Climate change threatens livelihoods of 600 million Indians
India is home to 30 per
cent of the world’s poorest, those living on less than $1.90 a day. Of the 1.3
billion Indians, 304 million do not have access to electricity; 92 million have
no access to safe drinking water. And India is going to be hammered by climate
The livelihoods of 600
million Indians are threatened by the expected disruption of the southwest
monsoon from July to September, which accounts for 70 per cent of India’s
rainfall. India’s rivers depend on the health of thousands of Himalayan
glaciers at risk of melting because of a warming climate, while 150 million
people are at risk from storm surges associated with rising sea levels.
A lot of damage is
already inevitable, a consequence of the emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse
gases by richer countries. So, many Indians ask, why must we pay more? On what
grounds can India be asked to temper its use of energy to limit its emissions
of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide?
“Today, I see the
carbon space occupied by the developed world,” Prakash Javadekar, the
environment minister, said in an interview with The Associated Press in
September. “We are asking the developed world to vacate the carbon space to
accommodate us. That carbon space demand is climate justice.”
resolution of this confrontation of priorities does not matter just for India’s
sake. The tension between economic development and the imperative to curb
greenhouse gas emissions remains the central challenge of the diplomatic effort
to muster a coalition of rich and poor countries to combat climate change.
The United Nations
expects India’s population to reach 1.5 billion by 2030, bigger than China’s.
If over the next 15 years it follows anything like the fossil-fuel-heavy path
out of poverty that China took over the last 15, it could blow any chance the
world has of preventing a disaster.
A critical question for
anyone with a stake in preventing a climatic catastrophe is how to conceive and
finance a development path for 1.5 billion Indians that prevents this outcome.
environmentalists, executives and government diplomats packing their bags to
attend the climate summit meeting in Paris, starting Nov. 30, must keep the
challenge in mind.
After so many failed
rounds of diplomacy, everyone involved is eager to declare the coming meeting a
success. So far, 129 countries accounting for nearly 90 percent of greenhouse
gas emissions have submitted plans to contribute to the cause.
While the progress is
undoubtedly real, the central challenge remains unresolved. Countries are not
being asked to make legally binding commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas
emissions. They will show up, instead, with “Intended Nationally Determined
Contributions” to the mitigation effort.
Advanced countries will
offer absolute cuts in carbon emissions. But the less developed are expected
only to reduce their emissions intensity — a measure of the carbon dioxide
released to produce a certain amount of economic activity — in a recognition
that their energy consumption still has a long way to grow.
The new approach was
necessary to achieve any progress. But it required putting the tough questions
aside. Nearly as populous as China, yet way behind in terms of economic
development, India presents one of the tougher ones.
By most accounts, the world’s
greenhouse gas emissions must be brought close to zero by the end of the
century, at the latest. This constrains everyone.
For instance, a recent
report by the World Bank argues that economies like China and India must
totally decarbonize their electricity supply around midcentury and achieve
negative emissions from then on, using carbon capture technologies and vastly
increased forests, to suck excessive carbon out of the atmosphere. To put it
mildly, that is going to be a challenge.
Jairam Ramesh, who was
minister of the environment under the previous Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh,
argues that India must continue to grow at 7.5 to 8 percent a year for the next
To power this growth,
India’s electricity consumption — which accounts for over half its greenhouse
gas emissions — would rise 6 to 7 percent a year. Even under the most ambitious
goals for nuclear power and renewable energy, more than half of this power is
expected to come from coal, the dirtiest fuel. “By 2030 India’s coal consumption
could triple or quadruple,” Ramesh said.
India has come up with
a mitigation contribution plan for the Paris meeting. It aims to get 40 percent
of its electricity from no fossil fuels by 2030 and to reduce its emissions
intensity by 33 to 35 percent from 2005 to 2030. It also offers to vastly
increase its forest cover.
The plan, however,
pointedly notes that India’s energy consumption amounts to only 0.6 metric tons
of oil equivalent per person, about a third of the world average. It explains
that “no country in the world” has ever achieved the development level of
today’s advanced nations without consuming at least four tons.
“India has a lot to do
to provide a dignified life to its population and meet their rightful
aspirations,” it states.
Some analysts say there
is a way to thread the needle. Development can be decoupled from carbon
emissions, the World Bank insists.
Moreover, economists at
the World Bank argued in a separate report released last Sunday that emissions
reduction policies could be structured to benefit the poor in the next 15 years
— for instance by using revenue from carbon taxes to pay for social insurance.
“The goals are
extremely ambitious; only a minority of scenarios get us there,” said Stephane
Hallegatte, who led the study. “But they are achievable.”
Under the right set of
policies, the World Bank projects, even the most disruptive climate change
would add only three million people to India’s extreme poor in 2030. Bad
choices, by contrast, would add 42 million to that number.
Some in India seem
convinced by the logic. “Our traditional defensive stance has simply not been
in the enlightened national interest,” Mr. Ramesh argued in an address last
year to the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore.
“India must view the
era of the green economy not as a threat to its developmental plans,” he said.
“Instead, it must be viewed as an opportunity to build and demonstrate
technological capability to the world.”
And yet, there is still
a significant risk that India will say no to the West’s climate change agenda.
“It plays hugely well domestically,” Ramesh said. “One should never discount