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Should India cut emissions?

India’s stand on climate change is that our right to ‘development’ is non-negotiable. But, considering that the path to development we have adopted is neither sustainable nor equitable, it is time we took on voluntary emission cuts for our own welfare, even as we continue pressurising the West to cut its emissions substantially, says Ashish Kothari

As frequent as the storms being caused by climate change are the storms of controversy over the issue. The latest, over a letter that Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh sent to the prime minister, has a number of interesting aspects. One is the leak of the letter itself, and whether reporting by The Times of India was accurate or “mischievously distorted” (as Ramesh alleged). But that’s a side issue. The other, more important, is the different perspective Ramesh is reported to have expressed. Should India try to break the deadlock by accepting binding targets to reduce its emissions? Should it thereby jettison the common position of the G77 countries, built up over years of negotiations: that industrialised countries must undertake mandatory cuts in their emissions and help ‘developing’ countries voluntarily switch to cleaner forms of development through funds and technology transfer? Or should it continue to insist that we must be given ‘equal rights’ to the global atmosphere, which means we will not accept any curtailment of our economic growth that may be needed to cut emissions?  

Are we asking the right questions?

Most commentators have jumped on Ramesh for reportedly shifting our basic position, thereby weakening our bargaining strength vis-à-vis the industrial countries. He has clarified that he never said or intended this. To me, the framing of the issue is itself problematic. Underlying it is the assumption that the current path of economic growth constitutes the only way we can ‘develop’, or ensure that our people’s wellbeing is secured. Much like George Bush said -- that the ‘American way of life’ was not up for negotiation when he refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because of its binding emissions cuts -- we are saying that our right to ‘development’ is non-negotiable.  

The problem is, the ‘development’ we are trying to so zealously safeguard is itself an imposition by the West and a thoroughly inappropriate one. Over the last half-a-century it has left over half our population still in the throes of poverty and hunger, even as a tiny minority has joined the world’s richest elite. It has dealt a massive blow to the environmental base we all depend on for our lives -- clean air and water, productive soils, and healthy forests and oceans. The two crucial tenets of any sane economic model are equitable benefits to all citizens and the sustainability of these benefits so that future generations can also avail of them. Development, as currently practised in India, adheres to neither, never mind India’s international commitments to ‘sustainable development’ or to the principles of equity. 

What has this got to do with climate change? Plenty. India’s contribution to climate-destroying emissions is largely a result of following an unsustainable and inequitable path to economic growth. Taking action on this will help us reduce our climate impacts, showing the world that we are ourselves serious about the issue and are not just pointing fingers at the industrial countries. But equally, if not more important, taking action on this will lead us to an ecologically, socially and culturally more secure future. And so, we must take on voluntary emissions cuts for our own welfare, even as we continue putting pressure on the West to cut its emissions substantially.  

Voluntary emissions cuts are in our interest

What actions would these entail? Can we afford them? Do we have the technologies needed? Let’s look at some sectors:  

Energy: Moving away from a carbon-intensive energy scenario -- especially coal-based power generation -- means much greater focus on clean, renewable sources like solar, wind, biogas, etc. A number of experts have worked out that India is in a position to lead the world in this, both because of the ‘raw materials’ available, as also the technologies. But we must also consider that along with technologies, governance and management of these energy sources is crucial. It’s not about investing only or primarily in huge centralised solar and wind parks, more about making smaller-scale options available to communities (rural and urban). And about investing in energy efficiency from the production to consumption stage.  

Transport: In the last couple of decades, especially with the onset of globalisation, a huge amount of investment has gone into encouraging the private car sector. It is a well-known fact that public transport is more efficient and less carbon-intensive or polluting per person than private vehicles. Yet, not one of our cities and towns has declared that it will make this its highest priority. Nor have any paid more than lip-service to making cycling and walking safer and more enjoyable.  

Agriculture: A part of our emissions comes from chemical fertilisers used in ‘modern’ agriculture, introduced as part of the development package especially since the 1960s. Though increasingly found in policy documents, organic or sustainable farming is still a poor stepchild in government programmes while fertilisers get a whopping Rs 40,000 crore subsidy. Initiatives in several agro-ecological zones of India show that organic farming is capable of high productivity on a sustained basis, provided there are adequate inputs of high quality local seeds and organic manure, both of which can actually be produced at the village level.  

Forests:Though India is better than many ‘developing’ countries in maintaining its forest cover, the last couple of decades have seen a renewed assault on natural forests from mining, industry, defence installations, and encroachments. Over 600,000 hectares have been diverted since 2001, and several million hectares more degraded through over-use. This means both carbon emissions and a reduced ability to absorb carbon.  

Action must be taken in all these and related sectors. Polluting energy sources, industry, and vehicles entail huge health costs and agricultural damage, together amounting to the loss of perhaps several thousand crores of rupees annually. Chemicals in agriculture pollute the water and soil and poison our food, doing incalculable damage to us all. Privatisation of transport chokes our city streets, and no one has even thought of calculating the cost of the psychological tension and delays that commuters face every day. Loss of forests has widespread impacts on water and soil, and on the livelihoods and cultures of forest-dwellers. And all of these are responsible for the massive destruction of wildlife and biodiversity.  

But can we afford to take action on these fronts? Or do we need to wait for the industrialised countries to give us money and free technology? I might be going out on a limb by saying this, but I don’t think a country like India needs to wait for either. We have hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees going into all kinds of wasteful, destructive things, including the sectors mentioned above. Making our development truly sustainable would mean putting this expenditure into alternatives, such as switching the massive fertiliser subsidy to inputs for organic farming, and coal and nuclear investments to renewable energy. It would mean heavily taxing private cars to fund public transport. It would mean putting all the development aid we already get from abroad into alternative avenues. As for technologies, what is the point of boasting that we have the world’s third largest scientific human power base (not to mention immense amounts of traditional knowledge, much of it still relevant), if we can’t produce our own answers to technological challenges? Indeed, I would wager that most of what we need already exists in the country, ready to be utilised if only we would focus more on indigenous (traditional and modern) solutions rather than run after western ones.  

Reining in the rich, empowering the poor

All of this also entails putting curbs on the extreme consumerism of India’s rich minority. This minority is responsible for a disproportionately high share of the country’s emissions, through its use of electrical gadgets, airconditioners, cars, etc. Indeed, the richest sections are already emitting twice the 2.5 tonnes per annum limit that each citizen on earth is supposed to be entitled to if we want to stay within the limits of climate sustainability. Their profligacy does not show up internationally simply because the very low emissions of several hundred million Indians pulls the national average down, a phenomenon that Greenpeace India, in a recent report, calls “hiding behind the poor”. Ironically, it is the poor who will be worst-affected by climate change, while the rich will probably fly off to whichever safe haven still exists elsewhere on earth. And yet India’s National Climate Action Plan spells out no action on curbing such destructive consumerism, or providing ‘climate justice’ to the poor.  

Such action will not take place without fundamental changes in governance. Communities, both rural and urban, need to mobilise and empower themselves, with support from civil society and government, to take part in decision-making. We have the beginnings of decentralisation; it needs to be taken to its logical conclusion by much greater transfers of power. Massive environmental and climate awareness programmes are necessary, linked to plans for the right to education and literacy. Building or rebuilding local capacity to become self-reliant in meeting basic requirements, linking local institutions across larger landscapes, conceiving of long-term land use plans and other such actions have to accompany changes in developmental and technological priorities.  

The moral upper hand

In taking the above steps, we would also be doing the climate a favour even if it’s a small favour in global terms. And we would have a much stronger case in demanding that industrial countries take action. We already have the ecological and social arguments; we would then also have the moral upper hand.  

Lest I be misunderstood, let me stress that this is not an argument to abandon our stand on ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ should we fall for false solutions like growing biofuels for their (or our) cars, or ‘carbon offsets’ in which they try to buy off our share of the global atmospheric commons so that they can continue with existing levels of emissions. In none of these ways must we let them off the hook.  

No, I am simply saying that we have to take action towards a low-emissions, low-carbon and more equitable economy for our own good. And that this will only add moral strength to our case against the biggest climate-crunching countries. If this is what Jairam Ramesh suggested in his letter to the prime minister, I’m all for it. If it is not, well it should be!    

Infochange News & Features, October 2009