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The Weekend Read: The Quad's future in the age of climate change

In conversation with strategic risks expert Sarang Shidore

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Lou Del Bello

Jun 06 2021

8 mins read

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Welcome to this weekend’s edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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With the Covid pandemic, the past two years have exposed faults in the way countries work together to tackle global issues. Failure to cooperate and resource inequality have cost lives. Climate change poses a threat of similar magnitude, and the response community is now starting to question whether old policy and diplomatic frameworks are up to the challenge.

Global financial bodies and international alliances between countries are now starting to look at climate change as a security matter. In this context, groups like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, an alliance between India, the US, Japan and Australia, could play a new role in boosting cooperation while responding to the climate crisis.

Here Sarang Shidore, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and senior research analyst at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, discusses how the Quad could play an important part in fighting climate change.

Lights On: How was the Quad born and how did climate change enter the conversation?

Sarang Shidore: The Quad is a geopolitical project which doesn't come from the climate-environmental space. It starts in 2007 as an initiative from Japan and the United States, longstanding allies. And the thinly veiled motivation was to counter what was seen as an unhealthy rise of China. 

One interesting thing though: very soon after it was founded, the Quad went moribund. And that's because the Chinese were very upset with it, and issued a warning, to Australia particularly but also everybody else, to please don't do this, it was seen it as a Cold War-like move. And Australia actually got cold feet, and India also had second thoughts. Fast forward to 2017, with Donald Trump as president of the US, and a new focus on China as a great power competitor and the revisionist power order. There was a clear shift in the US approach to China, and part of that included revival of the Quad. For three years, ministerial level meetings involved mainly statements about a free and open Indo-Pacific, the rule of law, freedom of navigation - nothing much about climate change. All in all the focus [of the initiative] was and is about creating a balancing coalition.

Now, the reason climate change has entered the Quad is because of the elections in the US that have brought a radical change in the government. Trump was not interested in climate change. With Biden you now have a very strong focus on climate change. So the point is now no longer just a talking shop, and not just a security initiative, it is more than that. It's taking on these non traditional spaces of security. And that's a big change.

Do you think focusing on climate change would be strategically important for the Quad?

Right now, there is no issue other than the pandemic, which will remain a challenge for years due to this and [potentially] other viruses. But I think along with that, climate change is the existential threat. Joe Biden has even announced that as the US official position. It's also recognised by many other countries, including the European Union, increasingly in Asia, India and Japan included, of course. The only country that's been reluctant to strongly embrace climate action is Australia, but even there things are changing. So there is a near consensus within the Quad [that] the science is clear and action needs to be taken.

But there's also another aspect. Climate change is one area that everybody is challenged by, it's not just the Quad countries. So climate change can become an axis of potential dialogue between the Quad and other countries, certainly in Southeast Asia, which is where the battle for the hearts and minds on this US-China contest is taking place. But I would also dare to say there is scope here to engage with China itself. China and Southeast Asia ought to be key target areas for the Quad to reach out to, and in a time of very intense geopolitical competition, in a time of potential tensions across the region, climate change can act as a pathway to maintaining the dialogue.

Strong regional cooperation in South Asia, whether it's about climate change or other areas, is hard to achieve due to cross border tensions, particularly between India and Pakistan. Can the Quad really succeed where other more locally targeted models such as SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) have failed?

SAARC and the Quad have two very different objectives. The former is a regional organisation that looks to establish cooperative links through proximity, and within the South Asian region. The latter has the main purpose - although they don't say it openly - to counteract the power of China. So they are like apples and oranges, you can't really compare them. In the case of SAARC, the rivalry between India and Pakistan is the killer, which means the organisation remains dysfunctional. But all the Quad countries are politically aligned, and there's enough commitment to climate action. And, indeed all the countries are challenged by climate change. I mean, India is massively challenged by climate change and the US, although very wealthy, is very vulnerable too. The same goes for Australia and Japan. So these are good reasons to cooperate, and now with President Biden there's some leadership on climate change.

One key item on the climate change agenda is technology transfer, which would allow countries like India to achieve the energy transition they aspire to. This can only be enabled by cooperating with more advanced economies like the US, Japan or Australia. Do you think the Quad would or should take the lead on this too?

That is a harder hurdle to overcome, and the answer could be yes or no, it depends. The main issue in technology transfer in climate change and energy is a very sharp divide between the developing countries and the wealthy countries on intellectual property [IP]. Because you have an IP regime on environmental products, where seven or eight countries dominate the patents. If you look at the patent regime, you have basically the US, Germany, South Korea, Japan, I believe the UK and France as well. And more recently, China has entered that mix. And that's really it. 

So it's really a small set of less than 10 countries that dominate the IP space in environmental products. It could be a new wind turbine design, a new type of solar panel or a more efficient transmission solution. And there's a whole host of carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, many other emerging technologies, whether you take buildings industry, electricity, transport, batteries, all dominated by a few countries. That's because they've had a head start: they have invested, or they're wealthy and have good institutions.

And the Quad is an interesting place, because India is the sort of lone country that is economically and IP-wise not in that position. But Japan and the US certainly are. And climate change response is [often] about the interests of major corporations that are based in the US, tied to the US economy, they create jobs. Every president, every congressperson in the US, is looking over their shoulders on job creation.

Does that mean that because climate change response is such a big economic opportunity, technology transfer becomes a more difficult proposition?

Technology transfer is meant in the spirit of the UNFCCC negotiations, as a concessional offer to poorer countries, so that they can decarbonise faster. There's no problem if a country wants to buy technology at a commercial rate, companies are willing to sell them. But the issue is that many of the more advanced technologies are not affordable for a country like India, or indeed Indonesia, or any of the poorer countries or middle income countries in Asia. But again, we could see it as an opportunity.

Maybe there's a way for India, the US and Japan to have that conversation and reach an understanding to help resolve these issues as a part of the wider trade-offs. WTO talks on [an] environmental goods agreement, that's also something that has been in limbo for years. These [agreements] are partly hostage to conflicts between developed and developing economies. So maybe India in the Quad can help resolve these issues in a smaller group setting and figure out an approach that can be taken to the global plane.

Can you think of one practical example of cooperation in which the Quad countries could cooperate on climate response?

I think one area where all countries can cooperate - and there's consensus on this - is disaster relief. And indeed more than just disaster relief after the fact; so early warning systems that tell us before these things actually happen. Of course there are systems already in place, but much more can be done because climate change is coming to us from all directions, it's coming as heatwaves, it's coming as cyclones, it's coming as glacier melt and glacial lake outburst floods and drought. There's a whole range of areas where scientific and technological cooperation can happen between these countries to prevent and minimise the damage. It's a low hanging fruit waiting to be tackled.

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