Saving the climate: Can India go beyond Paris Agreement?

Solar is now cheaper than coal in the country for the first time ever, placing us at a dramatic infrastructural inflection point.

 |  4-minute read |   02-06-2017
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UN Secretary-General António Guterres gave his first major statement on climate change at New York University’s Stern School of Business on May 30. The venue was selected to bring together scholars, scientists, students, activists, investors and entrepreneurs - the civil society collective that must coalesce to make climate action real.

“Climate change is undeniable, climate action is unstoppable and climate solutions provide opportunities that are unmatchable,” the Secretary-General declared.

Bookending the speech with references to his grandfather and grandchildren, Guterres highlighted the inter-generational responsibility undergirding sustainability and climate stewardship.

History

Environmentalism has a long intellectual history, first coming to contemporary prominence perhaps with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Yet, we persisted in ravaging the planet and today reap the consequences - ecological collapse after decades of bad practices. Perils of climate change and ecological catastrophes present a sobering picture.

Pernicious effects include extreme weather patterns, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and food and water scarcity.

Guterres pointed out that last year more than 24 million people in 118 countries and territories were displaced by natural disasters. This was three times greater than dislocations from armed conflicts.

Refugee and other humanitarian crises we potentially face are staggering in scope and scale. Climate change is recognisably a clear and present danger to every aspect of stability and social order, including peace and security.

Yet, there remain climate change deniers and those who refuse to acknowledge the notion of the Anthropocene.

don1_060217120219.jpgUS president Donald Trump denies climate change. Photo: Reuters

Coined by the Nobel laureate atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the term came into parlance at the turn of the century. It refers to our epoch where human beings have made an indelible impact on the planet - polluting oceans, rendering plants and animals extinct, and changing the composition of the atmosphere.

India joined the Paris Accord and ratified the climate change agreement on October 2 last year, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, which is also the UN International Day of Non-violence.

It was fitting that Guterres invoked Gandhi asserting: “All of us - governments, businesses, consumers - will have to make changes. More than that, we will have to ‘be’ the change.”

India is responsible for about 4.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Is it ready to be the change?

This past week a significant step in the right direction occurred. In a move with major ramifications for global energy markets, India scuttled plans for nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations.

Solar is now cheaper than coal in India for the first time ever, placing the country at a dramatic infrastructural inflection point.

It’s analogous to the miraculous Aadhaar project that digitalised nearly the entire population, an initiative that will reap enormous demographic dividends.

Sustainability

India needs more decisively to embrace green economics and sustainability. It should assume goals above and beyond the Paris pledges and lead by example where an expansive understanding of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan becomes a mantra for the nation. We must also engage the very real tensions that climate action has to confront.

We practice versions of capitalism oriented towards short-term profits that are also blind to environmental externalities.

Couple this with individual indifference or the feeling that no amount of responsible private action can effect change.

Leadership and education are essential. Business leaders, even those linked to fossil fuels, must recognise that a longer-term vision of sustainable business practices ultimately will reap higher returns.

Every schoolchild should be taught environmental activism, awakening an understanding that small actions (cooking with natural gas rather than kerosene, for example) in aggregate do matter for climate hygiene.

There are also examples of environmental heroism. Recall Jadav "Molai" Payeng who planted trees one sapling at a time in north Assam, turning a barren sandbar into a lush 1,360-acre forest ecosystem.

Dystopia

As global populations continue to urbanise, contemporary cities must become the locus of green and sustainable practices. Consider the contrary - dystopian unlivable cityscapes where residents choke on polluted air, roads are clogged and unnavigable, and forms of social anomie and unrest prevail.

Recognising the environmental imperative, China has embarked upon a climate action agenda that aims to increase renewable energy usage to 40 per cent by 2020.

India too must scale up efforts, letting go of facile claims made by some that environmental degradation is the natural corollary of economic development. The purpose of the government is to promote the health, safety and public welfare of its citizenry. If a populace is poisoned and welfare jeopardised, the legitimacy of political actors can be called into question.

Similarly, nations that are negligent in climate responsibility might be said to be committing a crime against humanity. The ripple effects of one nation’s environmental failures spill over onto neighbours. We need to expand our conception of rogue states to include countries that fail to be conscientious agents of environmental stewardship.

Decarbonisation, rather than being a burden, must be presented as a positive prospect - for new and better ways of living and being. This is a signal opportunity for Indian ingenuity and leadership, a challenge where failure is not an option.

Also read: How Trump pulling America out of Paris climate change accord will impact world politics

Writer

Peter V Rajsingh Peter V Rajsingh

The writer divides his time between New York and Gurgaon.

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