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India and the future of the planet

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By John Feffer

· 20 min read

In November 2021, India took two controversial climate actions that bookended the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. First, at the beginning of the UN gathering, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would become carbon neutral by 2070. Then, as negotiators were hammering out a final deal, India joined China, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of other countries in exerting pressure to change the language on coal from “phase out” to “phase down.”

Setting a goal for carbon neutrality and agreeing even to phase down coal were both steps forward for India on climate issues. But the country also absorbed criticism for setting a goal 20 years beyond the 2050 deadline set by negotiators under the Paris climate deal. For climate activists desperate to end the use of coal, the single largest source of carbon emissions, the watered-down language in the final agreement was a crushing disappointment.

The 2070 date “is clearly inadequate,” observes Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “A target set so far in the future is a perfect excuse for policymakers not to do anything today.”

On the other hand, he continues, “the entire discourse around blaming countries in the Global South, particularly some countries that are somewhat better off like China and India, as being the drivers of climate change is disingenuous. The UN climate talks started in 1992, but it took 30 years to even mention the elephant in the room, namely fossil fuels. Was that India’s fault—or collectively the fault of much of the rest of the world, including the most politically and economically powerful countries?”

Climate justice activists encounter a quandary in India. It is currently the third largest emitter of carbon in the world, behind China and the United States. On a per capita basis, however, India emits only 1.7 tons, which places it far behind the United States (14.4), China (7.1), France (4.3), or even Thailand (3.6).

Meanwhile, the richest countries of the Global North are responsible for most of the historic carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. India’s cumulative emissions, since 1750, are about one-eighth of the U.S. total. “All of these grandiose claims of zero emissions by 2050 assume that the richest countries will continue to appropriate the lion’s share of the climate budget—65-70 percent—when they account for less than 20 percent of the global population,” points out Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Rising carbon emissions have accompanied rapid economic growth in India. Over the last two decades, the Indian economy has expanded at a rate of 6-7 percent, and it was the fastest growing economy in the world for several years in the 2010s. The costs of that growth are measured not just in the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

“For the last 30-40 years, what is called development in India, as in most of the Global South, has brought some benefits to certain segments of the community,” explains Ashish Kothari, co-founder of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. “But it also brought an immense amount of violence against nature and against communities that are heavily dependent on land, water, and forests for their livelihood and their sustenance. We’ve seen a move from livelihoods encompassed in those natural systems to the deadlihoods of jobs in the modern sector that are uncreative and soul-deadening.”

At a recent seminar, these experts on the situation in India grappled with whether India is making a good faith transition to clean energy, whether it is standing up for the world’s poor and dispossessed in its statements on climate justice, and whether it represents a threat to the global environment for dragging its feet on slowing its carbon emissions.

Their conclusion: Indian policies are ultimately self-defeating. “While India’s economic and energy production model is not a threat to the world, it is a threat to India, particularly its most marginalized people,” Basav Sen notes.

India’s Climate and Energy Policy

On his annual Independence Day speech on August 15, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on climate change. In discussing the development of green and blue hydrogen as well as the electrification of the country’s rail system, Modi pitched the necessity of a clean energy transition as critical for the country’s economic competitiveness as well as its overall security needs vis a vis Pakistan and China. A few months later, at the COP26 meeting, he pledged to build 500 gigawatts of renewable energy to ensure that half of India’s energy will come from something other than fossil fuels by 2030.

When it comes to renewable energy, India is not starting from zero. As of 2020, India ranked fourth in the world in installed wind power and fifth in solar power. Renewables now represent nearly 40 percent of installed power capacity. Nevertheless, renewables only provide about 12 percent of overall electricity, while coal generates about 65 percent. As a result, nine out of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world in terms of particulate matter are in India.

“The current policy direction of the Indian government is precisely the opposite of a Green New Deal,” Jayati Ghosh maintains. “It is not new, it’s not a deal, and it’s not Green in any form.”

Instead of a Green New Deal, the India government has held to an old anti-Green approach in both its investment strategy and embrace of environmental deregulation. “The government is granting corporations more freedom to pollute, to deforest, to grab land, and to destroy environment—all in the attempt to attract private investment,” Ghosh continues. “We have deregulated to the point where we can’t control financial markets and other private investment and consumption activities in ways that are deeply damaging and that are very unequal.”

“We’ve had massive increases in fiscal subsidies and financial policies that actively promote brown investment,” she adds, “and almost nothing compared to what is required for public investment that promotes, encourages, and subsidizes the green investments we need. This is a pity and a tragedy because these investments could generate more employment, and obviously improve conditions for the biggest losers of climate change, many of whom reside in India.”

Ashish Kothari pins the blame for the Indian government’s anti-Green policies on a “single-minded approach to having 8-10 percent economic growth. Everything else is shoved aside, including democratic rights. When people protest on the ground, they’re increasingly not just called anti-development but now anti-national and secessionist as well.”

Under cover of nationalism, the Indian government has cut back on labor and environment regulations even as it has pushed large-scale projects to boost growth. “There’s a lot of doublespeak in the government budgets, including the most recent one,” Kothari points out. “The prime minister said a year ago that COVID taught us to be self-reliant, but that means increasing coal mining. That means building mega-solar projects in the name of clean energy that involves land grabbing of all kinds that displaces people. There’s almost nothing on climate adaptation in the budget, but already hundreds of million people in India are facing the impacts of climate change.”

Instead of huge solar and wind projects, “there could have been a much greater shift to decentralized renewable energy under community control of community,” he continues, noting that rooftop solar generation could provide 35-40 percent of the energy needs of New Delhi. “One possibly good thing in the government’s latest budget is much greater investment in solar equipment for farmers to pump water, though that doesn’t solve the huge problem of groundwater depletion.”

Many parts of rural India are not connected to the electricity grid. “That’s an opportunity to completely bypass the current grid model of development, with centralized power generation and massive lengths of transmission lines, and go with community-controlled decentralized renewable energy,” Basav Sen points out. “If you have centralized energy production, even if it’s a state-owned grid, corporations have more opportunities to get contracts for massive construction projects.”

Sen acknowledges that there can be room for larger solar and wind facilities in India’s overall energy mix but urges that “land acquisition be done in a just way that takes into account community land rights including principles of free, prior, and informed consent.” These larger facilities should ideally fall under community or public ownership. Meanwhile, when it comes to decentralized renewable source, he asks, “How do we ensure that it’s not just middle class and affluent homeowners putting solar panels on their rooftops? How do we ensure that the benefits of owning decentralized renewables are accessible to all the population?”

He also argues that trade unions need to be part of any discussion of a just economic transition in India because “there are sectors of the population who have become dependent on fossil fuels through no fault of their own. The most obvious are the workers in coal mining and power plants. Local communities around these facilities, which suffer from the toxic effects, are also dependent on these big industrial fossil fuel operations as a major part of the local economy.”

Outside of energy generation, too, the Indian government is pushing non-Green agricultural policies. The government’s most recent budget “put an even bigger subsidy on chemical fertilizers than was budgeted last year,” Ashish Kothari reports. “It’s one of our biggest budgetary outlays, and that’s not easy to change overnight. What we ought to see is a phasing out of that and a shift toward more biologically diverse organic or natural farming. A lot of farming groups are trying to do this but government support is pretty poor. The government won’t do it on its own. It needs a big push from people’s movements and civil society.”

The worst effects of the Indian government’s energy policies fall disproportionately upon the country’s poorest citizens. “People in Indian cities are breathing some of the most polluted air in the world,” Basav Sen points out. “A week after COP 26, a few power plants near New Delhi got shut down because of an air quality emergency, which goes to show how serious the problem of air pollution is. And it’s not just cities. People in rural India—disproportionately the indigenous people, the Adivasi—are losing land and access to their livelihoods because of the expansion of coal mining and heavy industry like metal ore mining and big dams.”

The inequality of impact can be measured in the relative carbon footprints of different segments of Indian society. According to the most recent World Inequality Report, the Indian elite has a very large carbon footprint.

“The average for India is 2 megatons of carbon emissions per year per person,” Jayati Ghosh notes. “But it’s only 0.4 megatons for the bottom half of the population compared to 32 megatons for the top one percent. Those 32 megatons per capita per year is six times what the EU bottom half emits and three times what the bottom half of the U.S. population emits.”

The Geopolitics of Carbon Emissions

The Indian government has often criticized climate negotiations for putting unfair restrictions on economic growth in the Global South. “Climate justice demands that [with] the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,” Narendra Modi said back in 2015.

“There’s no doubt that advanced economies have been exploitative and hypocritical in many ways,” Jayati Ghosh points out, “and, worse, they continue to be deeply unjust and actively hinder any attempts at climate alleviation.”

India’s position on coal has been roundly criticized, but the COP statement didn’t even mention the other fossil fuels on which the industrialized world so depends. “If you look at natural gas over its life cycle, it’s almost as bad as coal in terms of greenhouse gases,” Basav Sen notes. “You have to account for the leakage of methane from the production of gas and from the pipelines. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span. There’s been a tremendous spike of methane worldwide thanks to the fracking revolution led by the United States. Countries that are large producers of oil and gas—and the United States is by far the largest oil and gas producer in the world—had a strategic interest in not mentioning oil and gas in the agreements coming out of COP26.”

The gap between rhetoric and reality is perhaps most obvious around climate finance. In 2008, richer counties promised to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 for the UN Climate Fund to use for mitigating the impact of climate change in the Global South and helping countries there adapt to new environmental conditions. By 2019, the fund reached only $80 billion, and it won’t likely be until 2023 that the promised figure will be reached. Meanwhile, the mitigation and adaptation needs have only grown—not to mention the loss and damage sustained because of climate change—and will require a much higher yearly contribution.

“At a time when advanced country governments can pull money out of the hat, trillions and trillions of dollars, to spend on themselves,” Jayati Ghosh says, “they can’t pull together this tiny amount which is absolutely necessary to save the planet.”

The Global North has been equally stingy on the question of intellectual property rights. “IPR monopolies have been used to privilege corporations based in the north and deny developing countries and producers in developing countries the essential technology to allow them to mitigate and alleviate climate change,” she continues. “And when developing countries attempt to provide their own subsidies or develop their own knowledge in crucial areas like renewable energy, they face trade sanctions from the World Trade Organization, often initiated by trade unions in developed countries.”

Even as richer countries criticize India for clinging to coal, they continue to rely on fossil fuels themselves (including coal). Meanwhile, multilateral institutions continue to fund fossil fuel projects. “There are some highly publicized exceptions, but the Asian Development Bank still dominantly supports brown investments,” Ghosh points out. “The World Bank, too. The private financial markets are doing much worse. They are hugely supporting coal investments, and there are no regulatory practices to prevent this.”

Basav Sen agrees that multilateral banks tout their record of pushing renewables but are acting differently beneath the table. “They are not making loans directly to projects but to banks through the IFC, the private sector lending arm of the World Banks,” he explains. “Those private banks then make loans to fossil fuel projects.”

Given the imbalance of global power on climate issues between north and south, India has frequently emerged as a voice for poorer countries in UN negotiations. But, as Basav Sen points out, India is not actually standing up for the rights of the most marginalized.

“While a lot of the rhetoric from the Indian government around global inequalities in emissions and tackling climate change is exactly right, it’s also self-serving,” he argues. “If the government were sincere about its rhetoric, it would align its position with the most climate-vulnerable countries. The Pacific Island nations have formed a bloc of climate-vulnerable nations that tries to negotiate collectively in the UN climate talks. India is neither part of that bloc nor does it align its negotiating positions at COP with those countries.”

It’s not a question of distant solidarity. “If you look at which parts of world are most affected by extreme temperatures, heat waves, desertification, and water scarcity, a lot of them are in South Asia,” he points out. “So, by not aligning itself with the most climate vulnerable in the world, India is not standing up for the interests of its own people.” This collective self-interest should extend as well to climate change. “Yes, other far more impoverished countries should be first in line for climate finance,” Sen continues. “But because of the scale of global inequalities and the large number of poor people in India, there has to be climate finance for India as well. So, the government of India should demand the kind of climate finance for the entirely of the Global South to accelerate an energy transition.”

In the meantime, many countries including India are hiding their carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency behind this concept of “net zero.” The “zero” sounds reassuring, but “net” offers an escape clause. Some of the world’s worst polluters argue that their forests and other carbon sinks balance out their carbon-emitting factories, farms, and cars.

“The assumption is that we can keep polluting as long as we deal with pollution in some other way,” Sen explains. “We can keep emitting if we plant thousands of trees. But if we keep on producing greenhouse gasses, it will mean that we keep emitting particulate matter and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and other air toxins that will keep poisoning people in the vicinity of the spewing smoke. And what about the violations of land rights where you are planting those trees? Whose livelihoods are you taking away? And are they the right kinds of trees? Are they invasive? How will they affect ground water?”

Planting trees is a benign path to net zero compared to some other tactics. In Iceland, a machine sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and sequesters it in rock underground. “On the face of it, that’s absurd,” Sen continues, “because you’re spending a massive amount of capital and energy to suck a trace gas out of the atmosphere. All because you’re not willing to make the hard political decisions to wind down polluting fossil fuel industries.”

A Transition Pushed from Below

Despite the actions taken by the Indian government to suppress resistance to its policies, social movements have made their voices heard. In 2020, for instance, farmers began to mobilize against three laws pushed through the parliament that liberalized the sale, pricing, and storage of agricultural products. After a year of protests, Modi was forced to retract the laws.

Resistance comes not just from farmers. “There’s been the mobilization of communities against mining and extractivism,” Ashish Kothari reports. “Women and youth have mobilized. They’re not just against this project or that project, but against the structures of domination. Increasingly, they’re also saying that we have to live lives in respect of nature and not just centered around the human itself.”

He cites several dozen examples of communities around India that not only survived under the conditions of COVID lockdown but actually thrived. “Five thousand Dalit women farmers—the former ‘untouchables’, the most marginalized section of Indian people—have brought back a diversity of local seeds, collectivized a lot of their operations, and shared knowledge,” he says. “They’ve fought for land rights for women. They’ve created not just food security but food sovereignty, which means full control of everything to do with agriculture. Their agriculture is more climate-friendly and resilient than the Green Revolution the government promotes.”

Kothari helped initiate the national platform Vikalp Sangam, which has helped to collect hundreds of stories of grassroots innovation across India, from ecotourism in Meghalaya and biogas from cow manure in Tamil Nadu to the revival of a traditional variety of millet in Nagaland and the development of eco-rickshaws in Punjab.

These transformations fall into five broad categories: political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological. In the political realm, swaraj or self-rule has translated into anchoring decision-making at the level of neighborhood, village, and local institution. For the economy, local self-reliance means workers taking control of the means of production and promoting an economy of caring and sharing.

At the social level, “these initiatives have fought against both traditional and neoliberal forms of inequality, and asserted the commons in terms of knowledge and culture,” Kothari notes. “These movements are saying that knowledge should be in the commons, not privatized, just like land should be held in common not privatized.” Social movements also insist on sustaining India’s amazing diversity of language and culture, and see the sustenance of ecological processes as fundamental.

“It’s about cooperation not competition,” he concludes. “It’s about the collective, not the individual and the selfish. It’s not just human rights but the rights of the rest of nature.”

He calls this approach eco-swaraj and compares it to similar worldviews around the world such as the Latin American concept of buen vivir, sumak kawsay in the Andes, ubuntu in South Africa, kyosei in Japan, and minobattsiiwiin (Native American). Applying this approach to Green New Deals, which Kothari acknowledges are better than conventional forms of economics, certain limitations become apparent. Encompassing the five necessary transformations, he calls fo a Rainbow New Deal, a confluence of alternatives that translates, in Hindi, into vikalp sangam.

One local-global link has been through the global organization La Via Campesina, which mobilizes several million small farmers around the world, including India. “They combine very local solutions—local agro-ecology that is smallholder-based—with global advocacy and actions at UN and FAO level,” he points out.

At the community level, Kothari is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of Indian farmers shifting over to agro-ecology. For instance, farmers are increasingly supplying consumers directly with produce. “Farmers have steady customers, it eliminates the exploitative middle person, and we get healthy food,” he says. “This creates the possibility of thousands of local farmers’ markets in our cities. This agro-ecological shift can happen in a very big way in the next 5-10 years, but only if there is policy support, civil society support, and a push from farmer movements.”

According to the news coverage outside India, the recent farmer protests in India seemed to be focused solely on the removal of price supports and other features of the new farm laws. But the movement was more diverse. “Many of the demands made over the years have been around ecological problems and land rights, the problems of women farmers and forest dwellers,” Jayati Ghosh points out. “It’s not true that the movement has been against agro-ecology. Many farmer groups have long recognized the importance of agro-ecology and more advanced environmental technologies.”

The challenge is that farmers are operating at a narrow margin, and are therefore risk-averse. “Farming is a cutthroat activity where prices are always against you, and India’s liberalized trade policies make it worse,” she acknowledges. Agro-ecology, including natural pesticide management, is more labor intensive, so the promotion of these techniques will require “much more public support.”

Response from the Global North

India urgently needs to change its climate policies. So do governments in the Global North. But people in the Global North also need to acquire a deeper understanding of the unequal relations baked into international climate politics.

“I am struck by the lack of knowledge and awareness of even progressives about some basic issues of global inequality and how their own strategies accentuate global inequality,” Jayati Ghosh notes. “Consider the lack of climate finance. Here in the United States people are squabbling over $100 billion or $200 billion on a particular child grant scheme, and they have no awareness that the United States hasn’t met its $20 billion a year pledge for climate finance over the last 12 years. Why aren’t progressives fighting for this? Why are progressives going for a carbon border tax, which is essentially a protectionist device, without talking about compensating developing countries whose economies and exports would be hit?”

The problem extends to average citizens. “I’m currently living in the northeast of the United States where everyone is progressive and green,” she explains. “They buy electric cars, put solar panels on houses, and enthusiastically recycle. Few of these people are aware of the massive environmental costs of mining the inputs that go into lithium batteries, into electric cars, into solar panels. There also needs to be more awareness that material for recycling is exported, sent to border countries where it is sorted in damaging and polluting conditions.”

Ashish Kothari agrees. “I did a critical study of Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal,” he recalls. “In some ways, it’s quite a revolutionary document compared to what has been offered from mainstream politicians. But it has huge blind spots. One is consumerism, linked to global North-South inequities; for instance, he says that all Americans will have electric vehicles instead of diesel or petroleum. But that’s only because lithium mining won’t happen in the United States—or if it does, it will take place in the backyards of marginalized communities.”

The imperative to grow economies—and the energy supply associated with that growth—is not exclusive to the Global South. The French government recently pushed its chief electricity producer EDF, which is primarily owned by the state and controls the country’s 58 nuclear reactors, to reduce its prices to alleviate pressure on businesses and consumers. But EDF is hard-pressed to reduce its revenues when it has to administer to its fleet of aging reactors and invest in building new ones. This is a problem not only for France but for the rest of Europe, which is heavily dependent on French electricity.

“Europe uses 10 times more energy than it needs to,” Kothari points out. “What about cutting energy consumption and thereby eliminating dependence on French nuclear power? Revamping the system in such a way—what movements are calling degrowth in Europe—was not part of the recent discussion around this crisis.”

A sustainable future thus depends not just on the sources of energy but the very quantity of energy produced. “Unless we also challenge the levels and kinds of energy consumption in cities, especially by middle class and rich people like me, we won’t be able to tackle climate change,” concludes Kothari. “If energy demand keeps going up, no energy source in the world will be sustainable.”

This article is also published by Foreign Policy in Focus. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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