Lost in the hubbub last week over the government’s detailing of its “constructive” position on climate change was an important announcement that may have great significance for poor people in the country, namely a national biomass cookstoves initiative. It is a sign of the times that the media, which is besotted with the climate issue, barely paid any attention to an initiative that has the potential to provide clean cooking energy for more than half of our country’s population. Importantly, this initiative also has implications for climate change and, as a corollary, for how we might think about our climate negotiating position.
Currently around 75% of rural households and 22% of urban households in the country, according to the National Sample Survey’s 61st survey, still use biomass for their cooking needs. In fact, an estimated 80% of the residential energy in India comes from biomass, much of it burnt in traditional chulhas.
The socio-economic and health implications of this form and scale of energy use are enormous. The World Health Organization has estimated that in the year 2000, household biomass-fuel air pollution was responsible for around 400,000 premature deaths per year among women and young children in India; this health impact ranked third in India, after only malnutrition and poor water/sanitation. Women and children (mainly girls) also spend significant time gathering fuel resources every day. The inefficient combustion of biomass also means extra expenditure for households (that buy biomass).
And on the climate front, many products of incomplete combustion that are emitted from traditional cookstoves have greenhouse implications—while each household might emit only a small amount, together these cookstoves can add up to a relatively sizeable contribution, although still only a fraction of the emissions from fossil fuels that supply energy for wealthier people. (There also remains some uncertainty about the exact global warming potential of black carbon, a greenhouse pollutant emitted, among other sources, from biomass combustion that recently has received increasing attention. But it is clear that shorter-lived pollutants from biomass combustion contribute to atmospheric heating on regional scales—and, therefore, their reduction will result in tangible national benefit.)
This promising new cookstove initiative, therefore, must be seen not only as an initiative that can help improve access to clean and high-quality energy services for the poor and the vulnerable, but also contribute to climate mitigation.
The approach that is being envisaged by this initiative focuses on all elements of the innovation chain, not only emphasizing development of cleaner combustion units and improved biomass-processing technologies, but also focusing on issues such as innovative delivery models. By partnering with academia, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, the programme will also draw upon the strengths of these various groups. Such an approach, hopefully, will increase the likelihood of success of this initiative and also allow the development of technologies and delivery models that would find applications in other parts of the developing world.
The programme, therefore, has the potential to serve as a flagship model for how to meet sustainable development and climate goals simultaneously. And this is exactly the kind of initiative that the government should be emphasizing in the global climate arena—one that puts sustainable development centre stage instead of focusing merely on “targets and timetables”, as our recent constructive position has done.
Such an approach should also resonate with the rest of the developing world—representing three-quarters of the world’s population—that needs to deal with urgent developmental challenges even as it struggles with the climate issue. The global climate negotiations have not paid enough attention to this issue. Industrialized countries, instead, have been fixated on how to bring “big” polluters such as India into the mitigation “targets and timetables” tent (regardless of their lack of historical contribution to climate change or their relative paucity of resources and capabilities). But reacting to this pressure cannot be the sole driver of our climate agenda. We instead must be proactive and ensure that the needs of the poor and the vulnerable are not forgotten in what is becoming a “gloves off” international negotiation.
India can, and must, change the technocratic nature of the international climate debate and bring people and sustainable development back into the centre. That is what real leadership is about.
Ambuj Sagar is Vipula and Mahesh Chaturvedi professor of policy studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Respond to this column at email@example.com