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Some think India unwilling to tackle climate change, but national measures are already making a real contribution, argues Preety M. Bhandari.

In India, climate change can still seem an esoteric issue, confined to the bastions of elite research institutions and a handful of bureaucrats. The slow, insidious changes it will bring over the next century are not yet on the radar of everyday people, or even policymakers. The implications have simply not yet captured media attention in the same way as major natural disasters, such as the December 2004 tsunami or the July 2005 floods in Mumbai.

Researchers don't seem to appreciate the socio-economic dimensions of the problem or the need to bridge the gap between science and policy. Meanwhile, bureaucrats are busy, supporting India's defensive position in various international negotiating forums.

India has been criticised for its apparent lack of commitment to addressing global climate change. Many think the government is recalcitrant for its 'development first' approach, which prioritises economic and social goals over initiatives to counteract greenhouse emissions. But I believe these aims are not mutually exclusive. National measures can and are benefiting India's development while helping mitigate climate change. The problem is that India hasn't marketed these initiatives in the right way.

A defensive stance

India's international negotiating position relies heavily on the principles of historical responsibility, as enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This acknowledges that developed countries are responsible for most historical and current greenhouse emissions, and emphasises that "economic and social development are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country parties".

So the Indian government is wary of recent discussions within UNFCCC about introducing binding commitments on rapidly industrialising countries (such as Brazil, China and India) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. India feels this contravenes the very spirit of the UNFCCC. Neither does it seem fair to impose restrictions on India when the country's rise in per capita carbon emissions by 2030 will still represent less than half the world average of 3.8 tonnes in 2000 (Indian emissions are predicted to rise from 0.9 tonnes per capita in 2000 to 1.6 tonnes per capita in 2030). [1]

But India will not be able to stand its ground for long if other rapidly industrialising countries, such as China, react to the discussions more moderately. India must be seen as proactive and concerned about global environmental issues.

India is taking real action

In fact, the Indian government is already participating in global efforts through a number of programmes. For example, India's National Auto-fuel Policy mandates cleaner fuels for vehicles. The Energy Conservation Act, passed in 2001, outlines initiatives to improve energy efficiency. Similarly, the Electricity Act of 2003 encourages the use of renewable energy. Recent trends in importing natural gas and encouraging the adoption of clean coal technologies show India is making real efforts.

The government is also keen to launch a National Mission on Biodiesel, using about 11 million hectares of land to produce biodiesel by 2011–2012. And India has one of the largest renewable energy programmes in the world, with about six per cent of grid capacity based on renewables (excluding conventional hydroelectric), in comparison to China where the renewable share is lower than one per cent and the United States where it is about two per cent.

These measures will moderate India's energy- and emissions-intensive growth in the 'business-as-usual' scenario (where the pattern of future development is not all that different to the present). Whether driven by national priorities such as energy security and economics, or local environmental issues, these policies have the added benefit of mitigating climate change, and should arguably be recognised as such on the international stage. But because these are local national measures, rather than a direct response to international regulations, they are not widely known.

A proactive approach is needed

Estimates made at The Energy and Resources Institute, India, back up the country's contribution to mitigating climate change. An energy-economy model reveals that the policies and programmes introduced in the energy sector could reduce predicted emissions by about 20 per cent. [2]

India needs to advertise these ongoing efforts, and highlight its commitment to helping address the global challenge of climate change. Indian negotiators should move from a defensive to a proactive position. They should showcase India's efforts to address a global problem while simultaneously tackling national concerns, such as poverty alleviation and development.

India is not oblivious to its global responsibility, but rather, is being pragmatic about how much can be done in view of the numerous other challenges at home.


[1] World energy outlook, pp 533. International Energy Agency (2002)
[2] Proceedings of the seminar of governmental experts. Climate Change Secretariat, UNFCCC, Bonn (2005)