The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has projected that by the year 2028 India will be the world’s most populous country, with 1.45 billion people. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India is the world’s faster growing economy with GDP growth of 7.5 percent, ahead of China. As of today nearly half a billion Indians do not have full access to electricity supply and running water.
If anyone were to listen to the aspirations and promises of Indian politicians during election rallies, it would appear very clear that this great democracy is still struggling with poverty and providing its people with their basic needs. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was not surprisingly handed a clear mandate for economic development. As India rapidly progresses towards a bright future, its people will experience dramatic improvements in their standards of living, with millions of Indian leaping out of poverty every year. India will have a growing middle class with high aspirations, and by extension rising consumption and production.
There can be little doubt that as Indians get richer, owning more cars and electrical appliances, they will begin to emit more carbon than they have traditionally done. Currently, the World Bank has India’s carbon emission rate at 1.67 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita, compared with China’s 6.19 metric tons per capita and America’s colossal 17.56 metric tons per capita. This suggests the potential rise in India’s carbon emissions.
India’s Vested Interest
As an emerging economy with massive socioeconomic complexities and low per capita carbon emission rates, climate change may seem the very least India’s concerns. Yet if India overlooks the importance of climate change, the consequences could be dire. Given India’s enormous population, a marginal increase in per capita carbon emission will produce a huge increase in global total carbon emissions.
The Indian monsoon is the world’s most important weather phenomenon, as it affects the rice bowl of billions. Because of India’s unfortunate lack of irrigation infrastructure, a large majority of its agricultural production is highly dependent on the monsoon, to the extent that any delay or shortage in the monsoon is bound to affect food prices and create inflationary pressure. This will in turn has bearings on the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) monetary policy decisions, which cited the Indian monsoon in its recent fourth bi-monthly monetary policy statement. According to official figures from the World Bank, the Indian agricultural sector accounts for 47 percent of employment while contributing less than 20 percent of GDP. This shows that more than half a billion Indians are currently dependent on the Indian monsoon for their livelihoods.
The government of India should therefore pay special attention to climate change as erratic weather conditions can cause drastic repercussions for fiscal spending and minimum support prices. That’s why U.S. President Barrack Obama said during a joint press conference in New Delhi that “No country is going to be more affected by the impacts of climate change and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India.”
India has already submitted an ambitious pledge to the United Nations, promising that by 2030, 40 percent of its power needs will be met by renewable sources. These include wind, solar and hydro electricity, all of which are dependent on weather conditions. Consequently, rising investment in such renewable power sources will further increase India’s dependence on the climate for its survival. India should therefore be the world’s most aggressive nation in championing climate change causes, given its evident reliant on the climate for its sustainability.
The pledge also means that the current unpowered population of India will receive their first kilowatts hours of electricity through renewable means. As India embarks on developing smart cities it will only be common sense for such cities to be powered by renewable means, as there is minimal conversion cost involved.
The Himalayas – a word that in Sanskrit means the “abode of snow” – has been of vital importance throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent, acting as a great ice curtain between the two Asian giants. The Himalayas are also responsible for keeping the Indian monsoon in India and preventing it from going northwards into China. The sentiment Indians feel towards the mountain range is capture in the popular poem Sare Jahan se Accha (“Better Than the Entire World”) which says “Parbat wuh sab se uncha hamsayah asman ka, wuh santari hamara wuh pasban humara” (“That tallest mountain, that shade-sharer of the sky, It is our sentry, it is our watchman”).
Today the Himalayas are threatened by climate change. In recent decades, the glaciers have been showing evidence of retreat. This will affect the water cycle, which will eventually impact billions of people on the Indian subcontinent. The government of India should not only defend these mountains from enemy combatant, but also from the ravages of climate change.
Clean India Campaign
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India campaign) has been one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programes. This campaign has seen a change in Indian attitudes towards cleanliness and has called for clean streets and the cleaning up of the holy Ganges. It should be extended to include clean air. The Indian government should pay attention to air pollutants, which are bound to increase with economic growth. It should focus not only on economic development but also on sustainable development. Air pollution could potentially affect the atmosphere and may even adversely impact the supply of rainfall. The campaign should encompass waste management, which would mean recycling infrastructure. Recycling is an important element of waste management as it reduces wastage; people need to be educated on its importance and benefits. Recycling will have a direct impact on carbon emissions and on the quality of the streets in India, but for this to happen state governments will need to invest in recycling plants.
Given India’s vulnerability to climate change and its ambitious growth agenda, not only should it be committed to tackling climate change, it should emerge as a global leader in the fight for climate change causes. At the same time, while working to combat climate change India also needs to prepare itself for the consequences, developing the necessary infrastructure such as irrigation facilities and nuclear power to reduce its dependence on weather conditions. India should provide more funds in its fiscal budget next financial year for the research and development (R&D) of renewable energy and other climate change measures. As part of this R&D agenda, the agricultural ministry should also look at developing more weather resistant crops in order to better prepare for possible changes in climate in the future.
Anish Mishra is an Indian economist.