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Why India Is Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In combating climate change: do the same rules and obligations apply to both developing and developed countries?


Untangling this issue is precisely what we would like to focus on in this blog--from a thorough explanation of what climate justice is to its implications for India.

Outcome of #ParisAgreement has no winners or losers. Climate justice has won & we are all working towards a greener future”, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his widely followed Twitter account.

And just like Modi mentioned, the Paris summit held last December appears to have been a resounding success.

Gathering nearly 200 developing and developed countries, the conference united them in reaching an agreement about their future roles in addressing the gargantuan challenge of climate change.

And truth be told, progress was made.

If signed by at least 55 countries (representing 55% of global greenhouse emissions) between April 2016, and April 2017, the agreement will become legally binding and go into effect

And as it turns out, India was one of the key voices at the conference.


Ironically, it also holds the title of the world’s 3rd largest coal consumer and 3rd largest producer of CO2 emissions (right after China and the United States).

Given its impressive (and less impressive) world rankings, India’s stance and propositions at the Paris summit were bound to have a significant impact.

And one of their biggest complaints was on the issue of climate justice. In other words, the concern over the role of the developing world versus the role of the developed world in combating climate change.

The question is: do the same rules and obligations apply to both developing and developed countries?

And untangling this issue is precisely what we would like to focus on in this blog--from a thorough explanation of what climate justice is to its implications for India.

So let’s take a look...

What Is Climate Justice?

Climate justice is a tricky term.

According to the Mary Robinson Foundation, “climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centered approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impact equitably and fairly”.

Simply put, climate justice approaches the fight against climate change in a human-centric and equitable way for all countries and populations.

One of the primary goals is to support each country’s right to development, as well as their efforts in the reduction of increased CO2 emissions.

Because, let’s face it: climate change affects us all.

The idea that both developed and developing countries share different obligations when it comes to combating climate change is not a new one. In 1992, a conference in Rio de Janeiro split countries into two groups based on their development status. Each group had different responsibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Climate justice sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Well, the issue of the “greed and unstainable lifestyle” of the West was recently addressed at the Paris summit with India insisting that developed countries have a “historical responsibility”. After all, their development was heavily influenced by fossil fuels. India posits that many developing countries simply do not have the same “debt” to the planet that say developed countries like the United States might.

So What Does Climate Justice Look Like For India?

When it comes to the future, India is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, India has clearly shown its intentions to take a serious stance against its own CO2 emissions. India’s very own Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) highlights a desire to scale up renewable energy capacity with a promise to:

  • Almost triple its energy capacity by 2022
  • Raise the share of zero-carbon electricity generating capacity to 40% of the total by 2030
  • Call for a 33-35% reduction in emissions by 2030 (as compared to its 2005 levels). 

But these motivations aren’t entirely altruistic. Climate change affects India big time.

With its diverse agro-climatic regions, India is particularly prone to the ravages of climate change. According to the World Bank, the country is already experiencing a warming climate. Hot weather is expected to occur and cover larger areas of the country. On top of that, extreme weather variability - the decline of the monsoon rainfall and rise of heavy rainfall events- means that if certain regions warm up by 4°C, monsoons have a chance of occurring only once in 100 years, or every 10 years by the end of the century. 

These frightening scenarios are just a couple examples of what India can expect if things don’t change soon.

But on the other hand, the country has significant and multidimensional poverty to alleviate. Many Indians simply do not have access to modern energy.

Did you know that in 2012, extreme heat and a late monsoon season meant that hydroelectric plants were generating less energy. The consequence of that was that over 600 million people ( a.k.a. half of India) lost power

Here’s a chart which sums up the situation well:

So what is India’s long-term plan to help alleviate poverty?

Well, it’s not going to happen without a little help from coal, despite the country’s intentions to cut back on fossil fuel energy.

The reality is that without the combination of renewable and fossil fuel energy, it will be a tough road ahead for India to grow their economy, provide reliable and affordable power to 400 million people that are either unelectrified or underelectrified and fight climate change. The INDC even highlights ambitious plans for domestic coal mining.

But the sad truth is that more coal = more CO2 emissions. Fortunately, India’s coal usage is far from gluttonous. An average Indian burns less than 20% of the coal consumed by an average American or Chinese.

India’s growing population doesn’t help matters. Despite the government’s intent to cut back on fossil fuels and push renewable energy, India’s population growth means that greenhouse emissions will increase no matter what. Check out the graph below:

In a nutshell, while India is ready to fight the good fight against climate change, but it also has serious energy needs which are in direct conflict with its desire to help.

Climate justice demands that, with the little carbon space we still have, developing countries should have enough room to grow,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of the Paris summit. 

The fact that India has remained firm in its desire to use a combination of renewable energy and fossil fuels to attack climate change and alleviate poverty simultaneously is an interesting one. But is it fair?

So What’s The Solution?

Even though India is stuck between a rock (the desire to push renewable energy) and a hard place ( the need to alleviate poverty efficiently through coal), there are some silver linings.

If the Paris summit has shown us anything, it’s that India wants to be part of the solution.

India’s particularly complicated relationship between climate change and poverty shows that every country will need to have different expectations and obligations when it comes to their role in tackling climate change. 

India has positioned itself as a leader and an example for the rest of the developing world in its push for climate justice.

As Samir Saran points out, “coal is still a necessity for multiple lifeline initiatives of the country to lift millions out of poverty. Clean energy, on the other hand, is a transformational opportunity – a moment for India to not only assume moral leadership but to develop competitive advantage in a new paradigm for growth in a fast-changing world.” 

By 2022, India’s population is predicted to overtake China’s. It’s safe to say that India’s desire to balance population growth, economic growth, and to become more green is an ambitious and admirable one.

We at Oorja remain hopeful over the future of climate change impact in India. And we’re excited to be part of the journey.

Written by Chloé Lincoln, Independent Content Writer & Consultant. 

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