Treesha Lall, B.A (h) Economics, from Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.
In the context of third-world countries, climate change, understandably, has never been urgently attended to. With reference to India, amidst problems of widespread poverty, hunger, crime, social, financial and communal disparities, action on climate change is usually accorded low priority. Two prevalent arguments are generally put forth by the Indian Government to explain India’s lack of participation in the global sustainability and climate action movement.
1. Like most other third-world countries, India must necessarily develop its industrial base and per capita growth, a primary measure of welfare for its populace. Climate action is considered to be expensive and, more significantly, a hindrance to the growth of the domestic market as well as an inhibitor of foreign investment.
2. Further, akin to other developing nations, India does not have access to advanced technological tools required to effectively curb carbon emissions and environmental degradation. This excludes it from the discourse on climate change, which is limited to mainly developed countries such as the United States, China and the European Union.
Nonetheless, Indian Policy makers engaged in the climate conversation sometime in the 1980s, in the backdrop of fast-spreading global action such as the formation of the IPCC (International Panel of Climate Change) in 1988. According to 2014 paper by J. Thaker and A. Leiserowitz, Climate Change action in India has been driven by historic ‘shifting discourses’ of the Indian Government on the matter. This manifested initially as a defensive reaction to mounting international pressure to cut emissions throughout the following decade. India’s long-held position, as mentioned above, had been of protecting the development of its industries and ‘raising the standard of living’ of its people, thereby shifting the responsibility of emissions control on developed nations such as the United States and China. Additionally, in the face of bigger, more pressing priorities, Indian policymakers and experts believed that developed countries have historically been key emitters, with per capita carbon emissions that far exceeded those of India.
This view, however, has since softened over the years. In the past 5 years, India under Narendra Modi has played a much more vocal role in the fight against climate change. However, not much of the enthusiasm of the state translated into tangible environmental action. Worryingly, with the government’s commitment towards expanding India’s energy and commercial sectors at whatever cost necessary, India’s environmental impact seems to be taking a turn for the worse.
While it is essential for voluntary climate action to come from both China and the United States, which they have chosen to avoid so far, refusing to partake in both the Kyoto protocol and the Paris Agreement (until recently), it is also imperative to examine India’s contribution to global emissions and climate action. This, on account of it being home to a significant portion of the global population and a steadily rising nation on the trajectory of attaining global super-power status.
For immediate climate action, it may be prudent to analyze India’s role in climate change through a different lens, not going by the magnitude of environmental violations and consequent responsibility for mitigation, but by considering India’s severe predicament in the event of extreme climate change and its ability to lead by example in the international sphere.
India has witnessed, first hand, the effects of climate change in the shape of natural disasters and freak weather phenomenon which are on a yearly rising trend since the start of the century. Effects include loss of property, life, livelihood and mass displacement throughout the country. According to the International
Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), between 2008-2019, 3.6 million Indians were displaced due to natural disasters such as droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves. The after-math of such disasters further brings a host of vector borne diseases such as malaria, cholera, dengue and diarrhea (J.T Watson, M. Gayer, M.A Connolly) which accrue substantial fatalities in the population..
Environmental imbalances also severely affect India’s climate-sensitive primary sector. For instance, in the possible event of 2.9-4.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, rice crop yields could drop by 32%-40% and wheat yields could drop by 41%-52%. This could amount to a 1.8%-2.4% fall in India’s GDP (A. Khajuria, N.H Ravindranath; 2012). Essentially, climate change could reduce farmers’ incomes by 15%-18% and snowball into price spikes of agricultural produce.
Agriculture accounts for 49% of employment and 16% GDP in India.
There is extensive suggestive evidence supporting the claim that climate change disproportionately affects the lower income, rural population, making it a serious threat to the 269 million people living below the poverty line in India. For this strata of society, there is little mental, financial and physical protection against climate change disruptions and even lesser chances of full recovery following events of extreme climate-induced disasters.
Despite being critically appraised as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and ecological disaster, India has done little to promote sustainability within its own borders. According to GHG Platform India, 68% of India’s emissions are attributed to the energy sector, with 77% coming from its generation. Of late, India has attempted to align its energy policy with global trends, bringing forth a natural transition from coal and fossil fuels to renewable energy. While this radical shift in 2019 was a noteworthy achievement, experts do not expect coal to be phased out of India’s energy sector just yet. In fact, international institutions predict a steady growth in coal capacity, well into the next decade.
Following energy, agriculture is the second most polluting sector in India. Traditional slash and burn rice cultivation techniques as well as the rearing of cattle and livestock release thousands of tons of C02 throughout the year. These activities alongside the use of organic and non-organic fertilizers release extensive quantities of nitrous oxide, a gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect 28 times more than CO2. Agriculture coupled with primary industries such as textiles and minerals contributes to an exponential deterioration of water bodies around India, especially the river systems that connect Industrial hubs such as Surat in Gujarat, parts of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The water bodies are subjected to surface level fertiliser run-offs, un-treated agrochemicals, industrial and municipal wastes. Agricultural reform is another seldom-touched issue in the Indian political arena. Little has been done to improve quality of harvest since the green and white revolutions of the 1980s. The recently introduced farm bill is largely silent on the subject of environmentally sustainable farming.
Environmental policy making has been a historically passive affair in India. In the last decade, environmental friendly projects have been some of the most ambitious started by the government. This includes ‘Swachh Bharat’, a mass waste disposal movement and the ‘Namami Gange’ project to clean the river Ganga in 2014. However, away from the spotlight, instances of ecological irresponsibility of the government have been well-documented in the past years. In the Delhi-NCR region, Aravalli hills have been disappearing owing to illegal mining and quarrying by the Haryana state government. In Mumbai, a significant portion of the Aarey forests were slated to be cleared to make way for the construction of metro sheds. Furthermore, environmental laws and clearances have been slackened to haste industrial activity.
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification passed in 2020 frees corporates and the state of environmental accountability to a significant degree.
It severely reduces the capabilities of public intervention and consultation on development projects in and around forested areas. The advent of COVID 19 may cause several environmental legislations to be sidelined for more immediate market development. The impact of the many, essentially off-the-books ecological offences in recent years have caused noticeable environmental degradation within India. Compared to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) data of 2014, which ranked India 155th amongst 180 most polluted countries, in 2018, India was ranked 4th in the same index. External figures make for compelling arguments against India’s environmental performance over the last few years.
Sustained state inactivity and a lack of public accountability may point to a long-standing characteristic of India’s climate action. Relative to the widespread global, grassroots movement against rising average temperatures and climate change, lesser citizen reaction has taken hold in India. While the country has certainly come a long way from defending carbon heavy and polluting industries for its development, the majority of the populaces seemingly fails to attach an urgency to climate action.
Why, to put it bluntly, does India not care as much? Enlisting the science of behavioural economics, important psychological theories may apply to climate change and public denial. For example, and optimism bias is an individual’s tendency to irrationally underestimate a negative outcome of a future event. And so they may discount their chances of being in a road accident or their chances of catching a disease or their chances of being affected by unmitigated climate-related disasters. If one believes they may not be victim to the occurrence of a negative event, one may not feel particularly inclined to change the course of its happening.
Similarly, social dilemmas refer to a choice available to an individual “in which people must choose between their short-term own self-interest and the longer-term interest of the entire population.” (A.L. Huckelba, P.A Van Lange) The social dilemma explains that the reason behind a lack of public activity in climate change occurs when individuals marginally choose their short-term interests over the long-term interest of the population. One may decide to preserve their own self-interest because of an inability to cooperate socially for the greater good, especially in large populations. Studies show that cooperation reduces significantly as sample sizes increase, this may explain a lack of collective action against climate change in India, the second most populous country in the world.
Additionally, an inactivity may be subject to the temporal dilemma, a time-based conundrum. Faced with a temporal dilemma, an individual may not want to forfeit his short-term interests over the long-term collective good because they could possibly not reap the benefits of their sacrifice. Other times, individuals have a general tendency to discount the immediacy of future consequences, thinking the impacts of climate change are still far away. This stands especially true for a population that is conditioned to prioritize self-preservation, a case, therefore, which stands especially true for India. This is one of the most common drawbacks of inter-generational problem-solving.
Environmental conservation in India is complex and multi-faceted. On the one hand, in relative terms, emissions per capita are far higher than other developed nations such as China and the United States. On the other hand, harboring approximately 17% of the global population. India has a responsibility to lower its emissions and impact the global climate landscape significantly. Similarly, while it is evident that India is making strong moves towards achieving the Paris Agreement goal (emissions less than 2 degree Celsius), it is still actively pursuing irresponsible industrial models and fossil fuel energy generation. Therefore, India, uniquely, is as much of a primary climate victim as it is a climate offender. India has a responsibility to not only curb its own emissions but also actively lobby for global cooperation to combat climate change.
Here, the problem almost certainly seems to lie more with the industrial sector and primary sectors. Action must, therefore, start there.
Firstly, environmental regulations on such industries may prove to be expensive for corporates given that reports of being handed a near-clean chit by the state have been prevalent. However, a voluntary switch to cleaner production may be a profitable move especially for the biggest polluters in India: the energy industry.
It is evident now that, coupled with the rich resources available to India accredited to its geographical location, it may soon, if not already, harness the capacity to make a swift transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy. In 2009 and 2019, solar energy capacity in India increased from 40 GW to 580 GW along with an 82% price drop. Similarly, in 2018, wind energy prices dropped 14% and hydropower energy dropped 12%. Switching to renewable energy may be profitable for India’s energy industry. With corporate lobbying and more active steps from the government to phase out fossil fuels, India may well achieve the ambitious goal of significantly curbing its emissions.
For other industries such as cotton and textiles, however, strict environmental regulations must be kept in place. Here, a carbon tax may be a prudent step to lower emissions. The main problem here lies in the unethical discharge of untreated waste into the ground and water. Negative monetary incentivization such as taxing, fining must be put into force. Additionally, operations must be made transparent for public scrutiny and legislative action.
India is making strides in curbing its emissions and transitioning towards a sustainable future. While it is far from reaching and optimum growth-sustainability balance, in case it succeeds in making this transition, many developing countries could be expected to follow suit. As one of the first nations to truly face the repercussions of climate change, India must actively participate in the international sphere and push for global cooperation and a sustainable future. At present, one can only hope those national action shifts from the razor’s edge and tips to the right side of history.