A native of Chicago, I spent my childhood summers with family in Udaipur, Rajasthan, then a verdant oasis in India’s most arid state. With each successive year, I witnessed with dismay the surrounding forests and lakes shrinking and drying up as factories and mines sprouted outside the city.
My family, however, took it in stride as “the price we pay for development.”
I have never forgotten that firsthand lesson in environmental degradation, and in what seemed to me an unnecessary trade-off.
What my family was faithfully expressing was the decades-old belief, held by India’s government and business elites, that development often comes at the expense of the environment. In recent years, that belief has been extended to climate change. India cannot be expected to act to reduce its spiraling greenhouse gas emissions without outside help, its diplomats have argued until recently, because combating poverty is a moral imperative and the national priority.
While this traditional view has some merit—it is hard to argue, for example, for reducing energy use in a nation where large swathes of the countryside are without electrification—it is increasingly one that does not add up. And for one simple, highly encouraging reason.
India is beginning to demonstrate in its policies and actions that pitting climate and development objectives against each other is a false and unnecessary choice.
From Climate Laggard to Leader?
In the long-running drama of the United Nations climate change negotiations, India has generally been cast as a rogue player, refusing to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. Yet while Delhi likes to talk tough, its recent actions speak otherwise. While the United States Congress has conspicuously failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation to cap greenhouse gases, India has made significant policy strides toward a low-carbon economy.
At Copenhagen last December, India emerged as an unlikely partner, alongside the United States, China, Brazil, and South Africa, in brokering a political accord that saved the much-heralded climate summit from collapse. Delhi has since formally pledged to reduce the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 20–25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, which will slow the growth rate of its greenhouse gas output. While commitments made by developing countries are nonbinding (unlike those of industrialized nations), India’s pledge is nevertheless a major concession for a country that houses a third of the world’s poor and faces soaring energy demand to power development.
What’s more, unlike the United States, India already has a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in place to help meet its emissions commitment. Launched in June 2008 by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the NAPCC features eight national missions, ranging from climate research and development (R&D) to sustainable agriculture, with centerpiece scale-up programs for solar power and energy efficiency. Renewable energy, including wind and solar power, already accounts for 9.0 percent (16.5 gigawatts) of India’s electric capacity. This is more than twice the 4.0 percent (53.4 gigawatts) that makes up the clean energy slice of the U.S. power sector, and Delhi aims to further double renewable power generation in the next four years.1
This wide-ranging policy agenda is not yet adequately funded and implementation will not be easy, if previous government efforts in advancing large-scale change are any indication. Nevertheless, the plan is impressively comprehensive, in contrast to the piecemeal mix of state sticks (renewable energy standards and regional cap-and-trade programs) and federal carrots (tax credits, the green stimulus package) that characterize current U.S. responses to climate change.
The most innovative and potentially transformative of India’s clean-energy policy solutions are highlighted later in this article. But to interpret the “what” of where India is heading with climate change solutions, it is first useful to understand the “why.”
India’s Climate and Development Policy: No Longer a Zero Sum Game
Why has India, over the past year, essentially abandoned its traditional approach of pitting clean energy and climate action against development in favor of preparing an aggressive effort to decarbonize its economy? I believe there are four key reasons.
First, the impacts. India, which houses a third of the world’s poor, will be at the frontline of climate change impacts as floods and droughts become more frequent and deadly, and yields for most crops decline. The 2009 monsoon season was a harbinger, bringing rains six times their normal volume and causing the worst floods South India has experienced in over a century. Shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns could trigger major repercussions for India’s agricultural sector. Temperature increases of as little as 0.5–1.5 degrees Celsius might trim yield potentials for wheat and maize by two to five percent. Ambitious global action to reduce the emissions that fuel climate change is very much in India’s interest.