Climate change: why India needs to lead (part two)

India must take a new approach, not responding to climate change with an attitude of fear, but seeing it as an opportunity for growth. In the second half of a two-part article, Malini Mehra says it’s time for a real leadership.

What has the response of responsible nations been in the face of climate change? At Heiligendamm this year, the G-8 group of industrialised nations agreed to take “strong and early action to tackle climate change in order to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, with a majority agreeing to “at least a halving of global emissions by 2050.”


China, present at Heiligendamm with India as a member of the +5 Group of Countries, and the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases, issued a constructive paper.


What about India? Well, it was business-as-usual it seemed. Although not challenging the IPCC’s scientific conclusions, the Indian government seems in no rush to change. Prodipto Ghosh, former secretary of the Ministry of Environment & Forests, and architect of the government’s climate strategy has said: “India is certainly not responsible for the mess. We are, in fact, victims of it. So why expect us to tighten our belts?”


This sums up the Indian government’s position on climate change for much of the past decade. As a poor developing nation, with per capita carbon emissions one twentieth that of the US and one tenth that of Europe, the immediate imperative is economic growth. India’s “right to development” cannot be compromised; any emissions reductions must be compensated; and richer nations with greater historical responsibility for the problem must bear the brunt of the costs.


The latest twist added is the government’s emphasis on differentiating India’s growth from China’s allegedly far dirtier growth. Lest people mistake the two, Surya Sethi, India’s principal energy adviser, says: “China has grown faster than India but has also consumed over 11 times the fossil fuels … since 2002.” India on the other hand “has been delivering an 8% GDP growth with only 3.7% growth in its energy consumption.” A clean bill of health then? From a climate equity perspective, there is merit to India’s position. We are all familiar with the argument. Why should a poor country be expected to bear the brunt of the pain when rich countries such as the US drag their heels?


But from a climate impact perspective, the government’s position is short-sighted and dangerously complacent. The global climate does not distinguish between borders. The greenhouse-gas emissions being pumped into the atmosphere do not come with country flags attached. What matters is the total volume of emissions entering our fragile atmosphere.


At present, India is the fifth-largest – and growing – emitter of greenhouse gases, at a time when the window for remedial action is reducing. Confined to an inner-circle of officials, NGOs and academics, the focus has been on international climate change negotiations, not on the impacts and responsibilities of us as a nation.

The approach document to India’s eleventh Five Year Plan (2007- 2012) only mentions the words climate change twice in its 109 pages; and the capital city’s newly-adopted Delhi master plan avoids the issue altogether.


India’s climate position speaks as the weak and insecure India, not the India of hope and confidence that seeks to stride the world stage. The emotional message it sends out is of victimization and fear. The lens through which it views other countries is of entitlement, not leadership.


A new approach


India may not be the biggest global emitter, but it is time we were pro-active in addressing its impacts on our people; and responsible for the impacts of our emissions on other regions and future generations.


An enlightened approach would take ownership of the problem, recognizing that while we are not historical emitters, our emissions now – at a time when the implications of our actions are crystal clear – are not without consequence. They risk turning us from climate victim into climate perpetrator. It will be harder to take the moral high ground if our actions accelerate the evacuation of people from poorer, low-lying states or small island nations.


At its core, climate change is about morality and intergenerational justice. India has a young population – 70% of our people are under 36. We cannot hold their future hostage to positions that look backwards, not forwards.


Climate change must be re-framed not as an agenda of fear and entitlement, but of growth and opportunity. Addressing it is the best means for a country like India to secure peace, development and quality of life.


We need to grow to provide prosperity and dignity for our people. But in a carbon-constrained world that growth needs to be clean and green. Suggesting, as government advisers currently do, that there is a choice between investing in social development or in environmental protection is a false choice. We need to do both.


But instead of following the example of earlier industrializing countries, we need to go for smart, low-carbon growth. We need to make sustainability the organizing principle of our economy and of our modernisation agenda.


This need not be as hard as it seems. The money and the brains are there. Capital markets are awash with money for low-carbon technologies. India has more billionaires than Japan now, and an army of domestic venture capitalists eager to sniff out green markets. Green is the new gold and the US$30 billion carbon trading market is growing in India. The country is now one of the biggest sellers of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon credits worldwide. The Diaspora of 20 million overseas Indians is another under-tapped source of capital, innovation and political leverage.


Corporate India has heard the penny dropping: ITC’s new building in Gurgaon is Platinum-rated by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environment and Energy Design (LEED). Bangalore’s hybrid REVA car is enjoying export success around the world. India’s wind power giant, Suzlon, is now the fifth largest globally and poised to expand domestically. Infosys is involved in an effort to build a foundation for Indian companies to benefit from carbon emissions management.


This is not only a story of big business responding. At the small and medium end of the market, India’s entrepreneurs have long been active developers and enthusiasts for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Ashden awards for sustainable energy – the only one of their type – have had more award-winners from India than any other country. Indeed, this year’s “Outstanding Achievement” winner was SELCO, the Bangalore-based private company that provides solar services to low-income households and institutions.


Gearing the economy around sustainability may also help India address two of its most pressing problems – high unemployment and jobless growth. The potential for win-win-win benefits all round in the green economy has long been recognised but remains unrealised. The climate challenge might just give it the impetus it needs.


If we are indeed the last generation to enjoy a stable climate, as many scientists fear, we must get it right. Failure is not an option. The missing link is political leadership.


Time for leadership


There are signs a change may be coming. On June 5, World Environment Day, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, admitted “our future will be at peril” unless people change their lifestyles.


He has recently spoken of the need for a national action plan and established agenda-setting committees. Helping him deliver this is a task for us all – at all levels. But first we need to democratise the debate and move it from the arcane to the public. The Centre for Social Markets’ national public engagement initiative, Climate Challenge India, launched earlier this year, is an attempt to help do this. The first effort of its type, it seeks to provide a national platform for discussion and agenda setting on climate change issues.


The world cannot solve climate change without India. If we aspire to global leadership, there are few other issues to match. The world needs a fair and effective system of international governance to manage this problem. It is in our interest to engage fully and constructively in the process of establishing such a system.


This is crucially needed if efforts to construct a “global deal” on climate change, beginning in Bali this December, are to succeed. India could hold the key to this. Generations to come may well see this as our defining moment of global emergence.


The Prime Minister could use the preparatory process for the next Conference of Parties to the UN’s Climate Change Convention (COP 13), to be held in December 2007 in Bali, to signal a new more positive approach to climate change. This would explicitly recognise the benefits of early and responsible action for front-line nations such as India.


This could be accompanied by serious domestic efforts – coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office for needed authority – to construct a joined-up and forward-looking national policy platform on climate change that could help the country deliver on its sustainable development and poverty eradication objectives.


A new approach would recognize the need to positively address India’s energy security dilemma and the co-benefits of so doing not only for climate security, but also for the national purse and the provision of basic energy services to the poor. India currently imports about 78% of its annual crude oil requirements – a huge drain on national resources and a dependency projected to increase by 2012. An imaginative climate change strategy would address this dependence head on and chart a path towards a low-carbon economic future that had more of a chance of meeting the energy needs both of industry, as well as of India’s masses.
For a country with an advanced nuclear programme and space exploration ambitions, leapfrogging from a high-carbon to a low-carbon energy economy is both timely and possible. India needs to make major investments in infrastructure and transportation systems. We need to ensure that these are climate resilient, and cost and energy efficient over the long-term. Government leadership could facilitate this by creating national frameworks, setting guidelines, and incentivising public and private investments.


Climate change is a generational challenge. Dealing with it could help provide a new sense of national purpose. But it demands that each one of us ask more of ourselves. The gains are there to be realised. What are we waiting for?



Malini Mehra is the founder and chief executive of Centre for Social Markets. In 2007, she was named as an ‘Asia 21 Young Leader’ by the Asia Society. She has been featured on CNN’s Principal Voices, BBC World, Time and Fortune magazines.

Homepage photo by jlehti