Mystery in India’s climate change plan

Achieving the ambitious targets laid out in its climate change document will need the rich world to contribute generously


After many years of procrastination, India—the world’s third biggest polluter—sprang a surprise package of voluntary caps on emission levels of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
After many years of procrastination, India—the world’s third biggest polluter—sprang a surprise package of voluntary caps on emission levels of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

India has shown the world its green side, and the world likes it.

After many years of procrastination, the nation—the world’s third biggest polluter—sprang a surprise package of voluntary caps on emission levels of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Every nation needed to present a package of its own—known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs—by 30 September, in time for the much-anticipated Paris climate change conclave in December.

India took a couple of days longer—2 October, it said, was Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday and unveiling the measures on that day meant a lot to India.

Not surprisingly, the 38-page Indian document is full of references to Gandhi, including this quote from him: “One must care about the world one will not see.” Indeed just so. After all, it is quite likely that some (perhaps, a few) among those reading this will not live till 2070. That’s when scientists want global carbon dioxide emissions to come down to zero. This is needed for one reason: to keep global mean temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Because if it does rise by 2 degrees Celsius, there will be floods, droughts, famine and rising sea levels. Islands will disappear, migrants will turn up uninvited at the door.

There will be extinctions, too.

This is not some doomsday scenario cooked up by the West to scare the living daylights out of polluters such as India and China—no, this is the projection of reasonable scientists working with data.

Thirty years after 2070, emission of all greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide and ozone, must come down to zero.

But it’s too early to dream of skies that can breathe again with zero emissions. China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon, has said it will hit peak emissions in 2030, but has pledged to “work hard” to reach the point earlier. Mexico has announced it would peak its overall net greenhouse gases by 2026. The European Union is agreed that global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2020 “at the latest”, and then be cut at least by 50% by 2050 over 1990 levels and be near zero or below by 2100.

If we miss the zero emission target, the inhabitants of Gandhi’s future unseen world will face “severe, widespread and irreversible” effects from climate change, UN scientists warn. Unseen perhaps, but not unimagined, thanks to modern technology, which has given scientists the tools to model our future world. And they don’t like what they see, an Indian climate scientist told me.

“The question is, globally, what all of these countries are doing…is it enough? I am given to understand by colleagues in the West that the broad picture is that we are going to cross 2 degrees even with the current list of commitments,” the scientist said, asking not to be named because he is not allowed to speak to the media. “And, according to Copenhagen (agreement of 2009), this shouldn’t ever happen.”

To India then: the bottom line is that India will voluntarily cut its carbon emissions by 33-35% of 2005 levels by 2030. This is ambitious. At the same time, it will increase the proportion of renewable energy sources, such as hydro, solar and wind, and clean energy such as nuclear power in its energy mix. And it will plant forests that will act as carbon sinks.

Naturally, the billion dollar question is: when will Indian emissions peak? On that, interestingly, the Indian document says nothing at all. The reason is that in making its calculations India has factored in—quite correctly—the historical responsibility that developed nations must pay for in the war against climate change.

This is what is called “common but differentiated” responsibility: everyone works towards the same goal, but in different ways, with different goals worked out by acknowledging the simple historical fact that climate change was basically caused by the Industrial Revolution in the West. We are paying the price of its own short-sightedness, and its greed, so to speak.

Of course, someone sitting in the environment ministry in New Delhi must have the answer to the question. But India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar wasn’t telling when he was asked the question by a fellow panellist at an interaction at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the Columbia Law School on 28 September.

The man who asked the question was the economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, a leading expert on economic development and adviser to the UN secretary-general. “Where’s the chalk?” he asked to giggles from the audience, and proceeded to draw a graph on the blackboard. The x axis denoted years and the y axis was the volume of emissions by India.

The first curve was a sharp inverted V, starting near the bottom and moving up to a very high peak before plunging to zero. The second was a smoother curve, where the peak emission was lower and the drop to zero gradual. The third was like a gentle bump, an even lower level of peak emission with a real soft landing.

“What is India’s pathway?” Sachs asked. “To go up to nearly the rich country (peak level) and then climb down? That will involve a lot of undoing. The other way is to not to go so high up and gradually come down.” So it’s important to know not just when but at what level countries will peak.

Javadekar knew his answer and surprised his audience with his quick thinking. Picking up the chalk, he said, the first hard landing scenario is what you’ll get if India is left to tackle climate change entirely on its own. The second, middle path scenario, he told Sachs, is what you’ll get if the Paris summit settles for Western proposals for financial and technical assistance. The third, the desired scenario, is what you’ll get if the rich nations accept India’s proposals for generous financial assistance and transfer of sophisticated green technology.

“Very good,” said Sachs, with the smile of a pleased professor at the close of a good class.

Javadekar knows the reality of climate change in developing nations is brutal—far removed from the comforts of the seminar rooms of American universities. With 363 million of its people still living in poverty, India’s task is among the hardest.

That’s why achieving the ambitious targets laid out in its climate change document will need the rich world to contribute generously.

There is a doomsday scenario out there and rising oceans will not stop at national boundaries.

Dipankar De Sarkar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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