emissions reductions. Bi- or multi-lateral climate deals between developed and developing countries centred on those sectors could be designed such that developing countries are offered technological and financial support in return for credible climate change action on items agreed upon in the negotiations. As the benefits will be tied to the outcomes, there will be strong incentive to follow up on the promised action.


Each CAD must begin with the initiative of a developing country government. This is necessary for two primary reasons. First, only the government can make credible long-term promises on behalf of its country. Second, only the government can mobilize the necessary information about baseline policies, country plans, and the network of domestic actors to put together a viable CAD. As the CADs will be formed around specific sectors, the developing country proposing the CAD must engage the domestic private sector and government ministries operating in that sector. This will be a departure from the CDM, in which the climate change discussions within developing countries are dominated by environmental and foreign affairs ministries.

The sectors covered under CADs could be one large project (an international gas pipeline), a collection of projects (all coal power plants in a country), all emissions with a large geographical area (a city), and so on. This way a large part of the energy system in the developing world can be carved out under sectors that are amenable to CADs. In CADs, developing country governments will make proposals around those sectors. CAD proposals will include what the host developing country can and will do on their own (national policies, institutional support) and where they need support from developed countries (technology, know-how, capacity building). CERs may be granted to the host developing country if the performance of the sector exceeds the negotiated baseline. The volume of CERs granted will equal the degree of over-performance.

In the CADs framework, the incentives for developing countries to reveal information will be twofold. First, countries that become part of the CADs framework will get general benefits in the form of access to carbon markets in developed countries, long-term broad-based technology and R&D support, among others. This is similar to the membership benefits of trade accession arrangements in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Second, each CAD will entail specific benefits for the particular sector covered by the deal. The specific benefits may include technology transfer and support, capacity building, and funding where necessary.


The success of CADs in addressing the additionality problem of the CDM certainly depends on the ability to negotiate an appropriate baseline that is as close to the actual baseline as possible. If the negotiated baseline is lax, then CADs will be no better than the CDM as regards additionality of the emissions reductions. But those concerns are much weaker in the CADs framework by design: strong alignment of host country interests and the general and specific benefits offered by CADs will incentivize the developing countries to more readily reveal critical information about their energy systems and planning, thus allowing for a transparent determination of internationally accepted baseline emissions.

Every CAD deal must be approved by an international body which could be modelled on the lines of WTO, IEA, OECD, and the IMF. Additional upfront international scrutiny before a CAD is finalized, especially by other developed countries also in need of CERs, will keep CADs honest and minimize additionality concerns of the CADs. Finally, each CAD will cover a large ‘sector’, often with the opportunity of addressing several hundreds of million metric tons of CO2 per year (Mt CO2/yr). (For comparison, the Kyoto Protocol has caused worldwide emission reductions of, at most, a couple hundred Mt CO2/yr.)


A climate change regime based on CADs as the main mechanism for engaging developing countries, will still have space for CDM. Leaving project based CDM in place will continue to allow innovation and investments in low carbon technologies to emerge bottom-up, at the project level. By carving out large portions of developing world energy systems as CADs, the CADs framework leaves the CDM to focus on truly additional projects. That will also ease out the institutional bottlenecks in the CDM.

In the context of international negotiations, a viable engagement strategy by India must satisfy two critical conditions (the viability conditions). First, the strategy should align well with India’s core interests (economic growth and energy security) while also making a material reduction in emissions of warming gases. Second, it should also be seen as credible internationally, which requires that other countries be confident that what India offers as promises to the world can actually be implemented. Credible promises must be tailored to the administrative, regulatory, and technological resources that the Indian government has at its disposal and, in some circumstances, the resources it can also mobilize from foreign partners.


This framework is depicted in Fig. 1. All domestic and international strategies involving India must be consistent with its core interests (shown on the horizontal axis in Figure 1) as boundary constraints on what India is willing to offer as part of its contribution to climate change. The vertical axis in Figure 1 shows the potential for CO2 reductions. At the bottom of the chart (boxes III and IV) are options with small or negative CO2 reductions (i.e., large emissions) – these options offer no leverage in international climate change negotiations. At the bottom left of the chart (box III) are options that do not interest India. The options at the bottom right (box IV), where India’s interests are high, may be irrelevant or potentially harmful for climate change (for example, coal-to-liquids projects pursued under the umbrella of energy security). At the left side of the chart (boxes I and III) are options that fail the condition that they be seen in India’s interest. The interesting box is on the upper right (box II) – also known in global warming policy parlance as ‘co-benefits’.

Figure 1: Framework for evaluating the viability of India’s energy options as a credible response to climate change. The potentially viable options are in the upper right corner (box II). The structure of box II is further unpacked in Figure 2.


Thus, India’s search for a strategy must begin with box II. But not all options in box II are equal. Some options exist in theory but will be difficult to implement; those options will be viewed as much less credible (and thus less effective as part of India’s strategy to engage with the world). As other countries look at India’s choices, there is much discussion about effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of climate change policies,6 but real progress in forging successful alliances for concrete action is often crippled by doubt about what parts of the strategy can be successfully implemented in the Indian context.7 Irrespective of what India promises, only those promises will be valuable bargaining chips where the central government (the negotiator) is seen by outsiders to have real influence.

Figure 2 unpacks box II and explores two major dimensions to the credibility of the options that India can choose. On the vertical axis is the government of India’s (GoI) ability to administer policy. Across many areas of policy, GoI has little influence over what really happens in the country – those areas of policy include topics for which competence is given to India’s states through its federal system as well as areas where the central government does not have the administrative capacity to have much impact on outcomes. The options at the bottom of Figure 2, though they become viable options over time as the leverage of GoI’s policy increases, are irrelevant now.

Figure 2: Exploring box II of Figure 1 in more depth: Leverage inside and outside India.


The viable options for India’s engagement then are those where the ability of GoI to make promises that it can actually deliver is high. Those are shown in boxes IIa and IIb. Of those options, one more level of unpacking is needed. For some issues the government, state firms and the private sector have all the capability needed. For example, with technology already available to Indian firms it would be possible and cost-effective to make fuller use of natural gas or to shift to more efficient technology for new coal plants. These options are shown on the upper right side (box IIb). For other options, outsiders may need to help by providing technology or finance to make viable options that are not otherwise available (box IIa).

This framework, then, transforms the debate about what India can and should do to mitigate emissions. India, working alone, can make credible offers to the international community in box IIb. And the international community, working with India, can make options in box IIa viable.


Contrary to the view maintained that costs of mitigation will be very high for India (thus violating India’s growth plans) several options are available in India for large-scale CO2 emissions reductions that satisfy the viability conditions discussed above, and thus are ideal for CADs. Among other CADs opportunities in India, power sector reforms and efficiency of coal fired power plants are ripe candidates for CADs. Although India has initiated programmes to improve the electricity situation, progress has been slow and limited to very few areas.

For example, in Delhi, the use of advanced technology in power delivery and metering, as well as commercial incentives to power distributors has brought down the losses in the low voltage electricity distribution from nearly 50 to 20 per cent of the net supply in just five years.8 Power-sector reforms similar to Delhi, if replicated across India, could lower India’s CO2 emissions between 200 and 250 Mt CO2/yr by 2017. This is equivalent to nearly 50 per cent of India’s total power-sector emissions in 2007 (520 Mt of CO2)9 and about six per cent of Europe’s total emissions in 2006.10

As part of a CAD involving India’s power-sector reforms, outsiders could help by co-funding efficiency improvement programmes on a large scale across the country. India could also be engaged early on in international efforts on advanced local grid management systems that could enable further technical efficiency gains in India, under its ‘electricity for all by 2012’ programme.


India’s coal based power generation fleet is also a very conducive candidate for CADs. As in the past, cheap and abundant coal remains India’s fuel of choice for expanding its energy supply to fuel continued economic growth. But commercial inefficiencies (price distortions) and infrastructure bottlenecks (poor technology, freight problems, environmental clearance) in coal production have accentuated the cracks in India’s coal supply chain.11 Consequently, India’s coal imports have risen significantly in the last few years, and India will likely import large quantities of coal in the next decade.12

India recognizes its precarious coal situation, and there is a strong interest in India for using coal more efficiently. Search for those improvements must start in India’s coal-based power generation, which accounts for over two-thirds of India’s coal consumption. While the best coal plants in the world now approach 50 per cent efficiency, India’s first supercritical coal unit with an efficiency of about 40 per cent will start operation only later this year. Although supercritical coal plants have been in use in the developed world since the 1960s, India is just starting its coal efficiency efforts, and is years away from developing the technology cost effectively at home.


In the CADs framework, India could propose an India coal efficiency programme to deploy coal fired power plants with advanced supercritical units. The specific goal of the programme could be to lift India’s average coal combustion efficiency from 30 per cent to 40 per cent over two decades. The specifics of the technology and financial support package will be part of the CAD negotiations. The benefits of such a programme for coal demand and installed power generation capacity – issues close to India’s core interests – are staggering: compared with the business-as-usual scenario, in the proposed programme coal demand will be lower by about 250 Mt/yr and the required installed capacity will be lower by about 90 GW by 2030. (For comparison, India currently consumes about 500 Mt of coal per year, 10 per cent of which is imported; and India’s total installed power-generation capacity is about 170 GW.)

Looking to 2030, such a programme could reduce India’s emissions by about 400 Mt CO2/yr below the business-as-usual emissions. CAD negotiations must decide what part of those emissions reductions form part of the appropriate baseline of India and what part can be credited as CERs. Further, the programme could also emphasize the early deployment of ultra-supercritical plants – the most efficient commercially available coal plants – to create learning and expertise with this technology, which will build the platform for further emissions reductions in future. Achieving these higher efficiencies, especially for new plants, then, offer a tremendous win-win opportunity for India’s developmental goals and for helping the creation of a transparent global climate change regime. Successful design of such policies that align India’s core interests with climate concerns will help boost India’s credibility and make still deeper cooperation possible in the future.


* The article is based on a paper presented at the ORF-RLS Conference on Sustainable Development and Climate Change held in New Delhi on 24-25 September 2009. The paper itself draws upon (i) V. Rai and D.G. Victor, ‘Climate Change and the Energy Challenge: A Pragmatic Approach for India’, Economic and Political Weekly 44(31), pp. 78-85, August 2009 and (ii) V. Rai, ‘Future of the Clean Development Mechanism Post-2012’, accepted for publication in Harvard International Review (Fall issue, October-December 2009). Both these papers have resulted from collaborative research with David Victor at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. David is a co-author on the first paper. The second paper draws extensively from my personal communications with him and one of his pioneering papers: D.G. Victor, Global Warming Policy after Kyoto: Rethinking Engagement with Developing Countries, PESD Working Paper #82, Stanford University, January 2009.


1. The perverse incentive is most glaring in the case of HFC-23, a very potent warming gas produced as a waste during the manufacturing of another gas (HCFC-22). As HFC-23 is over 10,000 times more potent than CO2 in greenhouse warming potential, projects generating HFC-23 generate large volumes of CERs by capturing and destroying the HFC-23. Indeed, the value of the CERs from those projects dwarfs the value of core business of producing industrial gases, and hence there is a great incentive for overproducing HFC-23. Not surprisingly, so far CERs from HFC-23 destruction projects account for nearly a third of total granted CERs. In another case, nearly all of China’s new gas fired power plants are applying for CERs, even though China’s local pollution problems and issues with burdened coal supply chain provide great incentives to build those gas plants anyway.

2. (i) M. Wara and D.G. Victor, A Realistic Policy on International Carbon Offsets, PESD Working Paper #74, Stanford University, April 2008 (ii) R. Baron, B. Buchner and J. Ellis, Sectoral Approaches and the Carbon Market, OECD-IEA, June 2009.

3. E. Paulsson, ‘A Review of the CDM Literature: From Fine-Tuning to Critical Scrutiny?’, International Environmental Agreements, 9, 2009, pp. 63-80.

4. J. Ellis and S. Kamel, Overcoming Barriers to Clean Development Mechanism Projects, Environment Directorate, IEA, May 2007.

5. D.G. Victor, Global Warming Policy after Kyoto: Rethinking Engagement with Developing Countries, PESD Working Paper #82, Stanford University, January 2009.

6. (i) Climate Change Mitigation and Sustainable Development, Background Paper, TERI, New Delhi, India, (ii) W.N. Adger, et al., ‘Successful Adaptation to Climate Change Across Scales’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 15, 2005.

7. D.G. Victor, op cit., fn 5.

8. Source: Central Electricity Authority (CEA), India and Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC),

9. CO2 Baseline Database, v4. Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Government of India, September 2008.

10. World Energy Outlook 2008, IEA.

11. J.C. Carl, V. Rai and D.G. Victor, Energy and India’s Foreign Policy, PESD Working Paper #75, Stanford University, May 2008.

12. Integrated Energy Policy, Report of the Expert Committee, April 2006, Planning Commission, Government of India.