South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Can South Asia Get Serious About Climate Change?

India made big pledges at COP26, but regional cooperation remains a major challenge.

Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Kugelman-Michael-foreign-policy-columnist13
Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during on day three of the U.N. Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during on day three of the U.N. Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during on day three of the U.N. Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 2. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: South Asia will struggle to reduce carbon emissions despite COP26 pledges, Pakistan moves to mainstream a militant organization, and Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis could soon be the world’s worst.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: South Asia will struggle to reduce carbon emissions despite COP26 pledges, Pakistan moves to mainstream a militant organization, and Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis could soon be the world’s worst.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


South Asia and COP26

The ambitious pledges announced at COP26, the U.N. climate summit held in Glasgow, Scotland, this week, at first glance don’t appear to directly affect South Asia. While other leaders vowed to end deforestation and reduce global methane emissions by the end of the decade, India—the world’s third-worst carbon emitter—didn’t sign on to either plan.

However, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered his own pledges, likely to signify to a global audience that his government is serious about curbing the effects of climate change and that it wants to be a leader in such international efforts. Modi announced that by 2030 India will reduce its total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tons and meet half of its energy requirements with renewable fuels. He also pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.

These are ambitious promises. Rapid population growth and an expanding economy have turned India into the world’s third-largest energy consumer that relies heavily on fossil fuels, making it also one of the world’s most polluted countries.

South Asia is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change. Almost 700 million people in the region have been affected by at least one climate-related disaster in the last decade, and climate impacts could rob South Asia of up to 13 percent of GDP by 2050. But policies and geopolitics make emissions reductions an overwhelming challenge for countries across the region. Energy mixes aren’t clean, mitigation policies have floundered, and regional tensions get in the way of collective responses.

Dirty fuels drive the region’s energy usage. India in particular is dependent on coal: It makes up about 70 percent of its total energy mix. In a recent interview, India’s environment secretary was blunt: “Every country has its strengths. We have coal—we have to depend on it.” Pakistan and Bangladesh also depend heavily on fossil fuels. Speaking in Glasgow, a top Pakistani climate official declined to make a net-zero commitment.

Climate mitigation is a work in progress, and implementation has lagged because of weak infrastructure, enforcement challenges, corruption, and insufficient funding. Bhutan is carbon-negative, and Nepal has one of the world’s lowest per capita emissions rates, but these positive outliers are too small to undercut South Asia’s deep carbon footprint.

Moreover, some countries have seemingly contradictory intentions. Despite a previous net-zero emissions pledge, Nepal lists diesel as its most imported commodity. And Pakistan pledged to reduce its emissions by 50 percent by 2030, but it also plans to increase its reliance on domestic coal.

Then there’s the challenge of regional cooperation. Climate issues are cross-border challenges, but there is little collaboration across South Asia on any issue. Geopolitics is the core constraint. India-Pakistan tensions have paralyzed the main regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and led New Delhi to push for cooperation within smaller regional organizations that exclude Pakistan—and sometimes others—from membership.

India also has tensions with other, smaller states that are uneasy about its economic and military strength, and China’s growing regional influence in South Asia has pushed some countries closer to Beijing, New Delhi’s main strategic rival. Unsurprisingly, there is no current regional climate change action plan. By contrast, Southeast Asian and African countries announced collective mitigation measures at COP26.

South Asian governments are serious about scaling up renewable energy, and weather in the region advantages solar and wind power. Official estimates project India will have 40 percent renewables in its energy mix by 2030. China’s recent decision to stop funding coal projects overseas gives South Asia, home to many Chinese coal investments, additional incentives to emphasize cleaner fuels.

But the region needs help. Financing for developing countries is an evergreen issue during climate negotiations. The United States is funding mitigation efforts in South Asia, including $300 million in assistance for solar power plants in India. Funding vocational training programs that give people the skills to work in less polluting sectors would be another useful intervention. Technology is also important: Key donors—the United States, Germany, and Japan—could strengthen South Asia’s renewables sectors by providing batteries for solar energy storage.

At Glasgow, the world is seeking to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet last year India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences projected that average temperatures in India will rise by nearly 4 percent by the end of the century. Overcoming this challenge will require South Asia to admit that it faces a serious shared threat—one too dangerous to let diplomatic tensions get in the way.


The Week Ahead

Nov. 4: India celebrates the festival of Diwali.

Nov. 9: The Wilson Center hosts a webinar with Afghan voices weighing in on their country’s future. The panelists include Obaidullah Baheer, Qadir Habib, Masuda Sultan, and Zala Zazai.

Nov. 10-11: India hosts a meeting on Afghanistan with national security advisors from around the region.


What We’re Following

Mainstreaming militancy in Pakistan. Islamabad reached an agreement over the weekend with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hard-line religious political party that routinely stages violent protests in major cities. In the past, TLP has ordered judges to be executed and called for soldiers to mutiny, and TLP members have killed police officers. TLP also calls for people accused of blasphemy against Islam to be executed. TLP’s maximalist position on blasphemy has garnered considerable public support, including within Pakistan’s conservative urban middle class.

The new accord obliges TLP to renounce violence, in return for the government removing a previous ban on the group, releasing more than 2,000 of its members from jail, and allowing it to contest elections again. Although the Pakistani government has signed accords with TLP before, they previously focused on giving in to the group’s demands of the moment. The latest one goes further by essentially mainstreaming a previously forbidden violent actor.

Pakistani religious political parties rarely perform well at the polls, but TLP has done relatively well in the past, gaining more than 2 million votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections, or 4 percent of the vote.

Afghanistan descends. U.N. officials warned last weekend that Afghanistan could soon become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis—a sobering characterization, given the scale of suffering in Yemen and in Syria. Aid workers have warned of impending famine for weeks, with nearly 23 million people—more than half the population—at risk of starvation. The health care system is collapsing, and inflows of funds to Afghanistan have decreased dramatically since the Taliban takeover. Global appeals for humanitarian assistance are falling short of targets.

This week, CNN reported from rural Afghanistan that families are selling their daughters, some as young as 4 years old, into marriage to avert starvation. Given the scale of Afghanistan’s needs, the incapacity of the Taliban to meet them, and insufficient assistance from abroad, such acts of desperation are likely to continue.

Cricket update. The T20 World Cup cricket tournament, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, continues this week. Pakistan has dominated so far, following up earlier victories over India and New Zealand with triumphs over Afghanistan and Namibia. It’s the first team to earn a spot in the tournament semifinals. Despite losing to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s team has performed well, with victories over Namibia and Scotland before falling to India on Wednesday.

India has struggled, with two losses before its defeat of Afghanistan. But some of the reactions back home have been far uglier than the team’s play on the pitch. After India’s loss to Pakistan, police in Uttar Pradesh state arrested three Kashmiri students who had rooted for Pakistan. Mohammed Shami, India’s only Muslim player, experienced relentless abuse online. After defending Shami, Indian team captain Virat Kohli was attacked online.


Under the Radar

Nepal’s energy ministry announced this week that India will allow Nepal to sell electricity in its power exchange market. This follows a decision in April that enabled India to sell surplus electricity to Nepal from the same market. Since it became an energy-surplus country in August after launching a large hydropower project, Nepal has lobbied to sell its electricity to the Indian market. It can now participate in daily auctions to sell off the surplus.

In recent years, India has taken steps to facilitate better electricity trade with its neighbors, and the latest move will boost India-Nepal relations, which have been negatively affected by a border dispute and China’s growing influence in Nepal. Kathmandu’s new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, is widely seen as more pro-India than his predecessor, K.P. Sharma Oli. The electricity accord also makes a contribution to South Asia’s limited cross-border connectivity.


Quote of the Week

“When they left Afghanistan, the Americans dropped us like a glass, and now they are making things worse.”

—Mohammad Alim Shahab, an Afghan aid worker, explaining how the United States is responsible for his country’s humanitarian crisis.


Regional Voices

In Dhaka Tribune, writer Faruq Hasan laments the struggles of Bangladesh’s cricket team, which he argues can’t keep up with its competition. “Although our growth trajectory is on the move, the gap between us and the rest of the world is unfortunately increasing. … The real lesson is as with almost everything else in Bangladesh—we are slow learners,” he writes.

An editorial in the Pioneer describes India’s policy options for dealing with the Taliban as it prepares to host a meeting on Afghanistan later this month with national security advisors from around the region: “Humanitarian aid is both a humane gesture and a tool to keep the Taliban engaged. Till when? That is the question.”

Academic Salma Shaheen writes about the need to focus on emissions curbs within the Pakistani military for South Asian Voices. Pakistan is an interesting case study because it is “both highly vulnerable to climate change and possesses a military budget making up around twenty percent of the country’s overall expenditures,” she writes.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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