Climate change policies should be central to India’s long-term economic policy

Adverse weather events around the world, such as floods in China, the changing pattern of the monsoons in India, devastating drought in the United States and the resulting damage to local, national and regional economies, are stark reminders that climate change is not a fringe concern of environmentalists, but an issue of profound importance for economic development.

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Hansen and colleagues states that recent incidents of extreme weather in different parts of the world are almost certainly the result of global warming. In India it is difficult to link monsoon variability with climate change using existing models, but the recent trends may be serious warning signs. Warming will also lead to melting of glaciers, drought, floods and sea level rise, all of which will likely cause a number of adverse secondary effects taking place alongside existing development challenges and institutional failures.

For instance, the blackouts that recently disrupted power supply for hundreds of millions of people across North India have been blamed on the coalescence of a surge in demand due to warm weather, shortages in hydroelectric power, failure of the monsoon and the absence of grid discipline. Some people were able to use generators to survive the worst effects, a reminder that the poor will suffer the most in any disaster. Many scientists now fear that we will routinely encounter such “perfect storms” in the future, where climate change conjoins with deep social and economic inequalities and failing institutions to deter our ability to cope with problems.

In India

Average global temperature has risen by about 0.5° from the accumulation of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere during the past century or so. The effect of recent emissions will be manifested over several decades and given current trends, the temperature rise will likely exceed 2°. The 2011 drought in Texas cost more than $7 billion. In India, climate variability is expected to lead to crop loss of 10 to 40 per cent and hundreds of billions of rupees in loss of revenue from agriculture with a 2° rise in average global temperatures. Much higher losses are likely if one takes into account other effects, including damage to land and livelihoods due to sea level rise and coastal erosion, morbidity and mortality with increased incidence of disease, forced displacement and property loss from flooding and landslides. Given the scale of the expected impacts in South Asia on livelihoods, human well-being and ecosystems, it is essential that climate change policies be central to India’s strategic thinking on long-term economic development.

A guiding national climate policy was provided in the 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, which led to the development of eight climate missions. The approach as described is expected to lead to a directional shift in India’s development pathway.

Suggestions

In a recently completed evaluation of the eight missions by the authors, a concern that arose was that if sustainable development is indeed a central guiding principle in India’s climate policy, it has not been prioritised in the approaches and outcomes of individual missions. One starting point for the nation’s climate policy might have been to paint a big picture from which medium-term goals, plans and the missions could have been derived. The fact that these missions were placed in eight separate bins has led to viewing the problems and solutions with sector-specific lenses. However, the multi-dimensionality of climate impacts makes it vital that India adopts an approach that is interdisciplinary in its character, breaks traditional ministerial boundaries, and learns rapidly from the effects of warming that are ongoing and our successes and failures in dealing with them.

Experts are still learning about sub-regional impacts of climate change, but we know for sure that reducing emissions is urgent as is reducing vulnerability. We suggest the following processes: first, through a collaborative and systematic method, identify development decisions in different sectors that could lock in structures, technological systems and institutions leading to high emissions pathways, which as it turns out are also generally inequitable, and find plausible alternatives. Second, incorporate increasing climate resilience into decision-making. Climate resilience generally refers to the capacity to respond effectively to climate change. This would safeguard the economy from climate shocks and also protect the poorest and most vulnerable. How can we do this? A few examples.

Plan cities so that the largest amount of space is devoted to bus users, pedestrians and bicyclists, who already constitute the majority of travellers and whose emissions and oil use are minuscule. By promoting cars, the government promotes the use of oil and locks in unsustainable, low resilience modes. Thus, private vehicles are likely to clog highways or come to a standstill during periods of disaster or when petroleum products become scarce.

Agriculture

Phase out producer subsidies for fertilizers, which reduce sustainability and increase emissions; provide incentives for low-input farming practices that grow hardy local varieties and for successful models such as the system of rice intensification. Similarly, current systems of tube well agriculture promote institutional as well as technological lock-in across multiple domains by forcing crises in the electricity sector, reducing availability of fossil water for emergencies, increasing emissions and reducing incentives for farm-level innovation.

In the power sector, reduce technical losses through grid rationalisation and improving distribution infrastructure (e.g., upgrade transformers and distribution lines) and expand options for community-scale micro-grids using decentralised generation sources, such as biomass, solar and small hydro. A diversified portfolio will reduce supply risks and build resilience while reducing emissions.

Similarly, building conventional coal-fired plants and providing leases for open pit mining in forest areas raise emissions and worsen social inequality. Coal plants last 30-50 years and forests that could store water, bio resources, diversity and support livelihoods are destroyed.

One could go on, but the point is that while the PM’s Council on Climate Change provides broad oversight, what is needed is an interdisciplinary body devoted full time to overseeing decisions being made and ensuring that they follow the two principles of avoiding high emissions lock in and increasing resilience and equity. These principles, tacitly assumed in the framework document, need to be made explicit and employed as a screening tool for future economic policy.

(Sujatha Byravan and Sudhir Chella Rajan recently evaluated India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change, which can be found at www.indiaclimatemissions.org)

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