The Indian Imperative to Act on Climate Change: Unique Blend of Co-benefits Rationale and 'Dharma'
This weekend I attended a two-day workshop on Climate Change Law and Governance in South Asia, and at its conclusion I came away with a strongly reinforced sense that even though a great deal still needs to be done, Indian leaders in legal and policy circles are now working actively to tackle climate change.
The workshop - a kickoff event for the Committee of Environmental Law (CEL)’s BRICS Law and Policy Dialogue on Climate Change, Sustainable Energy and Biodiversity -was organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. It brought together Indian and international experts to review existing policy, regulatory and governance structures in India that could be harnessed to address climate change, as well as to devise fundamental principles for what might guide and become the foundation for climate change law in India in the future.
Issues examined at the workshop included, amongst others, the scientific basis to act on climate change, the legal and policy instruments in India which can be used to tackle climate change, the role of the judiciary in climate change governance, carbon markets and energy efficiency trading in India, ethical and architectural flaws in the current UNFCCC Agro Forestry and Land Use offsets regime, and a session explaining India’s negotiating position at international fora such as the UNFCCC, based on equity and per-capita emissions as well as common but differentiated responsibility between countries due to divergent historic contributions.
A few issues struck me the most. One is that India, despite its recent economic growth, still has tremendous poverty-alleviation challenges. The percentage of the country living on under $1 a day and $2 a day is 34.7% and 79.9%, respectively. Almost half the country (estimates range from 400 million to 600 million people) lives without any access to electricity. Per capita commercial energy consumption in India is only about 20% of the world average, and approximately 4% of the U.S. average. India still ranks as 134th out of 182 countries on the U.N. Human Development Index, and according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Index (to be included in the November 2010 U.N. Human Development Report), there are more people living in poverty and deprivation in eight states of India, than in twenty six Sub-Saharan African nations combined. A country characterized by such need cannot direct all of its resources towards climate mitigation. While India is already investing significant amounts from its own coffers into climate mitigation as well as adaptation, it still has to prioritize a great deal of its resources towards ensuring access to food, shelter, clean water, health care, education and basic amenities to the poor. In such a scenario, financial flows towards climate mitigation through the UNFCCC process would be a welcome means to strengthen India’s own investments.
Second, India understands the global, regional and national impacts of climate change, and is willing to take action. It has demonstrated as much through a host of recent actions. It also definitely understands the positive economic and development consequences of GHG emissions mitigation, including job growth and an advantage in the global clean energy race. Thought leaders in India prefer to identify India’s approach as being driven by the climate change co-benefits of development actions, as opposed to the development co-benefits of climate mitigation actions, but nonetheless the consequence is likely to be reduced emissions intensity and slower growth rate of aggregate emissions. Energy Efficiency, renewable energy investment and technical measures like smart grids all provide a strong and sustainable foundation for India’s economic growth, but the beauty of these measures is that they also result in reduction of GHG emissions, lower dependence on fossil fuels, and a cleaner, more secure and reliable source of energy to India’s power-starved millions.
Finally, the moral imperative of acting on climate change is not lost on Indian leaders. In the same way that Al Gore characterized the climate problem as a moral issue, there is a sense amongst some decisionmakers that India has ethical and moral responsibility to be part of solving the climate crisis, not only towards its own people, but also those whose voices do not find place in current discourse, including under-represented Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and even future generations. Indeed, Dr. Nitin Desai, a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, mentioned ‘Dharma’ (a philosophical construct implying righteous duty) and ‘Vivek’ (implying prudence) as being factors that he believes are intrinsic to decision-making in India, and which he hopes will inform the systems changes and values changes to come.
Thus, India’s imperative to act on climate change is a blend of pragmatism and morality, a combination that it believes should be the bedrock of a global approach to solving the most pressing problem of our time. It is important that a third and crucial temporal element – the need to act fast, given the timeframe of the climate crisis – will also motivate India’s actions and provide impetus to ongoing efforts. The need of the hour is that the global community, no matter what the imperative or motivating factor for each individual country or blocs of countries, will soon find a way to come together and reconcile all the diverse approaches successfully.