(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

The four big climate challenges for India

Successfully responding to climate change requires navigating global politics, reducing coal-dependency, reforming agriculture and balancing growth with the environment

New Delhi: As fires rage in the Amazon more than 15,000km away, Indians may feel that they're unaffected. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The dense, green expanse of the Amazon rainforest plays a crucial role in Earth’s ecosystem: It absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) and, consequently, act as a buffer against climate change. With fires and the subsequent deforestation, this buffer weakens and the threat of climate change increases. And India, where millions rely on natural resources and on the monsoon for sustenance, is especially vulnerable.

If India is to successfully tackle climate change—both in terms of mitigation and adaptation—it will need to address several complex, intertwined challenges such as the Amazon fires. Four challenges, in particular, loom large.

Managing the politics of global climate change policy

India is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (the collection of gases including CO2 which cause climate change), but in terms of cumulative emissions, it has imparted marginal harm. According to data compiled by the Global Carbon Project, a research organization, around half of CO2 emissions since 1750 have come from Europe and the US. Their prosperity, driven mostly by unregulated industrialization, has made them better-equipped to adapt to climate change while inflicting collateral damage on poorer nations.

Addressing this inequity lies at the heart of international climate negotiations. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, developing countries have pressed developed ones to pay for their past excesses. Previous treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol, though have failed to do this.

The latest accord, the 2015 Paris Agreement, takes a different approach. The 197 signatory countries have promised to limit global temperature increase to just 1.5 °C over pre-industrialization levels, but each country has set its own targets. India, for instance, has promised to cut its emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 33-35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels (Chart 1a/ 1b).

However, analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a research unit tracking climate change policy, reveals that few countries have committed enough to actually meet the Paris target. India’s policies are on track to help limit global average temperature rise to 2°C but most countries are failing to meet even this target. And, at the other extreme, the second largest contributor to worldwide emissions, the US, has pulled out of the agreement itself.

Reducing India’s coal dependency

While India will need to address these challenges of global coordination, one obvious area for domestic attention is coal. According to one estimate, 68% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy production, which remains largely reliant on coal power plants. The government is trying to wean off coal by investing significantly in renewable energy, expanding capacity and incentivizing private sector investment. Yet, given coal’s centrality to the country’s power, some analysts question how far it can be displaced, especially since integrating renewable energy into the grid can be costly.

The government projects that by 2030, 40% of electricity generation can come from non-coal sources. Estimates from the International Energy Agency suggest that this target could be met. India’s electricity demand is expected to triple by 2030, with coal sources projected to account for around 57% of electricity generation—within India’s Paris Agreement target, but still a significant figure.

Reforming climate-insensitive agriculture policy

A significant chunk of India’s fiscal resources are directed towards improving the lot of farmers, but these efforts may be generating unintended consequences that hurt the very people they are meant to help. For instance, the minimum support price combined with helpful electricity and fertilizer subsidies, encourages farmers to grow water-intensive crops, such as paddy, even if their land is ill-suited to do so (for instance, Punjab). This is partly why, despite widespread water shortages, India is a net exporter of water due to the excess water used in agricultural exports. Taken together, India’s agricultural policies aggravate water shortages, encourage crop burning and do little for climate change mitigation.

Changing these policies may be politically delicate, but one potential solution put forth by several economists is cash transfers. With cash in hand, farmers may become more judicious in their use of inputs such as water and fertilizer.

Balancing growth and environment

Ultimately, tackling climate change is a balancing act between the present and the future. Fuel-guzzling cars, for instance, may delight their current users but can drain resources from the future. Like governments everywhere, the Indian government will have to strike a balance on inter-generational equity.

One way to do this would be to frame more holistic goalposts. Current policies seek to maximize gross domestic product (GDP), which does not capture the potential for future prosperity entirely. An alternative could be something like the UN’s Inclusive Wealth Index, which measures three different types of capital: Produced (infrastructure, etc.), human (education, etc.) and natural (land, forests, etc.), all of which are important for prosperity to sustain. The UN measure is not perfect, but is useful to track multiple indicators that feed into a society’s progress.

On this measure, India’s wealth grew at an average rate of 1.5% between 1990 and 2014, significantly lower than the equivalent GDP growth rate during the same period (6.1%). India’s inclusive wealth growth came despite stagnating natural capital growth. In other large economies, such as China and the US, natural capital decreased over this time period.

Finally, the onus need not be only on the state. Citizens, too, can play a role.

“Addressing climate change will need systemic changes to the economy," says Karthik Ganesan, research fellow at the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “This will also mean changing aspirations and tastes. For many Indians, owning a car is an aspiration—how do we change that? For many Indians, rice is the preferred staple—can we change this preference to a less water-intensive, but less tasty crop?"

In principle, many Indians seem willing to make this sacrifice. When asked about protecting the environment and economic growth in the World Values Survey, a large-scale global survey, 58% of Indians prioritized the environment.

In practice, however, things will be more difficult as efforts by successive governments to reduce fuel subsidies have shown.

Sneha Alexander in Mumbai contributed to this story.

This is the concluding part of a five-part data journalism series on India’s environmental crisis.

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