Policy Engagements and Blogs

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Navroz Dubash (Part 2)

April 18, 2023

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Today, we bring you part two of the interview between Rohan Venkat and Navroz Dubash, as part of CPR Perspectives, a series meant to commemorate fifty years of the Centre for Policy Research.

In the first part of the interview, Dubash – a professor at CPR who runs the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment – talked about switching from engineering to the policy world, how climate change questions have been mainstreamed in India and how his team sets out to ensure the climate conversation is accessible to all. You can read the first part of the interview here.

In the second part, Dubash describes his team’s direct engagement with the Indian government in crafting its official strategy for long-term low emissions development, what role CPR plays in challenging the dominant Western narrative and where he thinks the climate change conversation is going next.

If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.

So to demystify it for those who would like to know more, what does the Initiative do? How did you end up, for example, being the anchor institution for India’s official Long-Term Low Emissions Development Strategy?

A big part of the way in which we work is framing and narrative setting. How do you talk about a problem approach which was driven by the life cycle of this issue at the time? That’s a big part of what I personally like to do. The second piece is problem solving – more typical think tank stuff – when you’re sitting on a committee or you see a particular policy area that is ripe for discussion. So for example, right now there is ongoing conversation on whether we should have a climate law. What should that look like? It’s a very direct policy. How do you design a particular instrument like a carbon market? That’s normally 90% of what a think tank does. It’s probably closer to 40% of what we do. And then the third piece is engaging with networks and partners. To shape the policy landscape – and we’ve done that the most in the air pollution space, where we’ve very deliberately said, ‘can we please not think about this as a single big problem?’ It has 5 or 6 sectoral problems: It’s about transport emissions. It’s about stubble burning, and so on. And that led to my appointment to the Environment Pollution (Protection and Control) Authority.

The Long Term-Low Emissions Development Strategy process is an example where we are directly invited into a formal governmental process. The invitation likely came out of academic work we did, where we analysed different energy and emissions models used to project India’s emissions future. And we basically showed that a lot of the time the government relies on one or two of these models, but actually there’s a whole range of them that provide very different results. And the government is often not in a position to understand whether the models it uses are outliers.

This is a process that is mandated for every country under the Paris Agreement, which then became India’s official submission at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties.

We suggested the setting up of 7 working groups. We sat in on all the deliberations of those working groups. We helped them design a process. One of my pet peeves is that think tanks get into a competitive dynamic. You’re tempted to overstate the credibility of your own work. We really prefer a more deliberative style, so we suggested other peer organisations who would be part of each of those working groups based on their own skill sets and specialisations. Each of those work groups produced a report with the help of those think tanks, and then we were tasked with pulling the whole thing together into a 100-page report. And then, of course, it goes into a process where the Ministry takes ownership of it. Other ministries comment. The Ministry makes its own revisions and that’s as it should be. Government has to take the final call, but we basically pulled it all together in a way that we hoped makes sense and brought together the inputs of all these working groups.

When the time came to say what India should put on the table, we were asked to help them design the process through which that report would be created. And then to do a first draft of the report. To be very clear, it’s a report that’s owned by the government, but we were the hand holders. We designed a process where we said let’s make this a cross-government approach because climate change is not something that can only be done by the Ministry of Environment. That’s one of our big points. If you’re thinking about climate change as a developmental issue, it’s not just about environment and emissions, it’s about the choice of electricity system, choice of transport systems, patterns of urbanisation. You have to have all those ministries in the room, right? And on the adaptation side: coastal zone management, cropping and agriculture, water resources and so on.

We suggested the setting up of 7 working groups. We sat in on all the deliberations of those working groups. We helped them design a process. One of my pet peeves is that think tanks get into a competitive dynamic. You’re tempted to overstate the credibility of your own work. We really prefer a more deliberative style, so we suggested other peer organisations who would be part of each of those working groups based on their own skill sets and specialisations. Each of those work groups produced a report with the help of those think tanks, and then we were tasked with pulling the whole thing together into a 100-page report. And then, of course, it goes into a process where the Ministry takes ownership of it. Other ministries comment. The Ministry makes its own revisions and that’s as it should be. Government has to take the final call, but we basically pulled it all together in a way that we hoped makes sense and brought together the inputs of all these working groups.

This is a process that is mandated for every country under the Paris Agreement, which then became India’s official submission at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties.

One of the throughlines of your work seems to be moving from looking at policies to examining institutional frameworks and systemic factors…

How do you understand institutions from the perspective of economics, sociology and political science? In economics, it’s about information and asymmetries. In sociology, it’s about normative change. In politics, it’s about the exercise of power. Each of these brings a complementary lens. So my study of carbon markets and water markets was an institutional analysis. My study of electricity regulators was ‘how are they shaping the political field of decision making?’ Climate plans, the same kind of thing. It’s just that now we’re talking more explicitly about climate institutions per se. Or in my air pollution work, I’ve worked with my colleagues, and they’ve led the work on state pollution control boards.

So this is a continuous strand. It’s just that now climate change has become central enough that people are beginning to think explicitly about climate institutions and climate laws. And it’s an interesting question. You can’t build an institution around greenhouse gases per se. You must build an institution around all the things that lead to greenhouse gas emissions, which means you have got to think about the transport sector, the power sector, crop burning, waste, agriculture, deforestation and so on. You are forced to think beyond ministry by ministry silos.

But at the same time, under the government’s conduct of business rules, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is a home base for climate change. But environment ministries in most parts of the world, and India’s not really an exception, tend to be weaker, less well staffed, less politically powerful. It’s a tricky institutional question. How do you design something for an all-of-government and all-of-society approach?

One concrete thing that led me to think about this more is I have been part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a panel of experts appointed by governments around the world to take stock of the best academic knowledge in a particular area and inform governments. It’s an interesting process because it’s not just an academic review at the end. You spend a week with government representatives where you go line by line, sentence by sentence over the document and it gets approved, discussed, negotiated, modified in a way that governments find acceptable. Your job is to represent science.

I was tasked with writing the [IPCC report] section on institutions in 2012 and I found there just wasn’t much literature. So I started creating some of my own literature, talking to people, and then I had to do the same chapter again, this time as the coordinating lead author [for the report published in 2022]. So academically, that’s probably the area of literature that I’m most active in as a result of that IPCC process.

And it seems to be a nice throughline from your work where you looked at politics because the chapter covers that as well. One thing I wondered about, going back to your first conversations at the Climate Action Network and beyond: Does the climate environment world also fall prey a bit to the elite mimicry or the simplifying and flattening that comes from relying mostly on Western views? We saw this with the Yale-Columbia index last year…

It’s a good question, because actually – and we’ve seen this in the IPCC also – the West dominates the research networks. It dominates the funding. Many of us tend to get trained there. They dominate the funding networks and also dominate the editorial boards of journals. And it’s not like anybody’s being malevolent here, but where you sit is where you stand. If you’re a US academic and you care deeply about climate change, then you tend to look at things through the lens of what will move the US Congress.

For the rest of us, ‘what will allow the US Congress to be progressive’ is a very limiting question. There was a whole decade when the main question was ‘how do we get India and China to do something, anything, such that we can go back to the US Congress?’ I tell my Western friends, ‘you know, other countries have politics too, and they are often more complicated.’

So one of the things when I came back to India is I made it clear that my objective was not going to be to sign up to research projects where I was asked to do the India chapter of a study that was conceptualized elsewhere. If I was going to be part of a study, I had to be part of the conceptualisation of it, and ideally lead the conceptualisation of it. And that has been true of the workshops we’ve organised and the books we’ve edited. We have initiated it for this recent project on climate institutions. We looked at 8 countries with leading academics around the world. I wrote the framing paper, and I organised the workshops.

As I said, where you sit is where you stand. So different people bring their different frameworks and that’s fine. The interesting thing is, how do you reconcile those and take seriously all those different perspectives, as opposed to anointing one of them the dominant perspective? It’s been an uphill battle including in the IPCC, right, because there are these highly powered, well-funded research teams that dominate the literature, they dominate the editorial boards.

I sit on something called the Emissions Gap Report’s Steering Committee for six or seven years. And every year, [I would say] if you want to inform what developing countries do, you must think about emissions choices as an adjunct to development choices. And I often get the pushback that says ‘this isn’t the development report’. I was like, ‘sorry, you’re missing the point’. These aren’t separable things, right? This battle for the narrative high ground is an important battle and ironically there is often a presumption that Indian academics who engage in international fora are just spewing out what we learn over there.

Whereas in fact we are often contesting those narrative frames and we’re performing a useful job in at least budging them a little bit. There’s a very interesting battle going on right now. You brought up the Yale-Columbia Environmental Performance Index and in fact, along with Sharad Lele, I wrote an Op-Ed on it. And the big flaw in how they went about it is they looked at the flows of emissions, in other words, how much a country emits in any given year and the trend in that, versus the stock of emissions, or how much they’ve accumulated over time. So Western countries are on the downslope, yes. But starting from a much higher base.

And India is on the up slope, but starting from a much lower base. That is relevant to how we discuss progress. And so it is really important to push back on these frameworks and I think that’s something that gets underappreciated. In India there’s a separation between academia and policy debate and dialogue. Whereas, for example, in the US, public intellectuals operate out of universities and are very engaged in policy and public conversations. In India, it tends to come out more from the think tanks, but I think it’s very important to not just be in the policy space, but to be in an ‘interpreting the narrative’ space.

One of the strengths of CPR is in fact its narrative framing role. Many other think tanks tend to be much more instrumental. Change is defined as a measurable outcome in a particular policy, whereas I think of change more expansively as changing the way you talk about something or think about a problem. It’s harder to track your impact, but if you do have an impact because it’s higher upstream, it has much larger outcomes.

Maybe the flip-side of that within India is the federal question. Are we looking at subnational frameworks? You worked on the State Action Plans a few years ago…

On the federal issue, I will confess, I have come to it a bit later than I wish I had. I did indeed look at state action plans in 2014. We were the first to do studies of them, but we didn’t do it deep enough and we didn’t follow up on it enough. That was a constructive thing for a few years, however, we were unable to sustain that. And I’ll just say, as an aside here, one of the strengths and weaknesses of CPR is we empower people to work on what they want to work on. But as a result, when they choose to move on, we’re not necessarily hiring to fill those shoes. We’re hiring other people to do what they want to work on. So there’s a trade-off between continuity and creativity and ownership there.

But on sub-national work, we now have a whole new area opening. A lot of the climate impact issues around water, around urbanisation and so on and so forth are state issues. Those actions must be led by the state. But the capacity at the states is even thinner than at the Centre. We make the case that we should be thinking seriously about how Indian federalism operates, given the likely challenges of climate change.

There’s also a cycle to this. We saw this with the electricity work. States led the move to have electricity regulators and to create laws for them, and the Centre was playing catch up and then passed a central law. We might see the same kind of dynamic happening. So ironically, if you want to shape what happens at the Centre, you might be well advised to think about what’s happening in the states. Because then the Centre will engage knowing that these narratives are being set and defined in multiple states. And for cohesion, it might help to have a tighter central narrative. So there’s an interesting interplay there.

We’re not focusing on the specifics in this conversation, things like ‘will we get to 1.5 degrees’, which I know you’re asked about and write about a lot. But what do you think about where the conversation will go next? We’ve been talking of late about loss and damage, about polycentric approaches, about a climate-ready state. Where would you like the conversation to go?

I’m a little bit of an iconoclast on this. The global narrative is about keeping 1.5 alive. That is making sure we are still on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Behind closed doors, many serious scientists will say that that door is pretty much closed. The IPCC basically says in the report I was part of, though I didn’t work on this bit, that we would have to peak emissions by 2025 globally and reduce emissions by 40% or 50% by 2030. That is highly unlikely.

We’re in this space where we designed something called the Paris Agreement which was a learning-by-doing agreement. Every country goes home, figures out what it can put on the table, tries to implement it, sees how costly it is. And it comes back and ramps up that pledge after five years. The challenge is to get to 1.5. But you don’t have time for that cycle to play out, so we’ve designed a global mechanism that is incompatible with the scale of the target. In a 2-degree world, that cycle would have worked out.

Coming to your question, what I see is the tension between that target and the institutional mechanism coming home to roost. There’s something called the global stocktake, which is meant to take stock of where we are. I’m hoping that in a productive way this tension emerges in the global conversation.

The other thing that I anticipate happening is that the conversation has moved so much to the national level. There’s a wonderful paper that I cite a lot called ‘Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma’, which basically alludes to the fact that we think of climate change as a prisoner’s dilemma game: No country will act unless every other country acts, or most other countries. And what these people say in this paper is: Countries tend to act when their domestic politics align with them acting, irrespective of what other countries are doing.

We’ve seen that with the US and the Inflation Reduction Act. They found a narrow way to get that political system to agree to this. I think it’s going to be game-changing in the sense that the Europeans have now fallen into the line. India is starting to talk about a green industrial policy. The conversation is not focused on low-carbon growth sectors. What does that mean for the international process? It basically might drive a wedge where what countries do at home is increasingly divorced from this ambition cycle overseas.

The linkages between different parts of the system are being stretched in ways where the regime might get pulled out of shape entirely in the next two or three years. I’m not sure that that’s entirely a bad thing because the thing to bank on most is that domestic political economies, especially the top five to 10 economies, if [their] politics line up in favour of low-carbon futures, that’s probably the most important change we need to see on the mitigation side of things. It may mean more global conflict in the trade realm. But we are at a very interesting moment where that apparatus of Paris and the way in which we thought things would unfold with this neat greenhouse gas or carbon denominated targets being ramped up overtime may not, in fact, be the driving factor.

For your own work, if you had a blank cheque and a realistic timeline, what research would you put it into?

Some of this we’re obviously trying to do. I would like to see a lot more preparedness at the state level and at the central level for these very complex questions. How does India prepare for the future in terms of technology, in terms of adaptation, in terms of linking different issue areas?

The other we really must work hard on figuring out is: How can India create jobs through low carbon technologies of the future? There’s this rush now to the hydrogen economy. It may be a great bet. But it may be overplaying our chips. I don’t know, and I fear that often we make the decision before we’ve done the homework. I think it’s great that we’re beginning to place these bets. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather we were, but I would rather we place them after a bit more due diligence with conversation and understanding the trade-offs across placing these bets.

This isn’t only on technology. Technology-driven transitions require institutions. Politics and policy ought to be lined up. So we must think, for example, what is the electricity system of the future in India. We need to be thinking about development choices through the lens of climate. We should be looking at not just climate transitions, but low carbon development. And we need to be doing that in sector after sector, in electricity, in transport, in heavy industries and so on and so forth. So that’s really where I would put the focus. And I think that that is something that needs to be replicated and cross pollinated across countries.

What misconceptions do you find yourself having to combat the most, whether it’s from people in the media, whether it’s fellow scholars, or whether it’s the lay public?

I’ll start with air pollution. The extent to which India’s air pollution is exposing us to very severe long-term health damages is still underestimated. I’ve had a member of Parliament in a discussion say to me, ‘I don’t see people holding their throats walking down the street. Why do you think it’s so bad?’ It’s a long-term insidious effect on people’s health and their vulnerability, and we’re not fully appreciating that it doesn’t have to necessarily feel bad in the short run, though our levels are high enough that it frequently does so.

Sometimes on climate change, people think there’s still a scientific debate about whether it’s happening. I met somebody who’s a very erudite person who’s been in and out of government, and he said, ‘well, maybe there are other reasons to explain the warming trend.’ And I was like, ‘we have something called the Vostok ice core data that goes back, you know, 10s if not hundreds of thousands of years, which shows a correlation between CO2 and global average temperatures. The science is really, very sophisticated on this. We have modeling studies that reinforce things that science says. So I think we need to move beyond this a little bit.

But I recognise that in both these cases, these are harms that – because they’re systemic – are very hard to wrap your head around. It’s not like cutting a tree in the green belt in Delhi, in front of your eyes, it’s not as tangible as flooding a valley for a dam. I understand that. And I think the onus is on us to communicate it better and signal both the systemic nature of this and find ways of talking about it in ways that people can relate to.

Climate change is not just really about emissions. It’s about ‘what does it mean for the productivity of labour, what does it mean for crop damage, what does it mean for flooding of cities, what does it mean for the intensity of storms’. These are things that people can relate to and that’s really the way we must communicate.

For younger scholars entering the field or interested in this space, are there tools or approaches that you would like to see people pick up?

I’ve always been interested in bringing multiple lenses to bear, and as I signaled with those different kinds of institutional approaches, I think it’s important to be conversant and comfortable with numbers. You don’t have to be the person generating the numbers, but you must be able to look critically at the numbers. This is an outgrowth of my interdisciplinary PhD.

We had a course called ‘tricks of the trade’. One of the exercises was: Consider a spherical animal and? How do you make sensible assumptions about how many shoes you can make from the skin of that animal? And then from there it got increasingly complicated. How many acres of land would you need to provide 50% of India with solar power? And you could do this through sort of back of the envelope calculations. I think that’s incredibly powerful. It stayed with me.

On the other hand, I think it’s really important to also be literate about social science methods. Most of my work has been done through interview and documentary analysis and through interpretation. Now some of the things I’ve written people will say, well, this is just journalistic. But the trick really relies on how rigorous you are in drawing your inferences and making sure that you’re routing your findings in empirical work.

My pet peeve, however, is the over use of certain simplifying quantitative assumptions can lead to what Herman Daly called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Just because you put a number around something doesn’t mean it’s real, and we see this all the time. What is the cost of India reaching its net zero target by 2070? $10 trillion, $12 trillion dollars, $15 trillion. All those numbers are substantially made-up because we have no idea what the technology cost curve looks like in 2070. The way I like to tell people this is imagine that you’re sitting in 1970 thinking about the technologies available to us in 2020. That’s the same gap as 2020 to 2070, and if anything, the pace of technology has sped up. We would have got it completely wrong. That’s why it’s important to be literate on both sides of the quantitative and qualitative divide.

If you had to point to two or three of your pieces of work over the years, which ones would you highlight?

We’ll be back in 2 weeks with another interview, stay tuned!