By Pradeep S Mehta, Vinay Piparsania and Julius Waller
If Indian businesses aspire to integrate themselves into the global value chain and the future trading order driven by a critical mass of countries riding the green wave, they must proactively study and engage in discussions on carbon measures with relevant stakeholders.
Reflecting a shift in global trade ethos, various initiatives are trying to connect sustainable production with sustainable consumption. The European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is one of them. Having established the Emissions Trading System (ETS) in 2010 that provided carbon emission rights to domestic producers, the EU will now be imposing an equivalent cost on imports to level the playing field between foreign and domestic producers, thereby preventing carbon leakage. From 2026, for the chosen sectors of cement, fertiliser, iron and steel, electricity and aluminium, imports will face an additional tariff in so far as the country of the source does not exact an equivalent price for the carbon embedded in them.
This will negatively impact the Indian industry, which has significant export interests in the EU. The EU has been the destination for nearly 17 per cent of total Indian exports in the period of 2012-2021. Around six per cent of these exports will fall under the purview of the CBAM. Of these CBAM-implicated Indian exports, the iron & steel sector, followed by aluminium, will be the most affected. Should CBAM expand beyond these five sectors, it will next seek to cover organic chemicals, plastics, polymers and hydrogen. Gradually, almost all carbon-intensive sectors will be sought for coverage.
Even as the specific question of CBAM’s legal compatibility with WTO norms remains undetermined, the inevitability of CBAM or CBAM-like measures cannot be disregarded. Most countries already have some form of domestic carbon pricing scheme in place. Should CBAM open the pandora’s box of carbon border measures, others, especially the US and Canada, may follow suit.
Over 2000 companies globally have implemented targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Thus, even as businesses and governments, especially from developing countries, register their protest against green protectionism, many of them are simultaneously and pragmatically adapting to the upheaval that greening of supply chains will bring to current levels of competitiveness.
Is the readiness displayed by the Indian industry towards a green transition enough to mitigate the commercial risks emanating from CBAM? Looking at existing surveys, it is safe to surmise that the industry is aware but possesses a limited understanding of the initiative. Further, reliance on governmental opposition to CBAM to buy some respite from adaptation is not a reassuring business strategy.
Rather, the time to act is here and now, especially for the sectors implicated in the immediate future. Stakeholders must formulate a clear action plan at the sectoral and firm levels for mitigating the implementation and compliance costs of CBAM across their supply chains. Further, given that the disruption caused by CBAM will bring in a new paradigm of competitiveness, the industry’s strategy must go beyond preserving the pie that exists and work towards tapping new opportunities for market expansion.
Opportunity in adversity
Pre-emptive adoption of low-carbon pathways can catalyse differentiated and resilient growth. Growing public consciousness is leading to a change in consumer preferences that is increasingly creating an incentive to enter a ‘race to the top’ and distinguish products from competitors based on adherence to social values rather than cost differential alone.
Significantly, even at this nascent stage, there is enough commercial demand to incentivise movement. Public and private steel buyers in downstream sectors are deploying their purchasing power through initiatives such as Steel Zero, Clean Energy Ministerial Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative and the First Movers Coalition. By 2030, McKinsey projects that the demand for green steel in Europe could be double than the available supply. Similar supply shortages are predicted for recycled aluminium.
In conjunction with businesses and consumers, investors, too, are relying on sustainability-linked matrices to enable decision-making. The EU and the US are already pushing vigorously for Paris-compliant businesses. Several Indian companies are also taking a lead in announcing net-zero targets for raising environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-linked funds.
Seizing the day
However, the charms of ESG finance come with a caveat. As foreign rating providers tend to compare entities globally, they fail to accommodate the socioeconomic realities of emerging economies. This means that Indian firms will have to swiftly catch up with their global competitors.
Moreover, even for the firms that have already commenced the process of decarbonisation, the battle is only half won. Compliance with CBAM requirements will need continued vigilance and monitoring. Not so far into the future, businesses will have to navigate through a blizzard of regulations on sustainability coming their way.
Another issue is that the Indian policy environment remains disjointed, especially with respect to industries implicated by CBAM. For instance, even as the National Steel Policy of 2017 aims to significantly increase the production and consumption of steel, it does lip service to the idea of decarbonisation, failing to elaborate on how the additional capacity could be rendered sustainable. The Production Linked Incentive scheme on speciality steel similarly remains silent on this aspect. While various Indian companies have taken some noteworthy steps, such as the partnership between the Confederation of Indian Industry and Tata Steel to develop GreenPro, the first Indian ecolabelling framework for steel rebars, complementary participation by the public sector will determine the pace at which the Indian industry can adopt lower carbon pathways.
The recent direction by the government asking the steel sector for timebound action for its green transition offers the perfect opportunity for the industry to take greater initiative and be more articulate in conveying its actual interest in trade and its associated challenges. At the heart of green transition are exceedingly technical and foundational issues like the standardisation of methods to measure carbon emissions. Greater transparency and regulatory coherence in such standards can accelerate decarbonisation and achieve environmental sustainability without creating unnecessary barriers to trade. Given that the implementation of CBAM is planned to be gradual and incremental, it offers the Indian industry ample openings to place its interests at the negotiating table – should it be primed for action with the right knowledge and intervene at the right time.
In sum, if Indian businesses desire to integrate themselves into global value chains and the future trading order that will be driven by a critical mass of countries riding the green wave, they must proactively study and engage in discussions on carbon measures with relevant stakeholders. Preparing a roadmap for the Indian industry in navigating CBAM and related developments to not just retain but increase their overall export competitiveness will require coordination of efforts from the public and private sectors. A dialogue kickstarted by industries implicated by CBAM in conjunction with investors, young entrepreneurs and policy experts can give a much-needed impetus for altering the status quo on discussions of sustainability and responsible business in global value chains.
Indian corporates have a great capacity to ratchet measures relating to sustainability and achieve competitiveness that is resilient. The sooner they internalise this, the smoother their future will be.
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Pradeep S Mehta is Secretary General, CUTS International. Vinay Piparsania is Business Advisor – India at Transnational Strategy Group (TSG), Washington DC. Julius Waller is Chairman of the European Public Policy Advisers Partnership (EPPA), Brussels. Sneha Singh of CUTS contributed to this article.