Forging Climate Action in EU-India Relations in times of Global (Dis)order

by Swati Prabhu - 12 June, 2021, 12:00 1469 Views 0 Comment

EU-India: Strategic Partners-in-Climate Action?

Standing at the junction of peace and pandemic, countries across the globe are confronted with multiple challenges, primarily transnational in nature. One such issue is climate change. The stark rise in global temperatures is a degree of concern affecting both developed and developing economies alike. The UN’s flagship project Agenda 2030 exemplifying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is also under the scanner as the world struggles to meet the targets. Considering the political, economic and vast geopolitical clout enjoyed by the European Union (EU), it is often categorised as an ambitious climate leader[1]. India, on the other hand, as the largest democracy and fastest-growing economy in the world, is trekking a tough terrain marred by a severe rise in GHG emissions and an inadvertent climate crisis. Although they are placed at different tangents of development, both EU and India can effectively address climate change and rebalance the global order towards sustainability. As “natural” partners sharing similar values of pluralism, inclusiveness, rules-based multilateralism and freedom, the relationship has come under stress, being often described as ‘a loveless arranged marriage’, especially in climate diplomacy (Khandekar, 2011).

This paper attempts to briefly analyse the EU-India partnership on climate diplomacy and provide policy recommendations in the backdrop of a multilateral global (dis)order.

Charting the ‘Climate’ in EU-India Partnership

Considering its potential to alter the development discourse, climate change has been recognized as a threat multiplier adversely impacting global security. However, it began to feature as a major sectoral area in EU-India Summits fairly recently, particularly post-the 2000s. The EU’s engagement with India dates back to 1994 when the two decided to forge their paths together based on the common and shared principles of democracy, rule of law, human rights and facilitating peace and stability. Giving climate change a formal space in the partnership, the Joint Action Plan (JAP) launched a bilateral Work Programme on Energy, Clean Development and Climate Change. An EU-India roundtable discussion was formulated in 2008, emphasizing “cooperation in the key field of sustainable development, particularly in the context of climate destabilisation as a natural fit for the India-EU partnership.[2]’ This can be considered as taking that extra step beyond the official Summit meetings. Moreover, India is now leading the global climate agenda, pertinently as the co-founder of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) along with France[3]. Also, the EU has been overtly keen on engaging itself in international climate diplomacy and negotiations, thereby establishing partnerships with the developing economies, such as India and China who are considered ‘pivotal actors if the Union wants to fight climate change’[4].

It has also explicitly stated its commitment towards fostering sustainable development in the developing countries, under the broader umbrella of Agenda 2030. However, its position remains below its potential and has been receiving flak for lacking in policy coherence, sounding more effective on paper and less in reality (Carbone 2008; Zajączkowski 2010; Hill 1993). If at the bilateral level, the EU-India Summits are putting up a positive and pragmatic show of close-knit agreements in climate action, at the multilateral level the scene is quite grim. Experts point towards ‘a visible disconnect and lack of synergy’ between the two at the international negotiation tables. The failure of EU diplomacy at Copenhagen in 2009 is one such example. Also, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)[5], one of the by-products of the Kyoto Protocol, witnessed more subsequent associations occurring between New Delhi and the individual EU Member States rather than with Brussels. Indeed, India shows a discernible lack of faith not in Europe, but in the EU[6]. The 15th EU-India Summit held in July 2020 underscored a sustainable modernisation partnership giving precedence to ‘cooperation tools and activities in technical and financial assistance…in pursuance of respective obligations and responsibilities under major international agreements, such as Agenda 2030, UNFCCC, Paris Agreement’.

Policy Recommendations

  • Build robust societies through development cooperation partnerships: In order to fulfil the SDGs as part of its external action, the EU must give precedence to human development, thereby adopting a people-centred approach. The COVID-19 crisis has unravelled the biggest stress test for development cooperation. At the same time, it also offers an opportunity to Brussels to diversify its development measures by assisting the marginalized sections of the society. Its development agenda on climate action must go beyond its strategic Partnering with India, the Union must focus on building robust sustainable societies, especially in Africa and South Asia, to tackle climate change or possibly another pandemic in the near future.
  • Glocalizing climate action: EU and India must focus on constructively involving the sub-national agencies (civil society, NGOs, local district groups etc.) located in both Europe and India to increase the climate mitigation resilience of cities, towns and villages. Covid-19 comes at a time when misinformation and diplomatic wars are rife. Both climate change and Covid-19 know no boundaries; it is a transnational challenge however the solutions can be glocalized[7]. The recent groundswell of grassroots environmental movements from across the world (Extinction Rebellion for example) shows that EU-India partnership must fill the gap in climate action policy by more proactively involving the sub-national agencies in cities, towns, districts and villages on both sides.
  • Fostering Policy Coherence in the long-term: The Union has been repeatedly criticized for showing stark incoherencies between, say its development cooperation policy (which comes under its external action) and policy on climate change (a domestic policy). Lack of balance between the EU policies will only hamper its external action and partnerships with other countries, such as India. Even though the individual Member States have their own climate action policies, it must avoid being at loggerheads with the Commission’s targets. Enforcing greater cohesion between the Commission and its 27 Member States is imperative for a healthy EU-India partnership.
  • Outreach & awareness about EU climate action activities: New Delhi must work towards providing greater visibility and represent EU as a pivotal actor, not just in economic terms but also in the sustainability charter. The Indian media can help in this regard by publishing up-to-date news on the EU-India strategic partnership to generate awareness among common Indians. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on its website can also initiate a separate section on EU-India affairs which will provide mileage to the Commissions among young Indian masses.

[1] Leadership is a contested concept and there are several criticisms labelled against EU’s lack of leadership in global climate action, depending on different contexts and situations.

[2] Luff and Whitfield, “Enhancing Cooperation”, pp. 1-29.

[3] Launched in 2016, the International Solar Alliance was jointly kick started by India and France at COP21 in Paris to mobilise resources for solar energy.

[4] Statement by Ursula von Der Leyen in the EU-India Summit, July 2020.

[5] This mechanism was designed to enable developed countries to meet their GHG reduction targets at a lower cost through projects in the developing countries.


[7] According to Britannica, glocalization is “the simultaneous occurrence of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies in contemporary social, political, and economic systems”.

Swati Prabhu
Author is an Associate Fellow, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, ORF

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