India Embraces the Climate Change Issue

The Himalayan glaciers are receding, agricultural yields are stagnating, dry days have increased, and patterns of monsoon have become unpredictable. India is increasingly seeing the effects of climate change.

— Jairam Ramesh, Former Minister of Environment & Forest, Government of India

India is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, and it is also a country full of contradictions. Economic growth rates have been a brisk 8% to 10%, but its roads are crumbling. The world’s fourth-richest man, Mukesh Ambani, just finished building a one billion dollar 27-floor skyscraper-home in Mumbai, which is the world’s most expensive house from which Mr. Ambani can view, off in the distance, the slum of Rafiq Nagar, which has no clean water, no garbage pickup, no electric power and not one toilet or latrine for over 10,000 slum dwellers, who openly defecate in public. Mumbai’s population of 14 million is home to more than 7 million slum dwellers; meanwhile, India has a burgeoning middle class that is as large as the entire population of the United States. Still, 800 million Indians live on less than $2 per day. But, the uber-rich have net worth of $1.2 trillion, which is nearly the same as India’s gross domestic product of $1.5 trillion.

The range of contradiction within India is enough to cause one’s head to spin, including the bizarre fact that there are more cows spewing gas than most places on earth. There are almost 300 million cows that burp, belch, and excrete copious amounts of methane, which is a greenhouse gas that traps 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. In fact, India’s total number of 500 million livestock, including sheep and goats, contributes more to global warming than all of the vehicles the animals obstruct. Where else in the world do cows sacredly block automobile, bus, and truck traffic? Delhi’s 13 million residents share their streets with 40,000 cows, which are the greatest traffic hazard in the city. “The cow is my mother,” according to Mahabharata Sanskrit epic.

Meanwhile, India is attempting to deal with the biggest risk to its burgeoning population, which is climate change. The country’s chief climate change negotiator, Meera Mehrishi, says: “Our country is being impacted by climate change. We have had freaky weather in India. The monsoons that used to come in July have started coming in September. The farmers are finding it difficult now because they continue to plant during what they perceive to be the monsoon season. We are losing our crop. It’s going to have huge repercussions on food security in the country.”1

Impact of Climate Change on India

According to a United Nations Environment Programme Study, global warming will impact India’s vast coastline with rising sea levels, resulting in ecological disaster. Rising sea levels have already submerged two islands in the Sundarbans, where tigers roam through mangrove forests within the Ganges River delta, and at least a dozen more islands in the area are under threat. And, in the Kendrapara District, at the Bay of Bengal, whole villages in the coastal region are disappearing.

Meanwhile, as the water level rises along India’s widespread coastlines, inland droughts recur with a nagging frequency. This past year India experienced its second major drought in four years. Nationwide rainfall was 20% below average. More alarming, however, was India’s “food basket” Punjab, where it was much worse. Rainfall was 70% below average. “… the problem is getting really serious,” according to Harjeet Singh, international climate justice coordinator at ActionAid.2

India’s agricultural sector is the core of Indian society for 60% of the population. The drought not only burns crops dry, but with less rain than normal, hydroelectric power suffers as well. At times 1.2 billion people were without power, experiencing the largest power outage in world history, which additionally hampers farmers’ usage of electric pumps to tap groundwater supplies to irrigate their rain-deprived pastures. Thus, the climate change nexus comes full circle from electricity outages to grain shortages.

Aside from the monsoons, significant water availability comes from the glaciers, “Glaciers in the Garthwal Himalaya in India are retreating so fast that researchers believe that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers could virtually disappear by 2035.”3 This article was criticized for over-dramatizing the melting of Himalayan glaciers. However, subsequent events may lead to a re-evaluation of the seriousness of the problem. Eight years later, there is plenty of evidence that the Himalayan glaciers are in critical condition.

According to D.P. Dobhal, a glaciologist with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, the Centre for Glaciology, global warming “… points to a looming worldwide concern, with particularly serious repercussions for India and its neighbors. The thousands of glaciers studded across 1,500 miles of the Himalayas make up the savings account of South Asia’s water supply, feeding more than a dozen rivers and sustaining a billion people downstream. Their apparent retreat threatens to bear heavily on everything from the region’s drinking water supply to agricultural production to disease and floods.”4

Nevertheless, the climate change deniers of the world, who are mostly related to the fossil fuel industry or right-wing Republicans, have glommed upon a recent survey of the Tibetan region called GRACE as evidence that global warming/climate change is not as advertised by climate change true-believers, claiming GRACE (The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite) shows the high-altitude glaciers are only losing ice at 1/10th the rate previously estimated, and that the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau are actually growing. Since then, it has been demonstrated that the GRACE survey has severe limitations, for example, GRACE cannot distinguish between ice and liquid water; thus, the melted ice from glaciers that flows into glacial lakes was incorrectly counted as glacial ice. Beyond this, and including additional limitations to GRACE’s accuracy, there is considerable evidence that the glaciers in the Tibetan region are shrinking at a rapid rate… in point of fact, at a frighteningly accelerated rate!

Further evidence of shrinkage is found on the backside of the Tibetan plateau. China’s scientists have measured losses of up to 70% of the glaciers that supply economically important rivers, e.g., Lancang River (The Danube of the East), and they have measured shrinkage of 80 glaciers that supply the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, which is directly and indirectly responsible for 20% of China’s gross domestic product. Importantly, the water supply for agricultural irrigation in both India (60%) and China (80%) is largely dependent upon the mountain glaciers.

The question of ‘what will over one billion people do for water and food’ hangs over the prospect of radical climate change like Damocles Sword. Meanwhile, the Water Tower of Asia melts away with a fervor not experienced by modern humankind.

Government of India- National Action Plan on Climate Change

India is taking the climate change issue very seriously, and the country is fully cognizant of the anthropogenic source. A few years ago, the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change adopted a measured, rational, and reasonable nationwide plan to tackle the problem. The opening paragraph of the prime minister’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) brings into focus the serious intent of the government, to wit:

India is faced with the challenge of sustaining its rapid economic growth while dealing with the global threat of climate change. This threat emanates from accumulated greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere anthropogenically generated through long-term and intensive industrial growth and high consumption lifestyles in developed countries.

… an approach must be based on a global vision inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s wise dictum— ‘The earth has enough resources to meet people’s needs, but will never have enough to satisfy people’s greed.’

In this regard, India’s prime minister requested the wealthy to act in a humble manner. It appears Mr. Mukesh Ambani did not get the message.

India’s NAPCC provides for “missions” for the country to achieve, e.g., a National Solar Mission, a National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency, a National Mission for Sustainable Habitat, a National Water Mission, a National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, a National Mission for a Green India, a National Mission of Sustainable Agriculture, and a National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, as of 2011, India dedicated $10 billion to green energy, and the country has the world’s fastest rate of growth (+52%) of green energy. By way of comparison, Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package of 2009 included about $38 billion in government spending and approximately $20 billion in tax incentives for renewable energy over the next 10 years. Thus, on an apples-to-apples basis, India is spending twice the level of the US, but yet, India’s economy is only 1/10th the size of the US.

India’s Corporate Leadership Helps Mitigate Climate Change

India’s corporate leadership has bought into the climate change issue, and the Indian constitution is one of the few in the world that has provisions for climate change. For example, the top corporations are achieving significant improvement in low carbon conversion. Their carbon scores in 2012, based upon the country’s Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index (CDLI) have demonstrated dramatic improvement. Examples of corporate success include: Wipro Ltd 2012 score of 95 versus 86 in 2011; Mahindra & Mahindra increased from 53 to 82; ITC from 64 to 82. Wipro is one of the largest Indian multinational providers of information technology. Mahindra & Mahindra is an Indian multinational automobile manufacturer. ITC is a large Indian public conglomerate.

Additionally, India has created Perform, Achieve, and Trade (PAT), a plan to reduce energy consumption, which plan provides incentives and penalties for large corporations that consume energy, and the country has renewable energy portfolio standards.

India’s economy is among the world’s fastest growing along with China, and their transitioning to a low carbon economy creates huge opportunities for sustainable growth with low carbon technology infrastructure development prompting clean technology employment opportunities all across the country. According to Damandeep Singh, director of CDP India, “We are delighted to highlight how corporate India is stepping up the challenge of addressing dangerous climate change.”5

And, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council: “India is emerging both as an economic powerhouse and a global environmental leader… India has recognized that tackling climate change is in its own national interests. The nation is taking concrete measures to constrain its own emissions and to protect its people from climatic disruptions.”

India’s National Solar Mission has already reduced the price of solar energy from Rs 15-16 per kilowatt-hour to about half that cost in three years. As a result, India has the world’s lowest cost solar. This is a prime example of what happens when a country’s government focuses on renewables, and India is building one of the world’s largest renewable energy projects, which will generate 20,000 MW of solar power and 3,000 MW from wind farms on 50,000 acres in Karmataka.

The country is also promoting a well-balanced sustainable planet by conducing seminars and trade shows, e.g., Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, 2013 will be a forum for enriching debates and discussion of deployment of clean technologies.

The government of India has also launched a Compensatory Afforestation Programme whereby any diversion of the public forests for non-forestry purposes is compensated through afforestation in other degraded or non-forest areas.

Can Climate Change be Fixed?

According to Professor Richard Turco, UCLA Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and founding director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment, there are no quick, easy technological fixes for climate change. There are proponents of geoengineering, e.g., a giant blimp that sprays liquefied sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere, or another proposal, which is building tens of millions of chemical filter systems in the atmosphere to filter out carbon dioxide, but these ideas are highly dubious, at best. For one thing, the climatic response is highly uncertain, and who knows if a new problem may substitute for the original problem.

Professor Turco says: “Advocates of geoengineering have tried to make climate engineering sound so simple. It’s not simple at all. We now know that the properties and effects of a geoengineered particle layer in the stratosphere would be far more unpredictable, for example, than the physics of global warming associated with carbon dioxide emissions. Embarking on such a project could be foolhardy.”6

Turco’s response on how to combat global warming/climate change is: “We must reduce carbon emissions. We need to invest big-time in alternative energy sources with minimal carbon footprints.”

India may be classified as a developing country, but its commitment to investing in alternative energy sources surpasses the commitment of major developed countries, like the United States.

However, the times may be changing: President Obama’s inaugural speech should have caused our saggy-faced planet to brighten up a bit. Democrats now expect a “deliberately paced but aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep Congressional opposition.”7 And, most importantly, “The centerpiece will be action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants under regulations still being drafted….” Coal-burning plants worldwide are the largest contributor of carbon dioxide.

The National Resources Defense Council director of climate and clean air, Dan Lashof, claims emissions from coal-fired plants could be reduced by more than 25% by 2020, which will yield big environmental benefits at low costs, making it more likely Obama will reach his pledge of 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% by 2020.

Going forward, if the number two (America) and number three (India) emitters of worldwide GHGs seriously adopt plans to reduce greenhouse gases, the hope for a more balanced, and clean, worldwide environment brightens. However, regardless of these consequences, the reality is: All industrial nations, especially India and China, are increasingly utilizing coal to an extreme, which, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, accounts for 40% of all emissions and is expected to account for nearly one-half of global emissions over the next 25 years. One has to wonder if the planet can handle this without serious irreversible repercussions or a tipping point of no return.

According to the IEA, India is expected to become the world’s largest seaborne importer of coal by 2017, which, in part, negates its wonderful renewables efforts.

The question remains: Where is the appeal for a massive worldwide conversion from fossil fuels to green renewables as quickly as humanly possible? The technology is readily available, but the political will is not. Already, the Andes have lost one-half of its glaciers, threatening the water supply of 100 million people, and this is symptomatic of worldwide climate behavior.

The fix should follow Professor Richard Turco’s advice to commence a massive worldwide conversion from fossil fuels to renewables, which would spark a huge, positive economic growth cycle, a green revolution employing millions, thereby solving employment problems and climate issues.

  1. Betwa Sharma, A Conversation With: India’s Chief Climate Change Negotiator, International Herald Tribune, Global Edition, India, Dec. 3, 2012. []
  2. Robert S. Eshelman, India’s Drought Highlights Challenges of Climate Change Adaptation, Scientific American, Aug. 3, 2012. []
  3. Addressed in an article by Daniel Glick, Signs From Earth: The Big Thaw, National Geographic, Sept. 2004. []
  4. Somini Sengupta, Glaciers in Retreat, NY Times, July 17, 2007. []
  5. Carbon Disclosure Leadership: Indian Companies Demonstrate Leadership in Tackling Climate Change, Times of India, Jan. 19, 2013. []
  6. Richard Turco, No Quick, Easy Technological Fix for Climate Change, UCLA Asia Institute. []
  7. Richard W. Stevenson and John M. Broder, Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage, New York Times, Jan. 21, 2013. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.