Will India be a Climate-Change Spoiler again?

Anyone who has seen or witnessed how the city of Chennai was inundated by flash floods last month would need no convincing that climate change is for real. In fact, the ominous signs of climate change can be much seen through their impacts on the Indian landscape. The annual monsoons for 2015 were much deficient leading to a failure of crops, whereas some other parts were drowned in unseasonal rain. Over the past few years, the unpredictable vagaries — from heatwaves to flash floods — keep recurring with amazing regularity.

But, even though India suffers much the changing vagaries of nature, it almost seems oblivious to it. The prime cause is because in the pursuit of growth and development, seeking to grow the GDP at a significant rate, creating smart cities; environment has become is just a deposit of coal that is waiting to be dug up, or a mangrove that needs be cleared to lay a road. Numerous times, the people of India have been told that there is a conspiracy brewing between the environmentalist to ensure that growth in India is jeopardised, so what if the NGOs were fighting against an upcoming nuclear plant or against a forest that would be dug up for coal.

Moving from Chennai to Paris, where much of the world has gathered to piece together a treaty htat ensures that the 2°C rise guardrail is not breached. Nonetheless India’s ambivalence is pretty much reflected in the global view on climate change. So, on one hand Prime Minister acknowledges the impact of climate change in a private address on the radio, on the other hand he writes an column in the Financial Times literally warning the rich against letting down the poor nations. Spelt out in no uncertain terms by Prime Minister in his editorial, he stated, that “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities should be the bedrock of our collective enterprise. Anything else would be morally wrong.” Even the Ministry of environment and forests has launched a special campaign on social media platforms demanding #JustClimateAction or #ClimateJustice. The idea of Climate Justice essentially hinges on the ‘Polluter Pays Policy’ (PPP) — a principle whereby polluting countries bear the cost of the environmental damage they cause. Thrusting the idea of per capita emissions, on which count the 3rd largest emitter does not seem as dour (India’s per capita CO2 emissions were 1.7 metric tonnes in 2010 and remained below the global average of about 5 metric tonnes).

Indiaclimatechange3In fact, India was one of the last countries to submit the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). Thankfully, the INDCS are pretty straight forward, in it India has said that it aims to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from 2005 levels, and achieve 40% of its cumulative electric power of around 350GW installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources, mainly renewable power. And create an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through extra forest and tree cover by 2030. India has even forged a Solar Alliance of around 100 countries, largely lying in the tropics, where solar power can be a big play.

The fact that India is now talking about differentiated responsibilities, climate justice and climate commons must surely ring a bell. The last time, the deal making at COP 20 in Copenhagen was stalled essentially because of such issues raised by China and supported by India. On an international scale, India and China are usually seen as deal breakers, who will always raise the climate bogey when it comes to spelling out deal. Both India and China had profited much from the provisions of Kyoto Protocol, that had introduced the concept of clean development mechanism or CDM. With the Annex 1 countries, namely the developed ones, not wanting to pay up for the past, the deal is always in a jeopardy. The US has always been a party-popper, refusing to acknowledge its role and responsibilities. The problem is all the more complex now, Barrack Obama, while he may all wax eloquent on climate issues, is at the weakest period of his presidency. He is well aware that whatever he signs off, might not pass the muster in the Congress. And on his last leg, there is hardly any guarantees that he can offer to the world.

And this is where the real problem lies. The world, while seemingly united on the issue of climate change, is actually much disjointed along the lines of Haves and Havesnot. The rich nations are more keen to dole out sermons from a high pulpit, while the developing ones are not interested in shackling there growth. India has been debating this position right from the very first conference on environment in 1972, in which late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had linked environment and poverty in her speech:

On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty–on the other, they warn us against their own methods. We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? For instance, unless we are in a position to provide employment and purchasing power for the daily necessities of the tribal people and those who live in or around our jungles, we cannot prevent them from combing the forest for food and livelihood; from poaching and from despoiling the vegetation. When they themselves feel deprived, how can we urge the preservation Indiaclimatechange2of animals? How can we speak to those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and the air clean when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.

In a manner of speaking, the whole climate movement was stalled, when Mrs. Gandhi emphatically stated that , “we do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people.” “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”

The position of India has more or less remained the same over the ages, in spite the fact that India is now the 3rd largest emitter of CO2 emissions and will only go higher based on the burgeoning population. As the clout of the nation grows on the international scale, evident from the bonhomie (not to mention the selfies) between PM Modi and the rest of world leaders. It will be a great tragedy if the treaty falls flat again on the count of climate justice or differentiated responsibilities. When the the first major treaty was penned in 1997 at Kyoto, Indiaclimatechange4India was just another player on the field, a developing country that seemed to be in a state of eternal development. But India is a rising global power, a country that aspires for a UNSC seat, that sends inter-planetary missions. Should we not then be looking at a different approach to things, an approach that is challenging, brave and inspiring. In many ways, India has shown the world the power of democratic means, numerous leaders have been inspired by how we attained freedom. Would it not be wonderful if we could teach the world a lesson and many on conservation. Yes, the 300 million Indians without electricity deserve and need electricity to light up their homes and schools. Yes, Indians deserve the cars and have a right to fly. But please lets not forget, that the real pollution is not caused by the man who lives a life of modest means in any of India’s towns or cities, but those fortunate few that lead an existence of opulent extravaganza in our cities. It is they are bogging us down.

Last winter, one of the most shocking thing was to discover that New Delhi was the most polluted city in the world in terms of air pollution. As the winter chill sets in again, millions of people living in the city will yet again face the consequences. The people in Chennai, who were Climate Justicecaught unawares in the floods had to face consequences. The millions of farmers whose crops were destroyed because of deficient rains will have to face the consequence. The vast populace of this land, which will have to suffer because of rising prices of essential commodities, will have to face the consequence. In that regards, India needs to act first and talk later. Future Indians will not be as forgiving, were they to know that we screwed up things in the name of conventions and modalities. It is time for India to be counted and it rightfully should be.

Shashwat DC (@shashwatdc)



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