India’s stand at international climate change talks has been one of resisting acceptance of binding emission targets. That, however, is a part of the country’s national strategy. What needs addressing is our strategy at the level of states and Union territories. The Prime Minister made a beginning in that respect on Tuesday in his address at the national conference of ministers of environment and forests.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
At one level, a sub-national strategy is a natural part of the solution. Indian states have diverse political, economic and ecological characteristics. There are states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh that have a low carbon footprint due to their relative industrial backwardness. Then there are others such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu that are bound to have heavier emissions. Such a situation is tailor-made for a carbon trading system, however imperfect it may be.
The big constraint for most states is financial. Most of them exhaust their revenue almost totally in meeting government expenditure, leaving precious little for anything else. Most climate change control options have serious cost and benefit trade-offs. For example, in the case of clean energy technologies such as ultra and super critical steam cycle plants, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power, the costs are simply beyond the reach of most, if not all, state governments.
Where ruthless trade-offs are not involved, there are political costs to be borne. For example, energy efficiency can be attained by instituting reforms such as privatizing electricity generation, transmission and distribution. This requires unbundling state electricity boards and letting in private players. This is a political hot potato.
As a result, the problem requires cooperation between the Union government and the states on a war footing. The Centre knows this and is taking meaningful, if small, steps. For example, on the resource front, the mandate of the 13th Finance Commission has been enlarged to look at “the need to manage ecology, environment and climate change consistent with sustainable development” while making its recommendations. So far, finance commissions were merely concerned with tax redistribution formulae based on “simple” criteria.
The critical burden, both in policy and implementation terms, however, has to be shouldered by the states. This is where the key challenges lie. There is no doubt that the Centre can extend all necessary help to the states, but the choices, constraints and compromises have to be decided by the states themselves. There are few, if any, signs that they are ready for this daunting task.
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