Why Indians need to closely examine our government’s sanctimonious rhetoric on Climate Justice

Why Indians need to closely examine our government's sanctimonious rhetoric on Climate Justice
Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
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Vacate the carbon space so developing countries can grow. The global north has grown thanks to carbon emissions, and should not expect developing countries to pay for its mistakes. That’s the message from the Indian delegation at the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, which is wrapping up this weekend in Paris.

As India refuses an emissions cap and plans to double its coal output over the next decade, Indian negotiators hastened to point out that even though India is the third-largest carbon emitter worldwide, it emits only 1.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year per capita and its cumulative carbon emissions amount to a meagre 3% of the global total. India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions explains this as being due to Indians’ supposed belief in “nature friendly lifestyle and practices rather than its exploitation”.

The picture that emerges is of India demanding climate justice from an unrepentant West, which happily belched out carbon emissions for centuries and now does not want to allow developing countries their fair share of the carbon space.

This rhetorical stance is certainly playing an important role at the climate negotiations: the European Union, the United States and China are all large carbon emitters whose INDCs are far from adequate. The Worldwide Fund for Nature regards the EU’s pledge, for instance, as being “thin on details and low on ambition”. Calling these countries out for their woefully inadequate performance is both necessary and important.

However, the Indian media and civil society should equally steer clear from lionising India’s rhetoric with respect to climate change. As the author Chimamanda Adichie warned us of the dangers of telling a single story, it is dangerous to uncritically accept the single “1.6 tCO2/year per capita” statistic.

Per capita indicator is only half the story

The per capita statistic has come under attack from many organisations in recent years. All Indians are not created equal: like everything else there is stark inequality between the carbon footprints of the richest and the poorest. Here, richest does not mean billionaires: If you own a car, a home with a refrigerator, air conditioner and a television, have taken at least one return flight in the last year and occasionally buy clothes and gadgets, you have not only far exceeded 1.6 tCO2/year, but possibly, even the notional per capita allowance of 4 tCO2/year that each person in the world can safely emit.

Greenpeace first challenged the per capita norm in its 2007 report, “Hiding Behind the Poor”. The report concluded that India’s overall per capita emissions were kept below 2 tonnes of CO2 per year only because the“carbon footprint of a relatively small wealthy class (1% of the population) in the country is camouflaged by the 823 million poor population of the country”.  Shoibal Chakravarty and MV Ramana’s excellent synthetic overview of several studies linking per capita income to carbon emissions concluded that the emissions of “the top 10% of urban India (roughly 30 million people)… in 2003-’04 were about 15 times the bottom 10% of urban India, and about 27 times the emissions of the bottom 10% of rural India. The household emissions alone put the top 10% of urban India close to the world average (4.2 tC02), and between France (6.5 tC02 ) and Italy (8.1 tC02) when scaled up to the national average.”

The entire business of which statistic to use is obviously political but the results of the different studies are clear that the urban middle-class has far outstripped 1.6 tCO2/year.

Climate Justice for whom?

Even accepting for the moment the argument that India has a low per capita emission and therefore should be allowed to emit carbon unchecked, there is reason to doubt that higher carbon emissions would automatically alleviate energy poverty. The energy sector is plagued by problems of perverse incentives and bad management rather than low supply of coal or rigid environmental restrictions. Some believe that doubling the coal output alone will not bring electricity to those who need it. Besides, even after getting connected to the grid, the rural poor face barriers like higher tariffs, irregular supply and harassment by distribution companies.

In addition to failing to lead to development, the coal and power-generation industry has severe adverse impacts on the lives people living near coal mines. Images of the hellscapes of Singrauli and Jharia that have been plastered across the internet in the run-up to Paris bear graphic testimony to this fact. Sadly, development in India has meant water and electricity for the cities while the people of coal-bearing regions must die by inches for “national interest”.

What is most worrying is the utter dissonance between Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s heroic words about climate justice and the utter lack of action to safeguard people affected by pollution and climate change. The Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s greatest accomplishment has been how quickly they are granting environmental clearances to industries. The same ministry that has, in the past, neglected to notice rampant fraud and misinformation in the Environmental Impact Assessment process. This ministry also recently circulated an amendment bill which seeks to create arbitrary categories of “minor” and “substantial” environmental violations. Bear in mind that this is in a country where the Bhopal gas tragedy ‒ one of the worst industrial disasters in the world ‒ was treated as a misdemeanour and 30 years later, continues to affect generations of people. Unilever is lauded as a leader in climate action, while in Kodaikanal, it has failed to take responsibility for the clean-up and medical treatment for mercury contamination.

In a few decades, India will be the biggest carbon emitter in the world: unless New Delhi seriously addresses climate, health and economic injustice within the country, all the grandstanding about “climate justice” in Paris will be meaningless.

A final question we must ask is: If India’s historical emissions are 3% of the world’s total emissions, that still puts us among the world’s 10 biggest emitters. What then is our responsibility toward a country like Indonesia whose historical emissions is 0.5% or the Small Island States whose combined cumulative emissions wouldn’t make it to the single digits? To these countries we are not so different from China and the EU in that we want to develop no matter the cost to other countries. So what do Indian industries and elite owe the world? Can Indian vehicle owners, home owners and office spaces claim some sort of special protection that makes us all immune from responsibility for climate change? The vulnerable populations in these countries have every right to demand more action from us.

The way forward

With the conclusion of the Paris agreement and the recognition that all the combined INDCs are insufficient to halt climate change, it is unethical for India to continue to hide behind convenient statistics or ignore the climate injustice within our borders. India’s INDC has been termed less than sufficient. The government’s supposedly climate friendly policies like encouraging clean coal and hydroelectric dams are fraught with problems. The mythical “clean coal” is simply a green-wash term for efficient thermal power plants. While they are certainly a step above the current ancient power plants, there is nothing “clean” about them. Hydroelectric dams on the other hand, are responsible for the displacement of millions and cause irreparable harm to riverine ecology. They are also essentially loss-making ventures: one 2014 study found that large dams routinely overrun costs and are especially damaging to the finances of emerging economies.

We can no longer allow power, mining and manufacturing industries to behave as though India’s natural resources are their personal fiefdom. The primary responsibility for tackling climate change lies firmly at their doorstep. A cosmetic solar park or two does not excuse the fact that we also have the most inefficient thermal power plants in the world or that compensatory afforestation has been an abject failure. As individuals we should no longer pretend that “1.6 tCO2/year” permits us to fly everywhere and drive our diesel cars without consequence.

“Either we remain poor or you need to tell us a paradigm by which people can have a better quality of life with lower energy use,” said Ajay Mathur, one of India’s climate negotiators. For the first time in history, there are options for countries who want to delink economic growth and carbon emissions. With the widespread availability of energy efficient technology and renewable energy, India is in the unique position of leveraging these to build a low-carbon future. But this will require tough decisions from the political establishment: the most important being, standing up to the industrial lobby that has used India’s poverty as a shield for its own benefit. Everywhere else in the world, coal is dying. It is time for India also to lay the path away from fossil fuel dependency.

Lekha Sridhar is an Alexander von Humboldt International Climate Protection fellow working with the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues in Berlin.