Climate Change: India's Severe Domestic Equity Gaps

10 Nov, 2016    ·   5174

Niharika Tagotra explains how India's domestic policies contradict the stance it adopts during international climate change negotiations

India's stance on the global climate change negotiations is evidently contradictory. While New Delhi argues at the international level that the developed world should effectively take responsibility for the historic emissions and cut down its 'luxury emissions' drastically, domestically, it assumes a completely contrary position that favours the interests of its historic polluters and luxury consumption over the survival interests of its poor.

The net result of the Paris Climate Change summit for India was that while it agreed to emission targets, it secured more carbon space for itself using its usual mantra of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). This position is rooted in India’s historical stance at climate change negotiations that call for differentiating between the “luxury emissions” of the north and the “subsistence emissions” of the south. Additionally, New Delhi has strongly spoken for accounting of emissions on a per capita basis and factoring in historical responsibility. But in adhering to the age old north versus south binary, India’s stand imposes the exact same inequities domestically.

According to an estimate by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the average per capita emission in India stood at 1.6 tonnes CO2e per person per year. While the, per person, per year tonnage of carbon emission for the poorest 10 per cent stood between 0.4 and 0.8, the richest 10 per cent emitted between 3.4 and 5.1. Emissions of the richest 2 per cent in India were even higher, at between 4.6 and 6.8. This meant that the richest in India emitted 17 times more tonnes of carbon than the poorest. This is one of the clearest indicators of India's lop sided development.

In the decade spanning 2000 to 2010, 71 per cent of India’s emissions came from the energy sector, including transport and industry, while the agricultural sector contributed 18 per cent. In fact, compared to other BRICS nations, India’s per capita agricultural emissions stood at the lowest, between 0.29 and 0.54. This is significant, because, while agriculture contributes the minimum to national Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, it bears the maximum brunt of GHG induced climate change. While 53 per cent of its working population is engaged in the sector, an estimated 57.8 per cent of rural households depend on agriculture, earning less than INR 7000/- per month on an average. Effectively, a quarter of India’s population, lying higher up the economic ladder, is responsible for the maximum emissions.

According to the 2011 census figures, while only 25.7 per cent of the total households in India owned a motor vehicle, the rest used bicycles or public transport for commuting. According to the 2015 statistics, public transport used by the middle and bottom of the income pyramid accounted for a mere 12.79 per cent of diesel demand while 28.48 per cent went into private cars, SUVs and three wheelers. The figures for petrol were starker, where cars and two wheelers accounted for 95.75 per cent of the demand.

India’s argument at the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Agreement is also a case in point. It overlooks the fact that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in themselves constitute ‘luxury emissions’ emitted by appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators. While only 2 per cent of Indian households own an air conditioner, 31 per cent of households owned a refrigerator. In 2010, India emitted 13,425 thousand metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (TMtCO2e) of HFCs contributing about 1.7 per cent to the global HFC emissions.

India’s potent HFC emissions significantly impact its own bio-hotspots, causing serious damage to its wetlands. India is already in the throes of severe climate variability manifested in erratic and falling precipitation, and rising temperatures compounded by exceptionally bad land management and heavy deforestation. The rural distress faced by the country due to three consecutive years of drought is a case in point. Rise in the country’s annual temperature by 0.7 degree Celsius and erratic climate patterns significantly impacted subsistence agriculture in the poorer rain fed areas of Marathawada and Telangana. Similarly, flooding and coastal inundation in states like Uttarakhand and Odisha have led to distress migration among marginal farmers as well as landless labourers. 

Recent incidents of urban flooding have hit low-income groups the hardest, in terms of deaths and injuries. The 2015 Chennai floods, for instance, caused a loss of INR 15,000 crores, of which less than ten per cent was insured. This meant that the bulk of economic costs were borne by bottom of the income pyramid. According to World Bank estimates, over 45 million Indians could be pushed into extreme poverty over the next 15 years due to climate change - and this does not include the social churn being exacerbated as the secondary effects of the phenomenon. 

These figures imply that while India has been projecting economic growth and demands of its low income groups as the reason behind its reluctance to cut down on carbon emissions, in reality, India’s carbon-based economic program has been subjecting that very section of its society to multiple deprivations.

In order to effectively pursue the objectives of sustainable development, India’s growth model will therefore need to factor in the climate obligations of its affluent, and redistribute the environmental responsibilities accordingly.