COVID-19 puts no brakes on India's zeal to fight climate change, but not all steps are emission-free

As this copy was being written on Wednesday (9 June, 2020), Mumbai was reeling under a spectacularly drenched monsoon debut for this year with Santacruz recording 164.8 mm and Colaba registering 32.2 mm of rains till 4 pm respectively. Amid the promising signs of a bountiful monsoon, however, there are harsh realities that the country increasingly cannot ignore.

"Heavy rain events have increased threefold since 1950, but total precipitation is declining: a billion people in India currently face severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year," said an ODI working paper The costs of climate change in India authored by Angela Picciariello, Sarah Colenbrander, Amir Bazaz and Rathin Roy.

The ODI working paper goes on to say, "Rainfall is expected to continue declining, and both snowfall and glaciers in the Hindu-Kush Himalaya are diminishing. Consequently, the flow of water in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers is projected to fall by 8.4 percent, 17.6 percent and 19.6 percent, respectively, by mid-century, compared to the turn of the millennium.... If it slips below a critical value, the circulation of the summer monsoon may collapse. Such a catastrophic climatic shift would massively increase water scarcity and reduce agricultural output across India."

Climate conundrum

"India is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and people live on marginal lands or in coastal and delataic cities where they are at greater risk. Floods, regional droughts, cyclones, and earthquakes affect millions of Indians," said a commissioned research report India: The Impact of Climate Change to 2030 by the National Intelligence Council of the US government.

However, it will be wrong to say that India is sitting idle on the climate front.

"There are both external and domestic dimensions to India’s Climate Change policy which has been articulated through two key documents. One is the National Action Plan on Climate Change(NAPCC) adopted on 30 June, 2008. The other is India’s Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDC) submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 2 October, 2015," former foreign secretary Shyam Saran wrote in a piece India’s Climate Change Policy: Towards a Better Future.

The NAPCC outlines eight national missions on climate change. They are: (1) National Solar Mission (2) National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency (3) National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (4) National Water Mission (5) National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system (6) National Mission for a Green India (7) National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (8) National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change

The NAPCC shows intent on cushioning the impact of climate change and India did not allow its mission to derail because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, India has allocated at least $35.37 billion of its fiscal stimulus package to clean energy, including renewables (especially solar power) and energy efficiency. Still, more public support has gone to green transport, afforestation and other spending consistent with low-carbon development," the ODI working paper said.

While this is a welcome spirit, there were other steps as well that were relatively regressive that were taken during the pandemic period. "Yet, as of April 2021, $29.02 billion had also been allocated in ways that encourage high-carbon production and consumption. For example, funding has been provided for a new coal-fired thermal power plant in Bihar and to purchase new equipment for coal production," the working paper said.

Independent scientific analysis Climate Action Tracker (CAT) rates India's Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDC) target as “2°C compatible” signalling the country's climate commitment in 2030 to be a fair share of global effort based on its responsibility and capability, but still short of the Paris Agreement.

"While no new coal power stations have been built in 2020, the government is encouraging more coal mining and increased coal production which is not consistent with a green recovery. India needs to develop a just transition strategy to phase out coal for power generation before 2040," said a CAT observation on India.

Although keeping coal out of the picture is an ideal situation for meeting emission targets, in reality, it is a near-impossible option even by the government's own admission.

"Everyone wants quality, uninterrupted power; but no one wants a power plant in their neighbourhood. Farmers and green activists oppose coal and nuclear power plants as being polluting and taking away useful cultivable land. But, coal and nuclear plants are inevitable, since solar, wind and other renewables cannot supply dependable power," Dr CBS Venkataramana, additional secretary, Department of Atomic Energy said in his presentation India’s Energy Challenges.

Nevertheless, India has many laws and statutory bodies that help the country in cutting down carbon emissions in various aspects. Laws and guidelines like the Electricity Act, 2005; Tariff Policy, 2003; Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board Act, 2006; New and Renewable Energy Policy, 2005; Rural Electrification Policy, 2006; Energy Conservation Act, 2001; Biodiesel Purchase Policy; Energy Conservation Building Code, 2006; Bachat Lamp Yojana and 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative, 2003, are among such initiatives. Then there are statutory bodies like the National Clean Development Mechanism Authority and Designated National Authority.

On the international front, India's initiative resulted in a common statement at the first Conference of the Parties that became the basis for the Berlin Mandate.

Agony in economy

Climate change is an ongoing cycle and without our actual realisation, the lives of human beings are getting affected in a big way. The day-to-day weather behaviour that we witness can actually have long-term impacts challenging not only our physical survivability but also crunching the economy.

"Climate change is already slowing the pace of poverty reduction and increasing inequality in India. The districts that have warmed the fastest have seen GDP grow on average 56 percent less than those that have warmed the slowest. Without rapid global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rising average temperatures may actually reverse the development gains of recent decades," the ODI working paper said.

"At the lower end of the spectrum, predictions show that climate change could reduce India’s GDP by around 2.6 percent by 2100 even if the global temperature increase is held below 2°C; however, this rises by up to 13.4 percent in a 4°C scenario."

Unbelievably, the working paper, citing Nixon 2020, claimed that had it not been for the current costs of global warming, India’s GDP would have currently posted around 25 percent higher. However, it also leaves a grim warning that "with 3°C of warming, it will be 90 percent lower in 2100 than it would have been without climate change."

Balancing development, economy and controlling carbon emissions is like walking on a razor edge for a country like India.

"Developing countries have only recently set out on the path of industrialisation. That is the reason why their
per capita emissions are still comparatively low. Under these circumstances, any limit on CO2 emissions amounts to a limit on economic growth," said a UNDP paper Climate Change: Perspectives from India authored by Sunita Narain, Prodipto Ghosh, NC Saxena, Jyoti Parikh and Preeti Soni.

Consequently, the international negotiations under the UNFCCC, also known as the Kyoto Protocol, "aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have turned into a tug of war with rich countries unwilling to ‘compromise their lifestyles’ and poor countries unwilling to accept a premature cap on their right to basic development".

The math is very simple. Economic development is still calculated by per capita CO2 emissions. The funding for renewable energy sources is also far from easy from generating.

"India has set an ambitious target of achieving 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022, which needs an additional $100 billion in financing. The figure is estimated to increase to $450 billion by 2030, according to a United States-based think tank Climate Policy Initiative. Project financing in India is expensive. Interest rates are much higher compared to developed economies. While large companies and conglomerates find it easier to raise funds because of the size of their balance sheets but it is incredibly challenging for smaller developers to borrow," said a Mercom India paper.

According to Global Change Data Lab, 2021, India is not responsible for rising temperatures because despite being home to 17.8 percent of the world’s population, the country accounts for only 3.2 percent of cumulative emissions. Yet, there is no reprieve to its economy.

"The economic costs associated with more frequent and severe heatwaves in India’s cities, changing rainfall patterns and accelerated snow and glacier melt, which are contributing to both flooding and water shortages, and steadily rising sea levels on India’s long coastline, which are exacerbating the impacts of storm surge and tropical cyclones," said the ODI working paper.

A living hell

Diverse geography and climate patterns, make India a vulnerable theatre for the ill-effects of climate change to unfold.

"Climate change, adding to existing problems of the agricultural system, may worsen conditions for the large poor segment of the population enough to severely tax the economic and industrial resources of the central and state
governments," said a commissioned research report India: The Impact of Climate Change to 2030 by the National Intelligence Council of the US government.

In a rather grim observation, it further said, "Where adaptive capacity is low, the potential is greater for impacts to result in displaced people; deaths and damage from heat, floods, and storms; and conflicts over natural resources and assets."

India has a huge poor population and insulating from the impact of climate change is a daunting task.

"It should be kept in mind that the most vulnerable to climate change are the poor in India. Unfortunately, their assets and livelihoods are tied to climate-sensitive factors of production. Therefore, greater political and bureaucratic attention is needed to diversify their livelihoods and reduce their vulnerability," said NC Saxena in his piece for UNDP, Climate Change and Food Security in India.

According to the ODI working paper, India is already experiencing the consequences of 1°C of global warming.

"Extreme heatwaves, heavy rainfall, severe flooding, catastrophic storms and rising sea levels are damaging lives, livelihoods and assets across the country. Looking forward, the human and economic costs of climate change will only increase," it said.

No easy path ahead

India has an unenviable task of charting a middle path that is acceptable both at the domestic and international front.

"Greater and imaginative governmental intervention would also need an efficient and professional administration that is tuned to the emerging but uncertain crises caused by global warming and climate change," said Saxena in his article Climate Change and Food Security in India.

How difficult are negotiations in the international arena was proved when the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton through an op-ed article sought to club India and China under one umbrella and make them follow the same carbon emission control benchmark which is otherwise only applicable for only developed countries.

However, at times, India also misjudges situations in its enthusiasm to push forward its agenda.

"In the zeal to argue its position, India at times even appeared to verge on climate denial, taking the same side as the US, Saudi Arabia and similar others in negotiations.... If India does indeed take on achieving an equitable climate agreement as its main goal, its negotiating stance and related diplomacy would have a very different orientation and purposefulness," wrote D Raghunandan in his piece Rethinking India’s Climate Policy and the Global Negotiations for Oxfam India.

There will be successes and drawbacks, strategies wrong and right in the path ahead, but India will have to keep fighting climate change challenges for its own people and for the world at large.


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