High time India tackled climate change issues

High time India tackled climate change issues
Heavy traffic moves in front of the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus railway station before Earth Hour in Mumbai.

With north-east India sizzling under record heat and the water table falling in many parts of the country, many voters are probably more concerned about their drinking water than the recent election.

Soon the country's new government will also have to worry about water and power shortages - issues that never figured in the election debate.

Two recent developments should focus policymakers' attention on the issue of climate change and power generation.

First, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, around seven million people died from the effects of air pollution in 2012 - over a third of them in China, India and other fast-growing nations in Asia.

With large cities choking with pollution and large tracts of agricultural land too contaminated to grow crops, China's Prime Minister Li Keqiang has concluded that now is the moment to wage "war against pollution" - and he is matching the tough rhetoric with action.

The second development relates to a surprisingly upbeat report by Greenpeace. Hitherto a relentless critic of China's environmental policy, Greenpeace is now suggesting that Beijing has bitten the bullet and put in place policies to substantially reduce the use of coal. By the time world leaders meet in Paris next year for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, China will be in the unusual position of being able to demand action from others on cutting emissions.

India, currently the world's third-largest user of coal, will find itself at the receiving end of international opprobrium - and without Beijing in its corner.

It is ironic that while the global discussion is increasingly about ways to reduce the use of coal as a fuel - one of the principal causes of climate change - the debate in India has been on corruption surrounding lucrative coal blocks.

Of course, with 68 per cent of India's power generation depending on coal, there is no short-term alternative to meet its energy needs. But, equally, there is no national conversation about the urgency of finding alternatives.

On those rare occasions when the use of coal is the subject of public discourse, the tendency has been to decry the past sins of industrial powers that released huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. India may well be justified in resisting demands to curb coal emissions but it is self-defeating to be stuck in that truculent stance.

Wherever the ultimate responsibility may lie, the reality is that the consequences of climate change are happening here and now. It is high time public discussion in India focused on the economic and climate-related costs implicit in burning coal.

The smog produced by coal burning is not only increasing illnesses and deaths, it is also putting tremendous strain on India's fast-depleting water resources. Seventy-nine per cent of India's new power-generating capacity will be built in already "water stressed" areas.

Already, in 2010, India's total water usage for agriculture and power generation surpassed 760 billion cubic m - more than China and Russia's total usage combined. Despite bland official assurances, India's planned power projects are slated to draw more water than its rivers can deliver.

Judging by the Greenpeace report, the Chinese government has finally decided to grab the bull by the horns. It has announced cutbacks in construction of coal-powered plants in 12 of its 34 provinces, which account for 44 per cent of its coal consumption. Apart from health considerations, plans to reduce coal use and a switch to renewable sources such as wind and solar are also linked to the country's acute water shortage.

All this leaves India, the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the only major polluting nation without a plan to reduce its emissions. At the UN climate change conference next year, India will almost certainly face international condemnation, while its citizens suffer.


The writer is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Centre, Yale University.

This article was first published on May 24, 2014.
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