Climate justice and environmental-consciousness need a long-term goal

Just a day before the recent climate negotiations in Bonn concluded, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested that the discourse on climate change needs to shift to climate justice. Speaking at a meet on ‘Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness’, his statement comes at a time when all eyes are on India to present its proposed carbon emission cuts in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December this year. The Prime Minister’s concern that ‘we cannot let climate change keep affecting people in this manner’ calls for a higher commitment from India for a long term goal in tackling climate change.

With around 1.2 billion Indians, the country’s population is equivalent to 17.5% of the total world population. India is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and close to 37 million Indians will be at risk from the sea level rise by 2050. Hence India’s INDCs should not only address the socioeconomic vulnerability of its people but also “continue shifting ambitions in the long run as per the rising temperatures for protecting people and nature”, according to Harjeet Singh, Action Aid’s International Climate Policy Manager.

Towards a low-carbon economy

In order to meet climate justice, India must work on expanding pro-poor carbon projects across various existing programmes like Make in India, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, and Smart Cities Mission.

According to Navroz Dubash and Radhika Khosla of Centre for Policy Research, India should actively support momentum toward accelerated global mitigation and avoid lock in to a high carbon growth path for itself. A sustainable development-led approach that promotes development and mitigates climate simultaneously needs to be put in action.

Currently, the government’s Smart Cities Mission lacks climate resilience and sustainability. A recent study points out that cities around the world could save $17 trillion by 2050 by adopting certain carbon-reducing strategies.

The government can not only incorporate its ambitious solar power target to 100,000 MW by 2022 as a part of the Smart Cities Mission but also ensure energy efficiency for rural areas by tapping into the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Programme with off-grid renewable energy solutions.

In the long run, India can also align its upcoming policies in public spending towards a low carbon economy. Sectors like Agriculture, energy and transport can hugely benefit from transitioning towards a low-carbon economy.

The GHG emissions from the agricultural sector in India amount to 17.6% even as more than half of India’s total population is still involved in agriculture.  The government must step up to the challenge of sector-wise emission cuts even as it aims to omit this section in its INDCs.

At present, the government has decided to allow exploration of all types of hydrocarbons, which will lead to opening up the oil and gas sector to investors from across the world, according to Environmental Scientist, Radha Gopalan.  A recent report also suggests that energy efficiency and renewable energy can benefit public health by displacing emissions from fossil-fuelled electrical generating units. Hence, pursuing an unflinching support for the fossil fuel industry will have an adverse effect on the mitigation targets set by the country and thus climate justice.

Environmental-consciousness in a resource-crunched world

While India might be churning out ambitious targets on renewable energy, the alarming air pollution levels of India’s capital city present a stark picture of the environmental-consciousness of the country as a whole. 80 people die every day in New Delhi due to air pollution.  It is distressing that in India, majority of the air pollution related deaths are caused by heating and cooking. When daily chores can contribute so heavily to polluting the environment, the government cannot treat environmental degradation as an isolated issue from climate change.

Places villages in Sunderbans are already witnessing a high amount of sex trafficking given to climate change and poverty. Disasters like cyclone Aila will only increase with the advent of climate change. Migration, displacement and severe health epidemics might need to be dealt with in a measured and precautionary way.

In an interview with NDTV last year, Shyam Saran, former special Ambassador of PM on climate change mentioned that ‘Irrespective of what is happening at the international arena we cannot blame somebody else for environmental degradation back home. If we do not deal with it now, climate change will exacerbate it. We must have a very robust domestic regime to combat it because that is affecting us directly and is our responsibility. ‘

But instead of having a long-term strategy to protect India’s forests, the government is gearing up to implement the TSR Subramanium Committee report which has called for the dilution of environmental laws in the country. A worrying sign for India’s environment, a recent study has warned that it is losing green cover more rapidly than before.

The Prime Minister has on a few occasions linked combating climate change with behavioural habits and traditional lifestyle.  But climate justice is more than just a lifestyle change. A small increase in the global temperature rise might cause catastrophic changes that mankind might not have anticipated. The discourse of climate justice lies within safeguarding people and nature from these catastrophes and not just in energy access for poor people.

India has an important role to play in the global responsibility to keep the temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This long-term goal might not be achieved if developing countries like India just limit their thinking on climate justice to issues around unsustainable development. Winning at the negotiating table might not necessarily help India or any other nation if the Paris talks fail as a whole. After all, climate change does not differentiate between rich and poor nations.

Author: Pari Trivedi

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