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CPR Perspectives: Interview with Navroz Dubash (Part 1)

April 3, 2023

To mark CPR’s 50th anniversary, we are delighted to present a brand new interview series called CPR Perspectives. Every month we plan to bring you a flagship conversation, with Rohan Venkat interviewing a faculty member on their research, policy practice and engagement with the most critical questions of our age.

Over the past five decades, the Centre for Policy Research has played a unique role in India’s policy landscape, tackling concerns as varied and vital as climate change and federalism, urbanisation and national security and bringing a genuinely multi-disciplinary approach to the field. Today, with India facing a complex geopolitical landscape and even greater development and climate challenges, the Centre’s faculty continue to produce field-defining research while also working directly with policymakers and stakeholders in government and beyond.

In our first interview, Rohan speaks to Navroz Dubash, a professor at CPR where he also runs the Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment. Dubash is one of the world’s most renowned experts on climate change, having worked on the subject since the 1990s – well before it became a household term.

Dubash’s wide-ranging career has featured landmark research papers, agenda-setting edited volumes, two authored books and key roles on a number of official and advisory committees in India and at the global level. He was a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ panel which publishes landmark reports on the state of climate change research. Dubash’s work led to CPR being the overall anchor institution and technical knowledge partner for the Indian government’s Long Term-Low Emissions and Development Strategy. He has received the TN Khoshoo Memorial Award for his work on Indian and global climate change governance, the Emerging Regions Award by Environmental Research Letters, and the SR Sen Award for Best Book in Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, for his book Tubewell Capitalism.

In the first part of our conversation, Dubash talks about about working on climate change back in 1990 – well before it was in vogue, whether it is frustrating to still be going over questions of climate change vs development that have been around since then, why the Climate Initiative at CPR turned into the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment, and why it’s important to make academic work accessible for wider audiences.

In the second part, which you will receive in a fortnight, Navroz talks about what it was like to help the Indian government draft its strategy for low-emissions development, why it’s important to not just follow the Western narrative on climate change and what advice Dubash has for younger scholars entering this important field. If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here. And if you would like to subscribe to newsletters from CPR – including future interviews in this series – sign up here.

(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity).

Thank you for being with us here. I wanted to start at the very beginning. If I’m not incorrect, you started off studying engineering many years ago before deciding that was not exactly for you. So could you tell us a little bit about how you came to the policy world? Did you stumble onto it?

I did tread the South Asian path of being an engineer and as an undergraduate, I was fortunate to be in a place where you weren’t locked into your choices, in a US university. And I found myself enjoying my political science, history, economics much more than I was enjoying my engineering. And so at one point, there was a fork in the road. I decided that I really didn’t want to be an engineer for the rest of my life and therefore why waste the opportunity to study things I really did enjoy?

I had a conversation with a senior, somebody who is now a friend of CPR who was also drifting away from engineering and encouraged me to take the step. And so I had the chance to go and walk through the Narmada Valley at the time when that was the big flash point around development and environment. [It] was a very formative experience for me. I met people like Medha Patkar and others and I just found it tremendously exciting, so I decided to roll the dice. I had a very tough conversation with my father, as you can imagine, who in later years, to his credit, would read annual reports of companies and they start talking about ESG – environmental and social investing – and say, well, maybe you were a little bit ahead of your time. But at that time it was a tough family conversation!

Was there anyone in the family that was in this field? Or was it a complete left turn?

Absolutely, not just a left-turn in terms of the subject matter. I think there was maybe one cousin who had a PhD, but otherwise we’re not from a family of academics.  So it was unusual. And, having studied at a relatively elite university, choosing to spend my summer coming back and walking through the Narmada valley was something that also was a little bit of a head-scratching experience.

What’s really interesting is that after that I, as part of my education, had to do what are called policy conferences and policy task forces. And one of them was around climate change. I wasn’t particularly interested in climate change, but these two strands [development & climate change] – both came out of my undergraduate experience – and really have defined much of my future work.

And that was at the very, very early days of the climate conversation in 1989. We did a little undergraduate experiment where we did a mock negotiation. And because it was so early it got published. And because it had the grand sounding name of the Princeton Protocol, people assumed there was a bunch of faculty who had written it. In fact, it was a bunch of undergrads. So it got cited and then my first job actually was also in that area.

When I was looking for a job, I got a couple of rejections and got a bit dispirited. And then I went to one of the organisations that had worked with the activists around the Narmada Valley, [who] said we don’t really have any work but our colleagues who work in the climate area do.

That was 1990. In two years time, the Rio Earth Summit was about to be held – what has now become the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Before those negotiations occurred, there was a proto-network of civil society organisations which were mostly dominated by American and a couple of European and Australian organisations. They said: ‘We don’t really understand how this plays in the rest of the world. If we show up and ask to be part of these conversations and it’s a bunch of developed countries’ typically white men, why would the rest of the world want us there? We need to have a broader spectrum.’

So they hired me at the ripe age of 21 to set up a global network [the Climate Action Network] on climate change from Asia, Africa and Latin America and bring in people from all these parts of the world. It was just an absolutely incredible first job. I had no idea what I was doing. I started faxing people around the world. Among the people we brought in, back in the day, were Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, for whom climate change was some kind of external issue and they weren’t really paying attention at the time. They felt there was a distraction from, understandably, the real bread-and-butter livelihood environmental issues.

But I kept sending them FedEx packages of documents so that they would have material and over time, to their credit, they very much drew the links between the issues they cared about and climate change became part of the network and then they wrote this landmark paper, ‘Global warming in an unequal world‘, that that still gets cited widely today.

When I was hired for the job, I was to be located at the Environmental Defence Fund in the US. When I met the director of EDF, Fred Krupp, he asked me about my interests. As I talked, he said, ‘You know? Frankly, you don’t seem that interested in climate change. You seem more interested in development.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s true. But that’s going to be true of most of the people who I’m trying to persuade to work on this issue, so it’s probably a good thing that I understand where they’re coming from.’ And he laughed and said, ‘OK, that’s a really smart Alec answer, but I’ll take it.’ But it is interesting reflecting back that this strand of ‘how do you bring development into conversation with climate’ is something that has more or less dominated my career in the years since.

It’s hard for those of us who grew up hearing about climate change to even imagine what it was like when you had to persuade people that it mattered. Did you have to convince yourself also?

Absolutely. In our first meeting [at the Climate Action Network], the developed country folks said, ‘As a civil society movement, let’s propose that developed countries reduce their emissions by X percent’. I think it was 50% by the year 2000 in 10 years time, which is ridiculous looking back on where we are now. ‘And developing countries will do the same thing a few years later.’

Immediately some of the WTO activists in the room said ‘hang on a second, that basically would commit us in perpetuity to a lower level of emissions’. And the developed country folks scratched their heads and said, ‘huh, maybe that’s true’, because that was the Montreal Protocol model. In a weird kind of way, we’ve been having the same conversation ever since. How do you allocate who gets to emit how much? From that point to me, the interesting question was really: If you care about development, by which I mean not just GDP, but a decent quality of life for people, what is the relationship of doing so to carbon? And how does it tie to both local choices and global choices? So when you ask if I had to persuade myself when I went on to do grad school, I had a hangover of a question, I had to ask myself about carbon markets, because I really was very suspicious and I remained very suspicious of carbon markets because in a lot of cases and this gets a bit technical, it is not about a market of an actual credit, it’s about what’s called an offset, which is, are you reducing emissions from a hypothetical baseline and that’s again a conversation that hasn’t gone away for 20 years.

The Guardian just had a series of articles on exactly this point. So after I dealt with my hangover and wrote my masters thesis on this, I said, I actually want to step back and I had a some kind of romantic idea of an elite Indian probably coming from my Narmada experience. Not knowing much about rural India, which is where the real India lies and so on and so forth, all those kinds of romantic urban elite visions. And I said I need to find a way of getting out there and so after a bunch of reading, I zoomed in on the use of water markets in Gujarat which were a very interesting empirical phenomenon. These Gujarati farmers were selling water back and forth within villages with these, 2,3,4 kilometer long pipelines, very complex markets. Some economists were saying that this is a great thing, and some sociologists and political scientists were saying this is pure exploitation. And I wanted to figure out which of the two was right.

After my Master’s and PhD, I wrote a book called ‘Tubewell Capitalism’ and I didn’t think about climate for several years. Then a job came along that was interesting in a completely different way from anything I’d done before: which was to study how the shift in capital flows for development from largely public sector flows to this boom of private sector flows, which culminated in the Asian financial crisis, and what that then meant for the environment.

It goes all the way back to the World Bank and the Narmada Valley project, because what environmentalists used to do was say ‘we’ll squeeze the bank and the bank in turn will make sure that projects have decent displacement conditions and so on.’  You can’t do that if most of the money is private. So, what do you do?

What I learned from that experience, and this was at the World Resources Institute, is that the climate conversation was a little sand pit off in the corner where environmentalists were sent off to play. The big decisions were happening in other places around regulation, around private banks. And the flows of those monies really shaped development prospects. That led me to do deep dives on policy restructuring in the forest sector and the electricity sector in a cross-country way and I got really interested in the electricity sector. I approached these as mainstream development questions. What shapes how countries decide to restructure their electricity sectors? And this was the moment of privatisation, liberalisation and so on and so forth of the electricity sector in India and other places. I got very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I wrote a paper called Power Politics.

I was terribly thrilled because it was the headline paper in EPW. As an aside, note how incredible an institution like EPW really was. That same issue had papers by Amartya Sen and Jeff Sachs. But as a fresh graduate, this paper was deemed more topical and was made the headline paper.

Then I felt that sitting in the US was just too stratospheric. I enjoyed my time doing research in India and so I persuaded my partner, and we both made a move to India for what we thought was two or three years and we kept extending it. And then we decided to just not move back. I taught at JNU for a while, I was at NIPFP for a while and then I landed at CPR in 2009. And institutionally, it was a much more comfortable fit for me than those other institutions. They had their merits, of course. But I like the freewheeling intellectual atmosphere. It suited my multidisciplinary kind of approach as there was a lot of freedom. There was a lot of lack of hierarchy. I didn’t have to call anybody ‘sir’ and nobody called me that either. I relished that culture.

It was only in 2007 that I re-engaged with climate. And that was the moment of the Bali Conference of Parties, [when the countries decided] let’s do a bunch of action plans and see. The interesting thing is those plans became a really important way to bring the development and climate conversation together. Until that moment, the objective was let’s treat this as a diplomatic problem and separate out climate and development. But 2007 was the bridge moment. That was an interesting space where one could ask the question: How do you do development while keeping in mind climate change, both on the mitigation and the adaptation side? And should we be doing that? That’s where I saw an opening and that’s where I came to CPR to try and build a platform through which to ask that question.

This is jumping ahead a little bit, but I’m curious whether the fact that some of these are still the same conversations that you’re having almost all the way back in the early 90s – like the question of where development sits alongside environment – Is it frustrating?

It’s by no means a closed loop. We’re not in the same position that we’ve always been in and the main reason is the shift in economics and technology, and the consequent shift in politics. But the underlying political dynamics have remained the same, which is why the same conversations come back again and again.

The [action] plans were meant to and this is another theme in my work, that oftentimes you create institutions that are set up as Trojan institutions. And that’s also true in some ways of regulatory bodies. ‘What’s the harm in hiring a regulator, etc.? What difference does it make?’ That was the thinking back in the late 1990s. But once you create those institutions, you have different ways of telling a story, and you bring different players to the table.

The plans were the institutional shift. The narrative shift that it brought about was the use of the term ‘co-benefit’, which frankly I’ve yammered on enough about for the last decade that people roll their eyes every time I bring it up at a meeting.

Co-Benefits basically says there may be some places where what you would do for development also brings, incidentally, climate gains, on the mitigation or the adaptation side. Instead of just treating these as serendipitous, let’s go out and look for them. And let’s identify where there are trade-offs and avoid them. So more public transport as a part of your urbanisation. Rethink your urbanisation patterns themselves. Thinking about the choice between road and rail, these are development choices. But they are also climate choices. And in many cases they can be made to work together. 

So let’s try and do that, particularly since India is locking in our infrastructure. There’s this number that gets thrown out all the time: 2/3 of India’s buildings are yet to be built. If that’s the case, whether you build your building envelope in a way that requires a lot of active cooling, or whether it can actually manage a lot of passive cooling through your design of the building itself, that will determine your future need for cooling over the next 30-40 years.

Now, fortunately, there were a few people in government who opened doors for a few of us. I was appointed to some Planning Commission committees and had a few policy openings to propound these ideas. And then we started building a wonderful team at CPR to take it forward. I had a great partnership with Lavanya Rajamani, who is a leading international lawyer and has become even more leading in the years since working on climate change.

One of the things we also did is when the Copenhagen conference kind of fell apart, we co-edited a special issue of the journal Climate Policy where we said, look, what does the future hold? And we substantially anticipated what the Paris Agreement would say. The idea of an international ratchet, but the driver being a lot of bottom-up national actions.

But I’m departing from your question, which is, have things changed? What has really changed is that [it] is always marginal politics: A little bit of co-benefits here and there at the margin where the opportunity presented itself. So, the National Solar Mission was an energy-security driven idea in India, but it was a climate idea when it was marketed overseas. And I think that’s fine because the point of mainstreaming climate change is you tell whichever story makes most sense for the context that you’re in. But it was that marginal, opportunistic kind of approach.

Fast forward to the [India’s 2023] Budget. Green growth was invoked a dozen times or more. We can have a debate about whether the allocations of funds mirrored that rhetorical emphasis. But it’s clear that both political and economic motivations are now closely tied to hitching your wagon to the energy transition, and that’s because that shift has happened where countries see political gain and potential economic gain from being leaders in green, low carbon technologies. That’s a huge shift now. That that transition will happen is now inevitable. But the fact that it might be costly and there will be winners and losers. What has changed, is the presumption of being a loser was very high. Now the possibility of being a winner has become higher. But the politics of making sure that you are in the winners column and not in the losers column remains, and so some of the questions remain the same.

So, as you entered CPR, what were you trying to build? And how did the Climate Initiative become the Initiative on Climate, Energy and the Environment?

I was interested in building a larger team. Lavanya was really much more of a pure academic, but indulged me now and then with being part of the various policy conversations. It was symbiotic. So I started hiring people. One of the things I really wanted to do was [not] just write academic papers. I wanted to actually change the public conversation.

So I did two things for that. I wrote a paper where I tried to examine the politics of different constituencies in India and I came up with this framing where I said you have a category that you might call the ‘growth first stonewallers’ who say climate change is an excuse to hold back the South and we should just be focused on maintaining as much freedom for our choice of development.

The second category you might call is the progressive realists who say ‘Climate change is serious. We are worried about it, but the rest of the world is not particularly worried about it. And therefore we have to be realistic about this and make sure that we protect India’s interests.’ And the third group might be called progressive internationalists. They said climate change is serious. We should be part of the voices  that in a somewhat idealistic way, build a global consensus for action and India should be part of that solution.

And that three-part categorization took hold. A lot of other academics picked that up in their writing about it. So it became a way to try and understand the politics and it gave a political prescription which is: let’s try and move the debate in the direction of the progressive internationalists. We need more of them. And we need to understand where the realists come from, and bring some of them on board. And we need to isolate the stonewallers.

Because we do have to take development seriously, but you also have to take climate seriously. It’s in India’s interest. We’re a deeply vulnerable state. But we have to walk that line in a way where we don’t take it seriously by short-changing ourselves. So it’s a delicate balancing act and therefore the co-benefits idea was so powerful. I edited a book called ‘The Handbook of Climate Change and India‘, [where] we got our diplomats, civil society activists, development activists, researchers to write, and there was a series of accessible chapters. And that was something I’m actually quite proud of because I’ve since heard of many young people who entered this space using this in their college and other classes.

So, we puttered along, but we found that people were pigeonholing us. We kept trying to say we’re about climate and development. But people only heard the first part. So I would find myself, somewhat schizophrenically, in India, arguing for more attention to climate change and overseas arguing for more attention to development. Either you were blaming the West for cynically promoting climate while not taking it seriously. Or you were blaming India for not taking the climate seriously enough and being shortsighted. The fact that you have to hold these contradictory realities at the same time and find a way to bring them both together has been the challenge.

We evolved a style of approach which was to make sure that we always put things in peer reviewed journals so our work was irreproachable. And then from there we would write policy papers, do policy engagements. And India is a unique policy context because actually writing academic papers and books is taken seriously. They may not be read, but it gets you a seat on a committee.

We also were building a reputation and credibility. We did find ourselves getting put in this box of climate folks. So we did an independent review and got somebody very thoughtful to review our 5-6 years of work by that point around 2015. And he wrote a wonderful report titled, Geeks Writing for Geeks or Informed Changemakers? He pushed us to think more about partnerships, more about how our work could be taken seriously. And also about how we positioned ourselves.

As a result of that, we decided that actually for a lot of our work, the entry point was not climate change. The entry point was development questions. The entry point was often air pollution. It was often electricity or environmental regulation. And so we renamed ourselves The Initiative on Climate, Energy and Environment to try and signal the fact that we have these multiple entry points. And we were then very fortunate to bring on more, wonderful young people. One of the challenges has been to actually retain them. So Shibani Ghosh has been with us for over a decade, Radhika Khosla was with us for a while and then went on to be professor at Oxford. Lavanya decided to move on and go to Oxford. I was sticking around, and really keen that this unit continue and so we’ve been fortunate to get a fabulous next line.

I find that a lot of work that comes out of the team is tremendously accessible. Is it frustrating to dumb down? 

I don’t actually see it as dumbing down. One doesn’t have to use complex words and acronyms for complex ideas. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis on Narmada, my thesis supervisor, Robert Wade would call me into his room to review a chapter. And he would say you’re just throwing around words and ideas just to conceal the fact that you don’t know what you want to say. He said, ‘Now tell me, What is this chapter about?’ And I would sit there and think, and then I would try to write a sentence and he said ‘no, that’s not what it’s about.’ And then we’d sit for another three or four minutes, and I’d have a second try. And he’d say no, that’s not it, either. And we’d keep on going until I found a clear articulation. And then, he said that’s what this chapter is about. Write that in the first paragraph, write that in the last paragraph, and make sure every sentence in between connects to that idea. And it was enormously helpful. 

One of the things that we’ve tried to achieve in these 14 years of our initiative is that we’ve had a passage of young people come through, many of whom have gone on to do Masters and PhDs in very well reputed schools. An article of faith for me is that I need to make sure that everybody who passes through, certainly somebody with a masters degree, gets one or more published articles to their name where they are the lead author, over their time at CPR. I normally sit with that person through 10 or 15 revisions to try and give back what people like Robert tried to impart to me. The capacity building part of this is really a very explicit part of our objective.

This is part 1 of 2 for our CPR Perspectives conversation with Navroz Dubash. We’ll be back in 2 weeks with part 2.

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