Policy Engagements and Blogs

CPR Perspectives: Interview with Navroz Dubash

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 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. Navroz also 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.

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!