China and India in the Himalayan climate crisis


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THE Himalaya was, for centuries, an impenetrable barrier between India and China. It circumscribed trade between growing civilizations, and forestalled potential conflict. Epistemic communities and technological trajectories were isolated by rock and ice. It is a geographic barrier that has shaped human history.

Today we live in an age where that dynamic has reversed, with human progress transforming these mountains. Glaciers are receding, and the rivers that run from them are under threat because of human carbon emissions and resultant global warming. This will inevitably transform politics in this region because the Himalayan region sustains ecosystem services that directly support the livelihoods of 240 million people, and feeds ten river basins that support 1.9 billion people directly or indirectly across Asia.1 The two most powerful custodians of this realm must now find a way to forestall calamity.

The task is immense, and complicated. It forces the two countries to move beyond the narrow calculations of traditional security and trade. It forces them to think about, and evolve, a political relationship responsive to climate change. This is challenging because it envisions a politics based on threats that will manifest in full severity only a few generations from now, and one that involves mature responses at global and regional scales simultaneously. It involves the politics of the past being replaced by a new compact of pragmatism. But therein lies the fundamental value of a crisis. If seen correctly, it can, through the brute force of logic, alter the fundamental assumptions of a long-entrenched politics.


The quest to understand the effects of climate change on the Himalaya has been controversial. Among all the subcontinental climate effects discussed in the last two decades, the fate of Himalayan glaciers has been the focal point of some of the biggest controversies in climate science, and one of the greatest sources of alarm. The question exploded into public consciousness in 2007 with ‘glacier-gate’. The IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report published an unsubstantiated claim that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035, sending shockwaves through the regional scientific community, international media and governments in the region. The response from India was nearly immediate, with the Indian environment ministry publishing its own study, using a very different methodology, saying it was ‘premature to make a statement that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating abnormally because of the global warming.’2 The event was important because it became apparent that we know few concrete facts about the future of these mountains, and the that of the hundreds of millions living downstream.


We now know a fair deal more. A recent highly cited synthesis of existing science on the broader Hindukush Himalayan (HKH) region notes that ‘even if warming can be limited to the ambitious target of +1.5°C, volume losses of more than one-third are projected for extended HKH glaciers, with more than half of glacier ice lost in the eastern Himalaya’ by 2080-2100.3 Based on mitigation policies currently in place around the world, we will likely see a temperature increase of 2.8-3.2 degrees by 2100, far higher than the optimistic scenario used in this projection.4 It also notes that ‘the most negative scenarios in the Eastern Himalaya (that surround the subcontinent) point towards a near total loss of glaciers (-63% to -94.7%).’5


The Himalayas are the source of rivers that fan across Asia and cut through the most densely populated region in the world.7

The science has begun to establish, at the very least, that we are at a consequential moment. Decisive action on controlling global emissions could reduce the severity of glacial recession. At its extreme, it will lead to the death of these rivers and the collapse of societies that depend on glacial river flows. Effects will be proportionately greater on populations living closer to the Himalaya, leaving the Indian plains particularly vulnerable but having impacts far afield.6


The threat is undeniably large enough for India (with several major population centres close to the Himalaya) and China to reaffirm to the world and domestic constituencies that they are serious about tackling climate change. Traditionally, they have been at the vanguard of groups in global climate negotiations that call for industrialized nations to bear the costs of reducing emissions. If urgent action is needed today, the argument goes, the costs of reducing emissions from energy, industry, transport and many other politically sensitive sectors of human activity must be borne by those that benefitted from emitting without constraints in previous decades. It holds that the developing world has been historically hamstrung in development by the inequities of a colonial past and today needs room for unimpeded growth.

While this argument may indeed be fair, the clear and present dangers posed by a shifting scientific reality show that India and China have much to lose in politically important and strategically sensitive parts of their territories. The context of the relationship between India and China is, therefore, not the same as it was at the turn of this century. A significant new variable has been introduced.


This then poses serious questions about the strategic vision for bilateral relations between India and China over the course of this century. Traditional methods of approaching the relationship, the lenses of zero-sum security games and co-dependent economic growth, will likely need to be amended with a third – the lens of ecological stability. In practice, this means creating a base of bilateral actions, elaborated in the next section, that help understand and fix the vexing problem.

This piece is written at a somewhat low ebb in the relationship. Border tensions are high. The strategic approach is characterized by a series of wider actions of containment and assertion by both sides. These seem to be enduring features in the bilateral relationship that, it must be stressed, do not and must not preclude cooperation on the environmental front. The climate crisis forces the expansion of the idea of security beyond the traditional confines of the economy and military to encompass the environmental.

Rather than being far-fetched, this progression can cogently be argued as inevitable given the geographic realities of these states. This is not a new idea. Over the past three decades, an emerging body of work in international relations has argued that states can be deeply dependent on each other for environmental security, elevating those issues above day-to-day politics.8 Raising the stakes could lead to new avenues of cooperation, or insecurity and conflict where those efforts fail. Scientific assessments of Himalayan degradation make clear that an attempt at cooperation is necessary.


The adversarial relationship between these states calls for a balancing act, a duality in relations. While military rivalry, border disputes and economic competition play out in one realm, questions of long-term survival must operate in a sanctuary of enlightened thought. Improbable as this may seem, dualities in bilateral relationships are an enduring feature of international politics. Indeed, in this very part of the world, we can point to an environmental duality in relations: the Indus treaty that bifurcates that great river has withstood periods of intense hostility, and outright conflict, between India and Pakistan over the decades.

Shared vulnerabilities can be powerful unifying forces and, in the case of the Himalaya, has already pushed India and China to work together in small ways. Towards the end of the last decade, India and China had apparently opened dialogue about a collaborative research programme on Himalayan glaciers.9 In 2012, India and China agreed to a mountain landscape conservation programme around Mt. Kailash, which is located in a sensitive border region. A third of the programme’s coverage area was in India, a third in China and the remainder in Nepal. The programme was coordinated by ICIMOD, a regional mountain institute constituted by eight Himalayan nations, and had the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Chinese Academy of Sciences among its implementation partners.10


In all, around a tenth of India’s agreements with China, 14 out of 149, are about the environment and climate change.11 Of the 14, a full eight are periodic renewals of data sharing arrangements on the Brahmaputra. The other six, however, constitute an encouraging array of instruments on strengthening cooperation on trans-boundary rivers (2013); environmental cooperation including climate change (1993); ocean sciences, climate change, polar sciences and the cryosphere (2015); meteorological sciences (1997); renewable energy (2010); and green technologies (2003). Though these may be non-binding memoranda of agreement, a pattern over three decades indicates the presence of bilateral conversation on issues that could play a central role in the next century of this relationship.

How do these two giants go about making such a relationship reality? The next section details four potential actions. The first is to understand the Himalayan problem better by coordinating climate research. Three are about solving the problem: green electricity systems, focusing global developmental finance flows, and coordinating climate negotiation objectives.


There is an immediate need for more research on the state of the Himalaya. Scientists and governance experts working on the Himalaya have had to battle uncertain funding and short programmes in getting their results out. Startlingly, there are only three long-term monitoring stations (> 30 years) of glacier volume across the high mountains of Asia, and none in the HKH region. Across the HKH, there are only 30 glaciers that have had measurements taken for one year or more, covering a paltry 0.1% of the total glacier cover of the range.12 This ailment affects observations of the broader climate of the Himalaya – variables like precipitation and temperature – with a recent assessment of climate change in the Himalaya lamenting that ‘robust estimates of the observed variability and long-term changes in climate over the HKH are inadequate owing to sparse and discontinuous observations.’13

Regional organizations like ICIMOD, constituted by eight Himalayan countries and specifically mandated to bring together research networks on climate change in the Himalaya, receive vastly more funding from western donors and multilaterals than constituent Asian states (a 9:1 ratio towards external donors).14 India and China both have discrete national efforts at understanding Himalayan impacts, but national borders prevent unified efforts at data collection and analysis.

A former Indian environment minister, commenting on potential collaboration between India and China on glacier monitoring in 2009, noted that Chinese scientists ‘would not be allowed to climb all over India’s glaciers.’15 A more rational arrangement would be to create and invest in organizations with regional ownership that are mandated to study these mountains as a contiguous whole. A secondary arrangement would be to allow for the free flow of climate expertise between the two countries in order to build working research partnerships. This would involve decreasing suspicion, facilitating visas, and allowing research access to Himalayan sites. Though these concerns may sound pedestrian, they are a serious practical roadblock to working on trans-boundary issues in the region.


Beyond understanding the problem, the two countries will have to work together on actions to reduce global emissions. The most vexing part of solving the Himalayan problem is that carbon emissions need to be constrained globally to ease local impacts. In the first instance, India and China are large emitters that today stand at around 36% of global emissions (China emits 29% of the global total). Their shares will rise over time as populations consume more energy. At that scale, efforts to constrain domestic emissions by altering development paths will have a global impact. Beyond this, however, there are three steps that these countries could take, by leveraging their size and influence on world affairs, to ease the long-term warming problem.

The first is constructing a green regional electricity grid. The region has a naturally complementary array of electricity sources that could replace a historical reliance on thermal energy. The broad swathe from South Asia to Southeast Asia and southern China is home to abundant solar energy and hydropower. Solar’s intermittency and variability is neatly balanced by hydropower, and will soon be balanced by grid-scale battery storage as that technology becomes cheaper. Even better, a grid covering a sufficiently large area would naturally allow solar and wind to balance themselves as regions in the grid producing power export them to areas facing a dip. A large system would reduce investment costs through economies of scale.

Despite the political hurdles this would have to overcome, it should not be seen as a pipe dream. Constituent parts of this super-grid are already being built, with incremental progress on systems in South and Southeast Asia, and China is making efforts at facilitating such infrastructure through investment and a state-owned company expressly designed to make this vision reality.16 Seen in today’s political climate, this may well be unrealistic. In South Asia, efforts at increasing electricity trade across borders have been stymied in recent decades, most recently because of India’s protectionist instincts against Chinese energy investments in neighbouring South Asian countries.17


The scale of the problem that needs to be fixed, however, forces us to push toward a narrative reset. This project could take decades, and crucially require that countries in this system have transparent market-based power pricing mechanisms that allow for electricity commerce across borders. It will require a massive revamp of state dominated coal powered national grids across the region. But the possible gains are tantalizing. The trade of electricity would deepen political interdependence and require the construction of independent grid management transmission operators and regulators – the sort of institutions Asian regionalism has struggled to build.


The second action is for India and China to dovetail aid and investment efforts to help growing states in Asia, Africa and beyond achieve greener economies as they grow. Financial flows and technical assistance would be immensely useful in curtailing potential emissions from countries at the cusp of periods of high growth, particularly through early interventions in energy systems, transport and manufacturing. This is made realistic by the emergence of China and India-led international finance institutions that are reshaping the global development finance architecture. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has 97 member countries and a capitalization of USD 100 bn, while the New Development Bank (built around the BRICS grouping) is vested with around USD 50 bn in capital.

China and India are major shareholders in both banks. Coordination in aid flows will also be crucial. The international development bureaucracies of the two countries must find ways to coordinate efforts by focusing on transforming geographies and sectors crucial to our emissions future, just as western donors attempt to do today.

The third action is in the realm of climate diplomacy. Since climate negotiations began with the creation of the UNFCCC process in 1992, India and China have had a major influence on shaping the narrative of poor and developing countries. They have, for significant periods over the decades, coordinated their negotiating positions. They are well placed to use this space and capital to encourage more ambitious targets from other countries, insist on equitable financial flows to facilitate green transitions and set new markers for legitimate behaviour in the international community. Indeed, this might become one of the principal tests of international leadership for these countries in years to come. Joint signaling will help climate ambition transform from an object of western insistence in negotiations to an issue with wide purchase from large countries.


This article describes an unprecedented threat to large parts of India and China emanating from receding glaciers in the Himalaya. It posits that this threat will require these countries to redefine their security calculus by moving beyond military and economic fixations to incorporate an ecological dimension. It suggests four actions – two regional and two international – that could help them set the tone for cooperation in coming decades.

Some of these actions may seem unlikely against the backdrop of stark geopolitical competition today but this article points out that the building blocks for action have already been put in place: research networks for glacial science; regional electricity grids; international finance institutions jointly led by India and China; and joint negotiating positions that define international climate negotiations. The art of diplomacy will vest in transforming these incipient actions into transformative projects that not only define the bilateral relationship for the rest of the century, but make a dent in staving off the worst of a Himalayan disaster.



1. Eklabya Sharma et al., ‘Introduction’, in Philippus Wester et al. (eds.), The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Springer International, NY, 2019), pp. 1-16,

2. V.K. Raina, ‘Himalayan Glaciers: A State of the Art Review of Glacial Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change’. Discussion Paper. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, New Delhi, 2009, p. 7, Glaciers%20Reprint.pdf.

3. Tobias Bolch et al., ‘Status and Change of the Cryosphere in the Extended Hindu Kush Himalaya Region’, in Wester et al. (eds.), p. 231,

4. ‘Temperatures’, Climate Action Tracker, 2019,

5. Bolch et al., op. cit., p. 231.

6. Bolch et al., p. 220.

7. Sharma et al., ‘Introduction’, op. cit.

8. Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Lynne Rienner, Boulder, 1998.

9. James Lamont, ‘India and China Cooperate over Himalayan Glaciers’, Financial Times, 2 August 2009, feabdc0.

10. ‘About Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI)’, ICIMOD, accessed 12 January 2020, 9457.

11. Ministry of External Affairs, ‘Treaty List by Subject, Agreement Type and /or Country’, MEA, Government of India, accessed 12 January 2020,

12. Bolch et al., op. cit., p. 222.

13. Raghavan Krishnan et al., ‘Unravelling Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: Rapid Warming in the Mountains and Increasing Extremes’, in Wester et al. (eds.), op. cit., pp. 57-97,

14. Aditya Valiathan Pillai, ‘Institution Building in the Himalayas: The Life and Times of ICIMOD.’ (Book chapter, forthcoming 2020).

15. Lamont, op. cit.

16. Aditya Valiathan Pillai and Sagar Prasai, The Price of Power: The Political Economy of Electricity Trade and Hydropower in Eastern South Asia. The Asia Foundation, New Delhi, 2018,

17. Ibid.