India should guide the world on fighting climate change

Moving sustainability from ideas to reality and regaining the leadership of developing countries




Prime Minister Modi’s focus on ‘lifestyles’ marks a departure from India’s 40 year old approach to global environmental concerns where India, and other developing countries, stressed poverty rather than patterns of natural resource use. At one-fourth the global average, India has the least per-capita carbon emissions among middle-income countries, one fourth of China and one-tenth of the United States.


The Prime Minister has laid out his vision over the past months, most recently at, UNECSO in April. At the G20 meeting, in Brisbane, in November 2014, he proposed a global virtual centre for clean energy research and development to fund collaborative projects in clean energy, smart grids and energy efficiency, to make renewable, especially solar energy, competitive with conventional energy.


Chairing the first meeting of the National Council on Climate Change, on January 19, 2015, he asked for a paradigm shift towards climate change. Instead of focusing on emissions and cuts alone, he stressed, the concern should be on clean energy generation, energy conservation and energy efficiency. This articulation of a climate policy enabled us to present an alternative framework for the bilateral discussion with the United States, later in January, and the Prime Minister asked the United States to lead international efforts in making renewable energy accessible and affordable.


Most recently, addressing the Conference of State Environment and Forest Ministers, on April 6, the Prime Minister was emphatic that the way forward on climate change is “not just restrictions, but changing lifestyles”, reiterated the focus on renewable energy and called upon the world to ease restrictions on import of nuclear fuel. The Prime Minister is spot on in recognising that human well-being depends on the consumption of goods and services, production systems depend on the transformation of natural resources and both impact on the global environment with different characteristics.


New research supports a new framework.The European Environment Agency, ‘The European Environment — State and Outlook 2015’,has now recognised that the very idea of what it means to live within planetary limits is something that we have a hard time grasping, and willrequire transforming key systems such as the transport, energy, housing and food. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent report in 2014, has a new chapter on the ‘Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts’ and points out that the methods of economics are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans but not in taking account of justice and rights.  The ‘World Social Science Report – 2013’, prepared by the International Social Science Council, UNESCO and OECD concludes that climate change is a social rather than aphysical problem.


India is already at the forefront of three trends that will be critical for dealing with climate change. First, India is seeking investments upto US $200 billion over seven years to boost the domestic solar energy capacity by 33 times to 100,000 megawatts by 2022. India and China are aiming for renewables contributing around 20 percent to total energy generation by 2030; whereas, according to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2040 the share of renewables in United States will be only around 16 percent.


Second, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly two-fifth of the cumulative emission reductions required by 2050 could come from efficiency,and conservation improvement, making energy efficiency essentially a fuel. In its consumption patterns India is not adopting the lifestyles of the industrialized countries. For example, the average US citizen consumes more than four times the electricity of the average Chinese; in the US, floor space per inhabitant is roughly twice and energy use per square metre of floor area in the residential sector is three times that in China. Furthermore, car ownership is ten times higher in the US than in China. By 2035 China is projected to consume 70% more energy than the US, while on a per capita basis its energy consumption will be half those levels. India’s middle class, with its even lower per-capita energy consumption, is likely to remain at half to two-thirds the levels of per-capita carbon dioxide emissions of China.


Third, India is in the middle of the global mega-trend of urbanization and the challenge is to develop a broad consensus on what kind of urbanization will nurture sustainable growth.  According to the United Nations urban areas are responsible for three quarters of all emissions and energy use; buildings and transportation are each responsible for about one-third of final energy consumption; urban dietary patterns have changed, with meat production, especially beef, accounting for one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Future urban design provides new opportunities for climate mitigation and adaptation, and India needs to give more emphasis to modifying longer term trends away from sprawling urban form, personal and road based transport; we do not have a beef based diet. Urbanizing India could potentially reduce total global energy use in cities by more than 15% from business as usual.


The ‘Indicative Nationally Determined Contributions’to be submitted by October providesIndia the opportunity to define anew global framework around three elements. First, dealing with the causes of the problem of climate change, by modifying longer term trends in consumption and production patterns,rather than focus on the symptoms computing future emissions and measuring their periodic reduction.Second, stress the use and distribution, not scarcity, of natural resources re-framing the nature and scope of national actions and international cooperation around innovative technology.  Third, seek global agreement on an over-riding goal to redefine a level of societal wellbeing that is equitably shared.


"Until we focus on our lifestyle and get the world to focus on theirs, we will not succeed despite all other measures being taken."  The Prime Minister is aware that "it is difficult to convince the developed nations about this," until India sets an example. Such leadership will also re-frame the climate change negotiations to discuss solutions, exchange experiences and blur the 40 year old North-South divide around global sustainability and human wellbeing.

[1] Ex civil servant  and Director UNFCCC 


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