Towards sustainable low-carbon and equitable development pathways in India

Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri

As the planet plunges towards irreversible climate change, the challenges posed by extreme weather events and environmental degradation pose an existential threat. The trends are irrefutable and there would be a temperature rise of around 3.2oC by the end of this century, even if countries abide by the emission reduction commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The complex phenomenon impacts almost all aspects of human life globally ranging from food, nutrition, shelter, livelihood as well as all sectors of the economy and society.

How does India follow the Paris Agreement, which by disregarding historical emissions by the industrialized countries overlooks the metric of comparative per capita emissions by nations and ignores equity between nations? Does this not disproportionately burden developed countries such as India with greater emissions reduction in the future? Are India’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) attaining any rewards? Should we not hold the bigger polluters like the US and China accountable?

Issues focussed on sustainable low carbon equitable development pathways in India were discussed by Dr D Raghunandan, Director, Delhi Science Forum and All India Peoples Science Network at a talk jointly organised by the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), Impact and Policy Research Institute, India Water Portal and Department of Energy and Environment, TERI School of Advanced Studies.

Towards sustainable low-carbon and equitable development pathways in India_Dr D Raghunandan_#PlanetTalks
Towards sustainable low-carbon and equitable development pathways in India_Dr D Raghunandan_#PlanetTalks

“We focus on reducing carbon but neglect the issue of equity, particularly on access to energy which is crucial as in the long term there can be no environmental justice without social justice,” says Dr Raghunandan looking at policy implications for low carbon growth in India.

He considers Paris Agreement as flawed, inadequate and inequitable since the developing countries bear the bulk of the burden of emission cuts and 75% of carbon dioxide which is already put in as historical emissions by developed countries is ignored.

The sum of the NDCs of all the countries indicates that we will have about 3.5 oC rise in temperature, but the voluntary pledges by all countries fall short of the requirement by about 15 billion tons or 15 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

Further, looking at all the NDCs put together, the industrialized countries have cut emissions by only 2.3 gigatonnes, while the developing countries put together including India have cut by 5.1 gigatonnes. This means the developing countries are bearing the bulk of the burden of the emission cuts.

Raghunandan further highlights India’s position in Conference of Parties (COPs) as minimalistic and defensive driven by Indo-US strategic partnership where India ignored that the grave impacts of climate change. As a result, small island states and least developed countries now perceive India as part of the problem even though domestic climate policy clearly understands the seriousness of the situation as is clear from the emission reduction targets it belatedly committed to.

Key impacts

The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that South Asia was among the 10 worst affected regions of the world. Its 6000 kilometres coastline is most vulnerable to sea-level rise, which will majorly impact agriculture with a projection of close to 20% drop in output in case of 2.5 oC temperature rise scenario and up to 30 to 40% in case of a 3.5oC risei temperature.

Mexico and India are the worst affected regions witnessing more heatwave days, more heavy rainfall days, and more shifting monsoons. The retreat of the Gangotri glacier will affect the water flow into the Ganga and Yamuna basin, which directly impacts the lives of close to 700 million people downstream.

Thus, India’s climate policy should be driven by these vital national interests. “If we need the world to take on ambitious climate targets, we must ensure that the world moves to 2oC temperature rise targets,” says Dr Raghunandan.

He also underlines India’s NDCs target for 2030 of reducing its emissions intensity by 33 to 35% by the year 2030 for the baseline year of 2005. It also includes the target of an increase in forest or tree cover by 33% and an increase of 40% in renewable energy by 2030 for the baseline year of 2005. India is working on it and the present government has raised the solar commitment and renewable commitments to 175 gigawatts of renewable energy.

“An assessment of India’s NDCs indicates that it is among the few countries which are compatible with the 2oC target and its emissions intensity reduction target and renewable energy targets will be easily reached by 2030,” says Raghunandan.

However, emphasising the weak points in NDCs, he says “it is very disappointing that there is a virtual absence of adaptation and resilience measures on climate impacts in the NDCs. As a result, I feel that NDCs are a major and serious lost opportunity which could have aimed to develop a domestic policy document on an alternative low carbon and equitable development pathway.”

Energy access is an equity issue related to low-carbon development with high inequity in international and domestic per capita energy use. India’s energy use per capita is below the global average and an average American consumes 17 times more energy compared to an average Indian. Also within India, the average urban Indian consumes about 10 times as much energy compared to an average rural Indian. This indicates a deep inequity in terms of energy consumption.

“We expect developed countries to reduce emissions so that developing countries can increase their emissions to come at par. Similarly, within India, we should take measures so that the richer, urban, more powerful segments of our population and economy consume less energy so that those who have less energy access gradually gain a bigger share,” says Raghunandan. The challenge is to therefore rethink the energy consumption and production patterns.

The solution

Moving forward with the above challenges, Raghunandan proposes revised NDCs, policy measures with multiple benefits for low carbon, environmentally sustainable, social and economic development pathways. He discussed the seven pillars of mitigation and adaptation – electricity generation, energy use and efficiency, transport, buildings, municipal solid/liquid waste, forestry and land use, agriculture.

“Since coal will continue to represent about 72% of power generation in our country at least till 2040, we need to reduce this because it leads to land, water and air pollution.  Solar energy needs a bigger push in India, so does the use of energy-efficient measures, super-efficient appliances, stringent energy consumption standards in vehicles and energy conversation systems,” says Raghunandan.

Transport is the second-highest sector in terms of total emissions in India, and needs an integrated perspective. The rising numbers of personal vehicles have led to increased emissions from road transport. A long term transport policy, low carbon road construction techniques, new urban planning, a major shift from personal vehicles to mass public transit and an inter-modal shift from rail to rail would significantly reduce emissions with co-benefits to lower-income passengers in availing better long-distance transport and freeing up road space as well as mitigation benefits such as reducing air pollution.

Dr Raghunandan dealt with the need to shift to building technologies that are less carbon-intensive and reduce energy consumption for cooling in residential buildings.

“Buildings and habitats are a source of high energy consumption and air conditioners, which are registering a double-digit annual rise in sales contribute to a major part of it. Air conditioners contribute to 50% of the total power consumption in summers in Delhi, and thus energy efficiency of air conditioners is important. There is a need to separately address energy use in buildings and revise building codes for offices and flats. A drastic cut in air conditioner load, reducing carbon locking in housing stock and inbuilt water heating are some of the measures needed. Similarly, for municipal waste, there is a need for efficient, collection, segregation and recycling of garbage, which will, in turn, reduce the landfills,” says Raghunandan.

Another sectoral target that Dr Raghunandan stressed on was to increase forest or tree cover to 33% by 2030 from 23.4% in 2005, which is a reiteration of earlier targets including in National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC). Forests are being violated by relaxing restrictions on development activities in forests and permitting the diversion of forest lands often in the garb of compensatory afforestation. He suggested the need to stop diversion of forest lands for irrigation, mining, highways, industries and infrastructure projects.

Agriculture is expected to face significant impacts owing to changes in temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, weather, rainfall patterns and water availability. It accounts for 17% of India’s emissions and fertilisers account for high methane and nitrous oxide emissions especially in paddy growing areas.

There is a need to change agriculture patterns to improve soil health, reduce input costs and move farmers away from nitrogen-based fertilizers with negative environmental impact and provide greater climate resilience. Climate-smart agriculture can help in adaptation to adjust to impacts of climate change.

The talk helped explore ways in which India can negotiate a low carbon path that is also inclusive.

The post was originally published on IndiaWaterPortal.

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Acknowledgement: Nishi Verma is research programs assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Picture Credits: Ficompass