India can give climate change a spin in 2015

Climate Change

In his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched yet another campaign – ‘Make in India’. In launching it, Modi was driven by the need to leverage India’s unique demographic advantage, i.e. 65 percent of its population is below 35 years of age. Modi was also charged by the fact that India, with its innovative technological prowess and brave ‘jugaad’ (improvisation) aptitude, can be decidedly successful in competing in the world market.

That expertise was illustrated in the success of the Indian space scientists’ mission to Mars – at the cost of Rs.7 per km of the journey, as against astronomical costs incurred by the US and China, the two largest economies of the world.

While the world awaits to get some positive news from Lima, Peru, in order to set the world’s climate clock for race to Paris 2015, there is already a hype about bilateral announcement of the US and China on the so-called “peaking the emissions” by China and “aggressive cut in emissions”, by the US.

Interestingly, India has been under the spotlight at the meeting in Lima and the hyped expectation from all the corners is that it would also declare its own targets of emission reduction or the “year peaking” of the emissions. India has refrained from this temptation till now, but it is important to recall the Copenhagen meeting on climate change in 2009.

That climate change meeting of the United Nations in 2009 will go down in the history as Flopenhagen meeting. After a hyped ‘seal-the-deal’ campaign, what came out of the high-profile meeting was a big flop and disputes over transparency of the process.

In the evening at the end of the meeting, the talks between some select countries resulted in a political agreement, called the “Copenhagen Accord”, which was then presented to the plenary for adoption. After 13 hours of debate, delegates ultimately agreed to “take note” of the Copenhagen Accord that commits countries individually or jointly to emission targets for 2020.

Over 140 countries have indicated support for the accord till now and more than 80 countries also provided information on their national mitigation targets or actions. It was a loose arrangement of cloudy commitments that did not fill the required gap in emission cuts needed to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

Climate ChangeThe initiative by a select few countries to create a drama and bulldoze others to accept it turned into an international fiasco. The United Nations Environment Programmes (UNEP) 2014 report stated that the gap between the commitments of emission reduction made under Copenhagen Accord and the required cuts to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius is whooping 10 giga tonnes and likely to double by 2020.

Considering that the goal of the Lima conference is to set ground rules for an agreement to be signed by countries next year in Paris that would limit pollution worldwide with a goal of curbing global warming, without diluting the agreed principles of common but differentiated responsibility and polluter-to-pay, India would do right by not focusing on bilateral agreements related to emission cuts.

The pledges for cutting emissions being made and recorded by United Nations after 2009 accord have different base-line years and different target years. The countries also use varied terminology to describe emission cuts like energy-intensity used by India and China, peaking of emissions used by some, and emission reduction by others. It is like ‘cloud-computing’, leaving the servers to do their calculations without engaging the local harmonized considerations.

By enhancing the cooperation and taking early action on global warming, India has greatest opportunity to set its population on the path of sustainable development, improving resource efficiency, reducing the costs, restoring its ecosystems like forests and bio-diversity, and nurturing the developmental dreams of its majority of population, both rural poor and urbanised middle class.

Deployment of renewable energy, mainly solar and wind, in ambitious way and making in India super energy efficient appliances and industries is the right and timely path to chart. Renewable energy is the only sector where annual growth rates since the financial crisis (end 2008 to 2013) were seen to be rising by nearly 55 percent (solar) and 21 percent (wind).

It is the only sector where employment opportunities in projects, operations and research are much more than any other fossil fuel related energy sectors, where again today 6.5 million are employed world wide, more than in fossil fuel industry. More importantly, it is the only sector that promises democratic and equitable generation and distribution models.

According to one of the models, each house, building, farm, housing societies and even temples and mosques could become electricity generation units through photovoltaic (PV) cells that could satisfy the owners’ needs and feed extra production into micro or smart grids at cost, solar energy being available to all without resorting to the ‘allocation of sectors’.

Urgent cooperation for technology development is needed to improve the photovoltaic cell efficiency and also storage of the energy using Nano-technology. Modi’s ‘Skill India’ initiative could be spun in ‘Green Skill India’ through international cooperation.

When President Obama visits India in January 2015, bilateral agreements should focus on “peaking the technology cooperation” to tackle the climate issue and not declaration on “peaking the emissions”. It should be more on “cutting the time for taking action” rather than “pledges of cutting the emissions”. It should be more on the greatest challenge that faces the humanity, that is climate change, and not on overshadowing the present political challenges that individual country faces.

Rajendra Shende


Rajendra Shende is an IIT alumni, chairman of TERRE Policy Centre, and former director UNEP. The views expressed are personal.