In the summer of 2007, the Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change was constituted on the eve of World Environment Day (6 June) to coordinate national action plans for assessment, adaptation and mitigation of climate change. In addition to advising the government on pro-active measures that can be taken to deal with the challenge of climate change, the Council will also facilitate inter-ministerial coordination and guide policy in relevant areas as well. The Council has official members - ministers and bureaucrats - from several ministries and other government bodies, and also includes non-official members representating industry, media and the social sector.

A year after its creation, the Council has released the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC, 18 Mb, PDF) on 30 June 2008. But the wait has been in vain; the much-awaited report is a compilation of listless ideas that lack depth, vision and urgency. Putting economic development ahead of emission reduction targets, the report makes a case for the right of emerging economies to pursue development and growth to alleviate poverty without having to worry about the volume of atmospheric emissions they generate in the process. Consequently, the report makes no commitment to cut country's carbon emission and thereby leaving it liable to criticism by those who hold worries about global warming close to their chests.

The 'per capita' argument

Without doubt, India's annual per capita carbon dioxide emission at 1.2 tonnes is far lower than the world average of a little more than 3 tonnes, and far below the US per capita emission of 20 tonnes. And this gap is likely to remain for several decades, as Indian economic output per capita is much smaller than that of developed nations. However, as the economy grows, it is likely that atmospheric emissions from India too will rise. Developed nations, particularly in Europe, have been pressing for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by all countries, but India and other developing countries argue that their citizens too should have the right to attain a reasonable standard of living, and if in the process they are contributing to further global climate change, so be it. The NAPCC is essentially written from this stance.

But per capita emission levels tells only part of the story. The more compelling part relates not to per capita emissions, but to the country's cumulative emission! India's carbon dioxide emission in absolute terms works out to no less than 1.5 billion tonnes, which is a quarter of the US's current levels of emissions. If India were to grow only six per cent faster than the US, its total emissions will equal those of the US over the next two decades.

There is also a problem with labeling emissions as 'Indian', 'European' and so on. This distinction exists only on the ground (literally!), and not in the atmosphere. The atmospheric warming effects of carbon dioxide make no distinction between emissions from India and those from anywhere else in the world. The gas quickly gets mixed up in the global atmosphere and the effects propagate everywhere. Doing nothing about reining in emissions today may turn out to be very harmful in the future, since the total volume of emissions does matter. And that would be true, no matter which nations were the worst offenders; the price would be borne by all.

The plain truth about global warming is that it presents a unique challenge, one that requires nations to act collectively for the common good of the planet, something that routine politics has not prepared leaders anywhere for. Defending the 'Indian' right to economic development through carbon emissions may sound very gallant in the domestic arena, but it will do nothing for the actual problems that will ensue with climate change. We ought to be examining our policies from our own self-interest, both economic as well as environmental. The trouble with the government's stance is that when its plain-speak on the economy is not matched by its actions on the environmental front.

Even without the global negotiations, there are perfectly good reasons for India itself to be worried about climate change. Releasing the NAPCC, the Prime Minister himself admitted that "our food security comes largely from irrigated areas of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh whose rivers are fed by glacier melting in the Himalayas". Any significant change in the flow patterns of these rivers as a result of global warming could be catastrophic for India. Thus, we too have a stake in reining in climate change, regardless of what positions we take in negotiations with developed countries.

Eight Missions

The NAPCC, released ahead of the Prime Minister's visit to the recent G-8 Summit in Japan, proposes setting up 8 missions under the respective central ministries to tackle climate change. Mission-mode efforts to address core development concerns have had their highs and lows in the past. Nonetheless, another attempt has been made to take this familiar route to address the emerging threats of climate change. The missions are:

  • The Solar Mission will aim to develop a solar industry capable of delivering solar energy competitively against fossil options over the next 20-25 years.

  • Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency will provide tax rebates, financing platforms and fiscal incentives to accelerate shift to energy efficient applications.

  • Mission on Sustainable Habitat will provide research impetus on urban public transport, municipal waste management and expanding building sector.

  • The Water Mission reiterates the importance to increase water use efficiency, explore options to augment supplies and to devise effective water management.

  • Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem will include research and preventive measures on understanding and arresting glacial melting.

  • Mission for a Green India will double the rate of planting and promote biodiversity conservation to enhance system resilience to deliver better ecosystem services.

  • Mission for Sustainable Agriculture intends to invest in research to develop new crop varieties and practices to withstand extreme weather conditions.

  • Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change will focus on measures to stay ahead in research, development and understanding on climate change.

As per the NAPCC, the comprehensive mission documents detailing objectives strategies, plan of action and timelines would be developed and submitted to the Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change before the end of 2008. The resources for these missions will be pulled from the budgets of the 11th and 12th Five Year Plans.

Contradictions in policy

By putting the economy ahead of the environment, the NAPCC inevitably is full of prescriptions lack scientific rigour, and the proposed actions are incoherent and at times paradoxical, considering the government's ideas of economic development. The various positive suggestions in the report are not accompanied by identifying any current economic policies and actions that may need to be done away with, which may be harmful to climate. As a result, one gets the impression that this is the old trick all over again - governments speak piously about the environment while they are wearing their 'climate' hat, and speak just as piously about economic development when the hat is off. This doesn't fool anyone, except maybe ourselves!

It would be wise to pursue both economic growth and reductions in emissions.

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For instance, although the NAPCC points to the need for better management of the northern river systems, the government is at the same time sinking stupendous sums of money to develop hydropower in the Himalayas, which will surely alter land use patterns and lead to increased carbon emission in the process?

Consider also the current trend of subsidising oil and coal on one hand, and promoting hydropower on the other, to meet the growing urban energy demand. This will without doubt escalate our carbon footprint. India has to rethink its energy strategy if it has to meet its growth targets alongside simultaneous check on carbon emissions. To maintain its predicted 8 per cent rate of growth, the country will have to increase its power-generating capacity by more than 200,000 MW over the next decade and double that before 2026. The NAPCC is short on how indeed it plans to address the growing demand for energy amidst the scary climate change scenario.

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic energy have been listed, though these haven't made any significant contribution to energy supplies in the past. The country receives an astonishing 5,000 trillion kilowatt hour of annual solar radiation, but given the inadequate investment on indigenous research and development capacities, our solar power capacity has remained robust on paper only. If the current economic slowdown is anything to go by, then funding for new investments in alternate energy and desire for technology transfer will remain squeezed.

And what about the nuclear option? The NAPCC, we might think, should be a good place to look for the government's views on energy security, given the close links between energy production for economic development, and the brouhaha over the Indo-US nuclear deal. But curiously, the nuclear option doesn't find mention in the 47-page report! Probably because, notwithstanding the political preference for nuclear energy, it will make only a small difference to the energy security difficulties in the future, even as it clouds out any chance for other, more meaningful alternatives to be developed.

Far from presenting a comprehensive approach to addressing the issue of climate change, the NAPCC adopts a sectoral approach that lacks vision and leadership. The climate system is a global, inter-locking one, and its many facets cannot be considered in isolation. However, this is precisely what the report has done. As a result, it raises more questions than it answers on the issue of climate change mitigation. A public policy report of immense significance, based on scientific research and public policy considerations that take into account the complexity of climate systems is needed in the public domain to vigorously address the challenges we will face. This report is not even close to that standard.