Climate Change And India: The Way Ahead
By Kashif Islam
17 July, 2015
After years of dilly-dallying and negationism, the two biggest polluters- the US and China finally agreed in November last year to commit themselves to green-house gas binding reductions. While several major countries of the world, including the EU and latin America had long committed themselves to such reductions, others like Australia, Canada and especially the US adamantly refused any binding obligations. It was this reluctance to acknowledge the problem that had so far thwarted a globally concerted response to what is essentially a globe-wide problem.
What will this mean for the strategy of developing countries like India (polluter no.3 after the US and China)? Unlike the U.S, India does not deny the science of climate change and the associated risks; instead, at the various climate change fora, India along with the bloc of developing countries has always pushed for exemptions for developing countries by emphasising ‘differential commitments ‘based on ‘historical emissions’.
In the national media and political landscape, there seems to be complete unanimity that climate change could not be the proverbial spoke in the wheel of india’s growth story. The ostensible justifications one usually hears from the mouth of learned experts are of the type- ‘We need to pull out millions of Indians from poverty’ or that ‘Our per-capita emissions are very low’ or simply that ‘We need to grow’. The noble objective of alleviating poverty seems to soothe the conscience of even committed environmentalists, at the least the ones expressing themselves in the media.
Yet, as we shall see, the per-capita figure and the poverty story are nothing more than a smokescreen devised by vested interests to continue with the growth agenda.
Let’s start with what the per-capita statistic tells us. The per-capita gives us the average per person; it says nothing about the distribution. By way of a simplified illustration: going by per-capita income, India is a middle-income country; but no one thinks there is no need for income taxes in India because the per-capita income falls below the taxable limit. We know that in india there are rich, the not so rich and also very poor people.
To the credit of our media experts, our per-capita emissions are indeed very low, a fraction of CO2 and resources compared to the US and Europe; but, one could hardly argue we do not need emissions controls any more than we don’t need income tax because the per-capita income is low.
The low per-capita emissions do not mean everyone in India is frugal and environment-conscious. It just means that given the reality of many indians bereft of even the basic necessities of life( adequate housing, transport and health) , a sizeable number of Indians on the other end of the emission distribution curve must be consuming resources approaching their western counterparts to give us a balanced per-capita figure.
Assuming 25% of Indians in the middle class and rich categories, we have a rough figure of 275 million people who left to market forces and themselves have already acquired the consumption habits and emissions of the typical American consumer. To ask exemption for these well-off people in the name of fighting poverty is plain deceit.
Nor does the per- capita consumption mean that Indian agriculture and Indian industries are already very efficient. Indian industry lags far behind western counterparts in efficiency of production, especially in the steel, electricity and paper sectors. To cite an example, the Green Rating Project by the Centre for Science and Environment highlighted the glaring inefficiency and environmental laxity of the indian thermal power plants. In fact, the lack of urgency resulting from per-capita discourse is delaying necessary efficiency measures in agriculture and industry.
Since climate change is a global and not national problem, any successful climate action must include both today’s emitters as well as limit future emissions. If it’s india and china who ask for exemptions today, it will be Africa’s turn tomorrow. In the absence of alternatives, the poor and low consuming Indian or african of today becomes perforce the polluter and wasteful consumer of tomorrow. We simply don’t have that kind of leeway and time in dealing with climate change.
Sure, the focus must also be on improving the lives of vast number of people living in material and energy poverty such as in India and Africa in meaningful ways. But the per-capita approach does not directly tackle this disparity, for we could easily have increased per-capita emissions without a corresponding decline in poverty. It is a strange belief to insist that the only way to a decent life is through destruction of the earth itself.
The reluctance to address green house gas emissions also deprives countries such as ours of a sustainable energy strategy which keeps in mind the interests of the future generations. There is nothing in today’s official planning that directly targets absolute reductions in energy consumption other than selective efficiency measures as for cars and consumer durables. It’s heartening that renewable energy has benefitted from increasing focus, but solar, wind and hydroelectricity will never be enough to run our factories, buildings and growing number of cars, no matter how efficient these are.
The world’s and india’s supply of fossil fuels are limited and non-renewable. At this rate of consumption, natural gas and petroleum will either be rationed or be very expensive by the year 2100. Shale-gas might prolong our consumption habits for a few decades, but not more. And, if we destroy the last of our forests, we might just about have enough coal to last a hundred years. To the optimists, however, all such talk is anathema, placing, as he does, too much of trust in technological innovations.
Climate change mitigation strategy provides us the opportunity to both reduce our resource consumption before it reaches the unsustainable levels of the developed countries, and also ensure sufficient stocks of resources for the coming generations. For that, however, there is a need for the decision makers to free themselves of the hold of traditional economists, predicated entirely upon increasing national income. Perhaps, it will be seen in hindsight that the danger from the dogma of economic growth be no less than climate change and environmental degradation in general.
Action on the latter would hardly be possible in the absence of action on the other.
Kashif Islam is based n Bangalore and hold an MA in French and have been working since many years as an IT expert and French translator. He has also collaborated as a freelance translator for ‘Le monde diplomatique’.
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