I enjoy taking the bus to work. For a 40 minute commute it costs me Rs. 7 (US$ 0.18) instead of Rs. 50 if I choose to take an auto-rickshaw. But today as the bus sat still for 40 minutes in the middle of the traffic choked road, I looked longingly at the High Capicty Bus Corridor that is still under construction. It is a project that has taken a long time to get the green light for a city which is now adding 1000 cars a day to its streets. The availability of credit has made it easier for the burgeoning middle class of India to buy more goods and one of the things that is on the top of many peoples’ list is the car. At this point in time it looks as if India is all set to embrace the car culture. With more money going into roads, parking spaces, construction of more flyovers and underpasses to decongest traffic, and the imminent arrival of India’s version of the Model-T, a $2,500 car built by India’s Tata Motors.
COP 13, Bali, Indonesia, December 2007:
“It is strange that India has been labeled as a major emitter, when we are not, we are simply a large country with a big population,” stated Minister of State of Environment & Forests, Meena at the side event hosted by the Indian delegation during the Bali conference. Yes, it’s true: India is a country of approximately 1.03 billion people (and rising) and still nearly 500 million of its citizens are living in the darkness. Nearly 700 million of its citizens depend on non-conventional fuels like biomass (dung and wood) for their energy needs. When the primary concern of the government is to electrify the entire nation by 2012, we know that the energy will be coming from coal-fed thermal power plants. In fact, India plans on building 150 of such plants within the next 5 years with China not far ahead at 200. When an audience member innocently asked what India could do to reduce emissions, he was replied with, “I am shocked that you would ask such a question after what you have heard here during our presentation.” Being an Indian citizen and at the same time a resident of the world’s largest emitter, the United States, I was having a hard time reconciling the need for India to grow and reduce emissions when the country is already on a pathway of development that the industrialized nations have laid.
Amidst the global debate on the role and inclusion of developing nations with regards to climate change, what should the role of a nation like India, clearly at the crossroads, be? Historically it can be said that India has forged its own path of “non-alignment” and not being confined to any camp with regards to international negotiations. We here in India pride ourselves for being trend setters, not followers. Yet with the question of climate still looming heavily on everyone’s mind and with the last minute high flying drama witnessed in Bali involving India, one wonders whether the country is actually going to take some bold initiatives that will set it apart.
In the past, India has argued for the right of rising economies to ecological space to grow in this climate constrained world. The reason being the accumulated emissions of the industrialization phase of the presently developed nations. But this is not a question of a zero-sum game because the damage has been done and its not about who should be “allowed to pollute” and who shouldn’t. Granted, India has a lot more catching up to do, this is only the case for its rural populace who will need energy for development and to climb out of dire poverty. But here in lies India’s strength: should India choose to, it can go about developing a low-carbon pathway for development of its rural citizens. In doing so, it would not only leapfrog the unsustainable carbon based economy, but pave the road map for a new development paradigm for the rest of the world to follow. The Clean Development Mechanism was supposed to help in this low-carbon transition, but it has not done so. It is mired with corruption and the funding of technology that is not wholly appropriate to make the entire leap. Funders do not want to fund the really expensive projects that would really help in the transition of these economies. Funding and CDM flaws are only half the problem.
Though the Indian government is doing somethings to mitigate the impacts of its rapidly expanding economy, the truth is that it could be doing a lot more. Besides demanding of the developed nations to curb their emissions, India should be looking to curb the emissions of its elite. One always talks about India in a dual manner: rich/poor, ancient/modern, urban/rural, etc. Why not approach the issue of climate change in the same manner? A recent report by Greenpeace titled, “Hiding Behind the Poor,” reveals that “over 150 Million Indians are emitting above the sustainable limit (2.5 tons a person) which needs to be maintained to restrict global temperature rise below 2 degree centigrade.”
January 3rd, 2008: Me on the Bus, 40 minutes later still in the jam (New Delhi)
The Greenpeace report argues for the establishment of climate justice between the different income groups in India. The four highest income classes of India (earning more than Rs. 8,000 a month) and representing 14% of the total population (150 million people–half the size of the US population) are responsible for 24% of India’s emissions. A mere 1% of the population has a per capita emission of 4.97 tons/year, which is only marginally less than the global average. This wealthy 1% is “hiding behind a population of 823 million poor people” when India comes to the international negotiation table. Meanwhile I examine the demographic of who is riding in cars and who is around me in the bus.
The Prime Minister of India stated at a recent G8 summit that India’s per capita emissions would never go higher than the developed nations’ and would be willing to meet them at their Kyoto goals. The question really is whether India can make such a statement and bring those 823 million people into the equation as well and not just the wealthy who are already contributing to higher levels of emissions. Perhaps carbon taxation and an internal carbon trading scheme is not being taken as seriously as it should be to cap the emissions of those within India who have attained “western development standards.” Addressing this would ensure that India not only realistically tackles climate change but also genuinely provides for millions who need energy for development. It is important to note that a big reason for the higher per capita emissions of the elite is the carbon intensive nature of India’s infrastructure (Greenpeace). This is a problem that proper technology transfer could address–particularly in more effective use of India’s high ash content coal.
In the end, India will be the largest country to be worst affected by climate change because of a large mass of its population being directly dependent on natural resources for survival. Thus the ethical question is whether a small population within India can be allowed to as responsible for the climate problem as their counterparts in the industrialized nations? Doesn’t the nation stand a better chance leading the way not only in establishing a low carbon economy for its rural poor but also for its wealthier urban citizens? Being the only country in the world to have an entire ministry dedicated to alternative energy sources, it is already poised to take the lead…